Ernest Partridge: Hinges of History
Hinges of History
By Ernest Partridge
The Crisis Papers
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
It’s tough to make predictions,
Especially about the future.
History teaches us that “the course of human events” has many surprises, born of random chance and simple luck. History’s “winners” are those who are alert, flexible and creative in the face of these surprises. And that fact should lend comfort to embattled progressives today.
For centuries, philosophers have spun elaborate “theories of history,” spelling out the fates of peoples and nations, as, they claim, the engine of history rolls inexorably along its fore-ordained course.
Plato, Hegel, Spengler, Marx, and in our time Frances Fukayama, have all endeavored to sketch a “map” of the course that history “must” take. They have no use for the lost nail that threw the rider that lost the battle and the empire.
However, the details of actual recorded history indicate that time and again the course of history turns on trivial and unpredictable contingencies. Put simply, on plain dumb luck.
The Battle of Midway, June, 1942. Just six months after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese fleet was poised to seize Midway atoll and destroy much of what remained of the American Pacific fleet. If successful, the Hawaiian Islands would be within reach of the Japanese Empire. And if the Islands fell, the American fleet would be driven back to the west coast of the United States, thus prolonging the war.
The American fleet had a feeble force with which to thwart the Japanese onslaught – three aircraft carriers to four. The outcome of the battle likely depended upon the first sighting of the opposing force. Due to a chance break in the cloud cover, an American reconnaissance plane, at the furthest reach of its range, located the Japanese Fleet. Soon thereafter, a Japanese scout spotted the American fleet, but because the aircraft’s radio malfunctioned, a timely report could not be relayed back to the Japanese fleet command.
Due to several additional lucky breaks, which I won’t detail here, the American dive bombers destroyed three Japanese aircraft carriers within minutes, and the fourth was dispatched later that day. After the battle was effectively over and won by the Americans, the crippled carrier Yorktown was sunk by a Japanese submarine. Midway was the decisive battle of the Pacific War. For the remainder of the war, the Japanese never won another sea battle.
Among the twists of fortune that determined the outcome: a break in the cloud cover and a malfunctioning radio.
Colonel Klaus von Stauffenberg’s briefcase: On July 20, 1944, Colonel von Stauffenberg attempted an assassination of Adolph Hitler. Upon entering a conference room at Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters, von Stauffenberg placed a briefcase with a time bomb under the table where Hitler was studying some maps. At the table with Hitler was a Colonel Brandt, who happened to catch his foot on the briefcase, which he then placed at the opposite side of a heavy oak table support.
Had Col. Brandt’s foot not encountered the briefcase, Hitler would almost certainly have been killed in the ensuing explosion, which in fact was the fate of several officers in the room. The repositioning of that briefcase cost von Stauffenberg, his family, and thousands of actual and suspected conspirators their lives. Far worse, it probably prolonged the European war by as much as nine months, at the cost of millions of lives.
All of this turned on a German officer’s chance encounter with a briefcase.
The Tape on the Watergate Door. June 17, 1972. On his routine rounds at the Watergate office building in Washington DC, night watchman Frank Wills happened to spot some tape on the door between the parking garage and the stairwell. Believing that the tape was left by the cleaning crew, Wills removed it only to discover later that it had been replaced. He then called the police who subsequently arrested the burglars at the offices of the Democratic National Committee.
If Wills had not noticed the tape (placed to defeat the locking mechanism) and if G. Gordon Liddy had not replaced it, Richard Nixon would probably have completed his second term and the course of US history would have gone in a different direction. How different? Unknown and unknowable – but certainly different.
Further examples are endless. What if the French Admiral de Grasse at Yorktown, and the Prussian Field Marshal von Blucher at Waterloo had not arrived “just in time.” What if Lincoln had not gone to the theater that night or if a guard had been stationed outside the Presidential box? The assassin’s aim and the bullet’s trajectory are probabilistic – literally “hit or miss.” On these attempts, history turns. Successful: Archduke Ferdinand at Sarejevo in 1914, JFK at Dallas in 1963, RFK at Los Angeles in 1968, Martin Luther King at Memphis in 1968. Failed: Theodore Roosevelt at Milwaukee in 1912, Franklin D. Roosevelt at Miami in 1933, Ronald Reagan at Washington in 1981.
No doubt, the reader can think of many more “hinges of history” that turned on chance contingencies and simple luck.
In the near future we are likely to encounter numerous crossroads or “hinges” that might lead either to the dissolution or the salvation of our Republic. Whatever the outcome, the nation and the world that emerges from the present crisis will be very different from the nation and world that we lived in at the close of the twentieth century, just five years ago.
Clearly, the Bush administration is coming upon hard times, with no end in sight for the Iraq disaster, with less and less of the public believing Bush’s and Cheney’s lies, with at least a few prominent Democrats growing some spine, with the growing influence of alternative media, and, as a result of all of this and more, a continuing decline of public approval of Bush and his regime.
In this volatile political environment, here are a few “hinges” that come to mind, many of which are closely interconnected. No doubt the informed and engaged reader will think of many more.
Because “the wounded beast is vulnerable:”
– millions who only recently knew financial and job security – sit still for this?
Not for a moment! This is a prescription for revolution. If lucky, the elites will face economic ruin as the hungry and impoverished masses rise up and strip them of their wealth. If unlucky, the retaliation turn violent, and the very freedom and lives of the privileged looters will be in peril. Just possibly, the opulent elites might foresee all this before we all go over the cliff, and finally call an end to the GOP orgy of affluence (see above).
Because “The Wounded beast is dangerous:”
More “hinges” briefly noted:
We don’t know and can’t know the answers to these questions with any degree of confidence. Nor is this a complete list. Perhaps the decisive “hinge,” redirecting our national course either toward ruin or renewal, will be something that we cannot anticipate at the moment.
But we need not be mere spectators in this unfolding of the history of the present. We can, indeed we must, be active agents in this unfolding. These “hinges of history” can be moved deliberately by determined individuals, alone or collectively. Once again, the record of the past testifies to the capacity of peoples and nations to direct their fates either toward ruin or renewal.
It happened in the year 1933, when two national leaders ascended to power in Germany and in the United States. Undoubtedly, had President von Hindenburg successfully resisted Adolph Hitler’s grab for power, and had Herbert Hoover won re-election in 1932, the world today would be vastly different than it is.
In 1933, both Germany and the United States were ripe for a descent into despotism. We were the lucky ones. In Franklin Roosevelt we had a President who had a lucid vision of ends, and who was flexible and inventive as to means. The objectives of the New Deal were clear: jobs, security, opportunity, economic justice, civil liberties, for all Americans, in the context of economic recovery for the nation. How to accomplish all this in the midst of a devastating depression was a question without a simple correct answer, but with an abundance of proffered “answers,” most of them wrong. Doing nothing was not an option. Intelligent and imaginative social-economic “engineering” was in order and, through trial and error, inspiring leadership, and a shared sense of national purpose and unity, we slowly and deliberately developed and validated a series of governmental institutions and regulations – Social Security, unemployment insurance, Federal deposit insurance, expanded educational opportunities, and much, much more.
And now, George Bush and his merry band of oligarchs are determined to tear it all down.
In the crisis before us, and the crises shortly to come, the progressives have a distinct advantage over the right-wing regressives, notwithstanding the regressives’ current hold on power.
As in the nineteen-thirties, conditions today call for alertness, flexibility, intelligence, creativity, compassion, and a sense of shared national purpose – qualities prized by progressives.
George Bush and his cronies possess none of these qualities. Bush is inflexible. He “stays the course,” and is incapable of admitting errors. He has no use for trained intelligence and expertise, but instead is controlled by “gut intuition” and a dogmatism that is detached from the ongoing flow of events. His behavior and policies prove that Bush's “compassionate conservatism” is a cruel mockery. “We the people of the United States” are not his constituents – the corporate “stockholders” of Bush, Inc. who have purchased his Presidency, now own him.
Even so, Bushism can be defeated, provided the vulnerabilities of this political/economic malignancy are recognized and attacked by the opposition with diligence, intelligence and creativity.
So far, the Democratic Party has been a passive and compliant disappointment. It must either wake up to its responsibilities or be taken over by progressives, just as the Republican party was captured by the oligarchs and theocrats.
In his speech last week to the troops at Fort Bragg, George Bush discovered that his lies have lost their leverage. The polls suggest that at long last the public (less his “base”) has finally begun to wise-up. “Fool me twice – not gonna be fooled again.”
At the same time, the revelations from Downing Street of the conniving and deceit that led us into an immoral war have taken on a life of their own, thanks to the internet and alternative press, and notwithstanding first the silence of, and then the debunking by, the mainstream media.
The pressure of public outrage is building, but it is diverse, diluted, inchoate, and without leadership and direction. Today, millions of our fellow citizens, as they watch and read the MSM, feel that they are isolated, powerless and alone in their disgust with the Bush regime and its policies. But when these disgusted citizens look about and find they have company, and if strong and charismatic leadership emerges and acts decisively, a community of outrage will coalesce and acquire an identity. When it does, the peoples’ will may be irresistible.
Sadly, there might be an opposite result – a swift and ruthless repression by those in control of our government, as they find that their privilege, power and wealth are in peril, and as they come to fear that they might soon be facing the just retribution of the law.
If we choose to be spectators in the coming drama, they may well have their way. But if enough of us choose to be agents in the struggle we may yet succeed in reclaiming our freedom, our dignity, and our country.
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer
and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public
Policy. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (
www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive
website, "The Crisis Papers" (
www.crisispapers.org). Send comments to: