Almost History by Roger Bruns - Book Review

Almost History : Close Calls, Plan Bs, and Twists of Fate in America's Past
by Roger Bruns -- Introduction by Douglas Brinkley
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Hyperion Books, October 2000, 224 Pages
ISBN 0786866632
Hyperion Books, October 2001, 282 Pages
ISBN 0786885793
Hardcover - Large Print Edition
G K Hall Large Print American History Series, May 2001, 513 Pages
ISBN 078389449X
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Hyperion Books, December 2001, 304 Pages
ISBN B000062X0N
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Time Warner Trade Publishing, December 2001, 304 Pages

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Book Review

Paperback - 282 pages
First Edition, October 2001
Published by Hyperion Books
ISBN 0786885793

Roger Bruns had his book brainstorm after he learned that, three decades earlier, President Nixon had a prepared speech that he never had to deliver. It was a public address that Nixon would have needed only in the event that the Apollo 11 lunar module pilots, after making their giant leap for mankind, had been unable to lift off, stranded to die on the moon after using up their remaining oxygen. Bruns looked into how much documentation was available on such pivotal moments in the uncertain flow of history, and found enough information to write Almost History .

In July of 1969, Mr. Nixon was prepared in case he had to go on national television and say:

"Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding." [Page 19]

BUY THE PAPERBACK BOOK EDITION - Roger Bruns , Almost History : Close Calls, Plan Bs, and Twists of Fate in America's Past

The book contains both documents and the the author's commentary about many pivotal moments in the fragile development of history. Roger Bruns is one of the top directors at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where a wall bears the inscription: "Study the past. Past is prologue. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

Here is a most unsettling example of how uncertain historical accomplishments can be. In 1920, a Tennessee legislator received a letter (reprinted in the book) from his mother. She urged him to reconsider his opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote. "Don't forget to be a good boy, " she added. When the vote was taken the next day, he reversed himself and cast his vote in favor of the bill. The measure passed in Tennessee by one vote. By a margin of one state, the women's suffrage act became the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. [Page 62]

Almost History includes numerous cases in U.S. law and politics. There probably would have been another presidential impeachment on record -- this one ending in a conviction -- if a Wall Street Journal reporter hadn't learned one particular fact in 1973. The reporter learned that the U.S. Justice Department had been preparing to expose Vice President Spiro Agnew for accepting bribes and kickbacks. The newspaper broke story early, and Agnew resigned. Had Agnew remained in office a bit longer, he instead of Gerald Ford would have become president after Nixon's resignation. Had Agnew become president, it's likely that the revelation of his corrupt activities would have led to a trial before the Congress. [71]

If young Richard Nixon's job interview in 1937 to become an FBI agent had been successful, we probably never would have never heard of him. More of a factor than Nixon's qualifications was the fact that the interviewer wasn't personally impressed with the applicant's performance during the face-to-face. The bureau declined to hire the recent law school graduate, but he could still practice law -- or go into politics. [120]

Almost History by Roger Bruns

Major book sections from the table of contents ...

  • Planning for the Worst
  • Forks in the Road
  • Fortuitous Occurrences
  • Close Calls
  • Twists of Irony
  • Plans Thwarted
  • Opportunities Missed -- Warnings Unheeded
  • Vagaries of War
  • Code-Breaking Consequences
  • Slippery Truth
  • Urban Legends
  • Lousy Predictions


The book contains much about the fates of American presidents. In 1881, Alexander Graham Bell quickly invented a metal detector to locate the bullet in the dying President James Garfield. Because the device gave unclear readings, the president could not be saved. The device would have worked if Bell had known that Garfield's bed contained metal springs and had requested that the patient be placed on another bed. [115] Leaders of other countries are also represented in the book. The author excerpts Winston Churchill's unused plan for a British, American and French invasion of the Soviet Union after the end of World War II. [4] There wouldn't have been a Prime Minister Churchill during W.W. II if the taxi cab that struck him as he was crossing a street in 1931 had been traveling just a bit faster. [87]

It is both fascinating and frightening to realize how many critical outcomes have taken place only because certain trips were cancelled, messages were not successfully delivered, or warnings were ignored. The author has a document excerpt for every example cited in the book, thanks to the completeness of the National Archives, the federal agency which he oversees.

Many of the iffy turning points in history involve usused plans. See the notes of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on President's Kennedy's 1962 plan for a bombing raid of Cuba following a possible Russian refusal to back off during the missile crisis. [34]

The book well represents military history. The book begins with the speech that Eisenhower prepared on the day before the invasion of Normandy, to deliver only in the event that Hitler's troops had defeated the Allies. Success of the mission relied on the hope that the heavy fog would clear at the very last moment. On the eve of D-Day, Eisenhower prepared himself in case he had to announce these words :

"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone." [2]

Whether it's due to the availability of public records or due to the author's own interest in the subject, several cases in the book are about carried out and avoided assassinations.

John Lennon would have been deported instead of assassinated if a judge had heeded the urging of the Nixon administration. In 1972, the administration sought to kick Lennon out of the U.S. for his antiwar activities, using, as an excuse, his 1998 conviction in England for drug possession. The judge ruled that the earlier conviction was not sufficient cause to deport the defendant. Lennon went on to live in New York City, where an assassin later shot him. [138]

Theodore Roosevelt became president because his speech notes and eyeglasses case in his vest pocket sufficiently slowed down the bullets of a would-be assassin. In 1912, he delivered that speech from the notes that were still readable between the blood and bullet holes. After completing his speech he went to the hospital. The Progressive ("Bull Moose") candidate later defeated both the Democrat Wilson and the Republican Taft. [56]

Had Ulysses S. Grant and his wife not made a sudden decision in 1865 to take a long trip to visit their children in New Jersey, Grant would have been sitting beside Abraham Lincoln at the theater, where the Confederate avenger John Wilkes Booth probably would have had sufficient time to kill both men. [85]

Near the end of the book is a section on failed predictions which we today find humorous. Scientific American magazine predicted in 1909 that we wouldn't see any more significant changes in the design of the automobile. [262]

What makes Almost History such a remarkable book is that the capricious nature of historical events is the central topic. That point is made through a collection of anecdotal evidence. Therefore, it's neither an anthology of trivia nor an in-depth account of any particular event. The subject of the book is the ever-present fork in the road. Unfortunately, the fork doesn't always give the actors a conscious choice.

Book review by Mike Lepore for

Almost History : Close Calls, Plan Bs, and Twists of Fate in America's Past
by Roger Bruns
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