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Scenario Seeds - Alternate Pandemics

The Great Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed millions of people of all ages and from all social classes. Life or death during that epidemic was about as random a choice as you can get. I’m going to do a brainstorming exercise based on slightly different distribution of deaths from that pandemic.

1) Stalin dies. He catches the flu during the 1919 epidemic and dies two or three days later. What changes? When do things start to veer off their historic course? Possibly by the time of the Soviet-Polish War. Stalin made some key (and sometimes bad) decisions during that war. Do the Poles still win decisively? Who takes over after Lenin? Is there a single center of power or does the Politburo have a relatively collective leadership? Does the Soviet Union still do the brutal collectivization of the peasants that resulted in so many famine deaths? Do the gulags still happen? Does the Soviet Union still build its military-industrial complex to the extent that it did historically?

2) Gandhi dies. The influenza swept through India just as it did Europe and the United States. What if Gandhi had died in it? Gandhi changed Congress from a primarily upper class organization to one with strong ties to India’s poor. He also pioneered the techniques of non-violent resistance to British rule in India. How would India react to British rule without Gandhi? Would the growing resistance to British rule still be non-violent, or would a set of leaders dedicated to the violent overthrow of British rule have become more prominent? Would Indian nationalism splinter into groups seeking commonwealth status on the one extreme and those seeking violent revolt on the other? Would maintaining British rule in India become more of a financial drain on Britain between the wars? How would that impact the British ability to rearm against Hitler? Would more violence-oriented Indian nationalism turn to Germany, Japan, or the Soviets for help and inspiration? How would that affect the course of World War II (assuming it still happened)?

3) Goering Dies. That doesn’t just change the way the Luftwaffe develops. It has a major impact on the development of the Nazi party, possibly on whether or not the party comes to power, and on the way the German economy militarizes in the first 4 or 5 years. Then of course there is the impact on the development of the Luftwaffe. Without Goering would the Luftwaffe develop better anti-shipping tactics? Usable four-engine bombers, earlier jets? Or would it do more poorly than it did historically? It might try for one more generation of bi-plane like the Italians did, or freeze the wrong company out of airforce contracts and end up without the ME109 or ME110.

4) Mussolini Dies. What happens in Italy without Benny the Moose? Do the Fascists still take over? If so, who leads them? Are they more or less effective than Mussolini was in remaking Italy?

5) Trotsky Dies. How does that impact the Red Army in the last years of the Russian Civil War? How does that change Soviet politics in the early post-Lenin era

6) Speaking of which—Lenin Dies. How does that affect the consolidation of Bolshevik power? Who takes over party leadership? Do the Bolsheviks hang onto power without Lenin?

7) Einstein Dies. How does that change the course of physics? The development of nuclear power? The politics of the developing the atom bomb?

8) Churchill Dies. That would start affecting British politics in the twenties because Churchill was involved in at least one British cabinet in that decade. How would things change through the early thirties? If World War II happened on schedule, who would step forward after Chamberlain was pushed out?

9) Chamberlain Dies. That probably wouldn’t end appeasement, but it might cause it to take on a different form, and whoever was Prime Minister at the equivalent of Munich might have more backbone.

10) Guderian Dies. What does that do to German development of the Panzer Divisions? If World War II happened on schedule, what would it do to the German offensive against France?

11) Von Braun Dies. Would German rocketry develop as quickly without him? Would there be V2s? How would rocketry develop after World War II?

12) Franklin Roosevelt Dies. What impact would that have in the twenties and early thirties? Would there still be a Hoover administration for some Democrat to face in 1932? If so, who? Would they win? If so, would they win again in 1936? Roosevelt did a lot to build up US naval power in the mid-1930s. Would a different president be as supportive during the Great Depression? How would an alternate president handle World War II? Would they be able to get the American people to go along with Lend Lease if they needed too?

13) Herbert Hoover dies. So who gets stuck being president during the Great Depression? Does he do a better job of handling it than Hoover? What else would change with Hoover out of the picture so early?

14) Fidel Castro’s parents die. What happens with no Castro? Does Cuba remain just another West Indies island with alternating dictators and unsavory ties? How does the Cold War progress with a different leadership in Cuba?

15) Mao Dies. How does China develop without Mao? Does the Chinese communist party survive and win control of China? If so, how does it develop without Mao? Does it maintain independence from the Soviet Union?

16) Chiang Dies. How do the Chinese Nationalists develop without Chiang? Who takes his place? Do they do a better or poorer job running the country, building up a military, and dealing with the Japanese?

17) Christie (of the Christie tank suspension) Dies. What does that do to tank development? Does anyone else independently develop that type of suspension? What does the Soviet Union produce in place of the BT series fast tanks? What do they have in place of the T34?

18) The First Shah of Iran Dies. The Shah doesn’t centralize power in Iran or invest heavily though ineffectively in the Iranian army. What happens in Iran during the interwar years? How does that change the course of early World War II?

19) Yamamoto Dies. Is there still a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to start US involvement in World War II? How does Japanese naval doctrine and effectiveness change without him?

20) Charles Lindberg Dies. Someone else is first across the Atlantic. Quite possibly, the isolationist movement loses a poster boy. Maybe that someone else goes into politics to a greater or more effective way that Lindberg did or maybe they stay out of it altogether.

21) John F Kennedy Dies. When does that start having a political impact? Assuming little impact before 1960, who would go up against Nixon? Would they win? If they won, how would they govern differently?

Okay. That’s probably enough prematurely dead people for one brainstorming session. We’re not quite done with that flu though. There was going to be a pandemic, and it was going to happen sometime in the 1914 to 1924 period, but the exact timing was probably not a given. What would have happened if it had gotten started a little earlier or a little later? Obviously a somewhat different set of people would have died, but for this part of the exercise I’ll just look at the overall impacts. Here are some times and some speculation on the impact of the flu happening then.

1. August 1914. Armies are starting to mobilize. Censorship has kicked in, and all over Europe mobilizing armies are incapable of fighting because of the flu. Young men are dying instead of being equipped and sent to battle. No country can afford to admit how vulnerable they are, and as a result, no one knows how bad off any other country is. Given the timing, there are bound to be suspicions of biological warfare. How would the diplomats and leaders handle that situation? Would World War I still happen? Would the same countries jump in?

2. After the fall of the Tsar but before the Provision Government's abortive offensive. With both the Germans and Russians temporarily unable to fight, the war on the Eastern Front goes on hold for 3 to 6 months, hopefully giving the provisional government a breather. How does that change the rest of the war? How does it change events on the Western Front?

3. One year later. Would World War I still have ended the same way and at the same time without the flu? If so, how would flu coming on the heels of the war change the tenor of the 1920s?

4. (Cheating a little here) What if a similar epidemic had hit near the end of World War II, June 1944 maybe? So, we end up with the D-Day landings, and then both sides suddenly have huge numbers of dead or incapacitated soldiers. The Soviets aren’t able to launch the offensive that historically crushed the German Army Group Center. The war essentially takes a time-out for a couple of months, or does it? What happens then?