Historians differ over the need to explore “counterfactuals”—the study of scenarios that never happened—and what they can tell us about historical causation. Stephen Kotkin, the Hoover Institution’s Kleinheinz Senior Fellow and noted historian of Russia, joins Hoover senior fellows Niall Ferguson and John Cochrane to discuss alternative historical outcomes: Stalin not surviving a two-front invasion in World War II and Churchill dying well beforehand; the American Revolution failing; the Beatles never spearheading pop music’s British Invasion; a Trump victory in 2020 and its potential effect on the current state of affairs in Ukraine and the Middle East; plus a world in which COVID never happened (spoiler alert: it might have impacted John and Niall’s book sales).

To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:


Winston Churchill: Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty. So bear ourselves, but if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say this was their finest hour.

Bill Whalen: It's Monday, May 13th, 2024, and welcome back to Goodfellows, a Hoover Institution broadcast examining social, economic, political, and geopolitical concerns.

I'm Bill Whalen.

I'm a Hoover Distinguished Policy Fellow.

I'll be your moderator today, joined by two or three of our usual Goodfellows.

Sitting next to me, the international man of history himself in California for some explained reason.

If you bet Niall will be in California, you won the bet.


Of course, Niall Ferguson.

Sitting at the other end of the stage is the economist John Cochrane, a Californian, though he may not always cop to it.

You may have noticed, by the way, a bit of an unusual setting for us.

We are coming to you live from the newly minted, newly opened George P.

Schultz Building here on the campus of Stanford University at the Hoover Institution.

We are without H.R.McMaster today, but more than filling in for H.R., I think.

The preeminent historian, Hoover Senior Fellow, the one and only Stephen Kotkin.

You've asked for him, you've begged for him, you've begged us to no end to get him, and now you got him.

Steve, welcome back to Goodfellows.

Stephen Kotkin: Thank you so much for the return invitation.

I don't get so many of those.

I get a lot of first invitations, but substituting for H.R., I don't think we should tell the audience that I'm going to be in any way a substitute for H.R.

We hope he gets back as soon as possible.

Bill Whalen: So we're going to do something a little different today, gentlemen.

We're going to talk about counterfactuals.

And what do we mean by counterfactuals?

Historical what-ifs.

Now, it's easy to get very goofy about this.

I remember as a very young man, I was watching Saturday Night Live, and this was in January 1978.

It was an episode, and the segment was called "What If?"

And it was, "What if Napoleon had a B-52 at Waterloo?"

And there was John Blue.

She dressed up as Napoleon inside the cockpit of B-52, and they came to the remarkable conclusion, after five minutes, he probably would have won the battle.

So we can agree, that's a pretty goofy what-if.

But there's a serious side to this.

And here I want to refer to something that Niall wrote in preparing for this show.

Quote, "I'd rather start by saying this is one of the biggest methodological and philosophical divisions within the historical profession."

Dr. Kotkin, could you translate from the Fergusonian to explain to a non-historical PhD, non-PhD like myself, what does Niall mean here when he talks about methodological and philosophical divisions within the field of history?

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Well, you'll forgive me that I did come prepared.

For those who don't always do their homework, I did mine from 1997.

And we'll be talking about this in a moment.

All causal explanations are counterfactual by definition.

It's very hard to understand how you could be for causal explanations in history, but against counterfactual explanations.

For example, Hitler caused World War II.

You could get a room full of historians who would line up with that statement, Hitler caused World War II.

What they're saying is no Hitler, no World War II.

So they're stating a counterfactual.

If you then say to them, oh, you mean you're in favor of counterfactuals, they might object.

They might say, geez, that's speculation.

That’s…I don't go there.

I stick to the facts.

I stick to history.

And then you say, but are you in favor of causal explanation?

Oh yeah, of course I'm in favor of causal explanation.

So for reasons that shouldn't happen, it can be controversial to get into the what ifs.

Part of the problem is what we call miracle counterfactuals.

Miracle counterfactuals are the Napoleon with the B-52.

So many people object to miracle counterfactuals because they're not plausible.

But if you stay within the realm of the evidence and you stay within the realm of plausibility, then all you're doing is arguing about causality and different causal explanations, which is completely fair game in all disciplines, not just in history.

If you say, for example, but sometimes, by the way, miracle counterfactuals can be helpful.

I'll give you one example.

Let's ask Niall Ferguson what he would do as prime minister of the UK.

What would be his policy?

And the objection would be, there's no way that Niall Ferguson could ever be prime minister of the UK.

Niall Ferguson: Actually, the B-52 at Waterloo is more likely.

Stephen Kotkin: Right.

Which is why I introduced the magical version.

However, his-- Would be a miracle, though.

It would be a miracle.

And miracles do happen.

You know, just the other day, I parted the sea, for example, just outside my office.

Actually, it was the fountain.

And actually, I didn't part it.

But in any case, if Niall became prime minister, what would his policies be?

It's a magical thought experiment, but it can enable you to understand his views about current policy in the UK.

So even miracle counterfactuals can have significant value.

But I generally prefer to stick with the evidence-based, plausible counterfactuals, which should not be controversial, because all historians do that by implication.

So you might as well be explicit.

Niall Ferguson: Amen.

And I wish I'd invited you to contribute to that book.

But back in those days, we didn't know one another.

And the circle of historians who were willing to write counterfactual essays was in fact quite small.

So what, uh, Steve has shown is that there's a problem.

Stephen Kotkin: Right.

Niall Ferguson: He understands the philosophy of history.

He understands the nature of causal explanation.

But a really substantial proportion of people who say they're historians appear not to.

And I have been engaged in an on-off, on-and-off debate for 30 years with eminent historians who refuse to accept that there can be legitimate counterfactual questions in historical explanation.

And the problem is that they don't understand the simple point that's been made here.

Any statement of a causal nature implies a counterfactual.

Why would you keep it hidden from the audience?

But there's another point, which I'm going to add.

Stephen Kotkin: You killed them all off, though. E.P. Thompson and dead.

Niall Ferguson: Richard Evans is alive and well.

I saw him the other day.

Stephen Kotkin: A.J.P. Taylor, dead.

Niall Ferguson: I didn’t kill them, they were old.

Stephen Kotkin: I mean, the entire group of the anti-counterfactual people, you killed them all off.

Niall Ferguson: But in the British historical profession, and also in the American, uh, a new generation came along, equally hostile to counterfactual questions.

The, uh, now emeritus Regis Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, Richard Evans, wrote an entire book explaining why it was wrong, philosophically and methodologically wrong, to ask counterfactual questions, and then wrote a three-volume history of the Third Reich in which he could not help asking counterfactual questions.

Now, there's a second point which is really important.

And it goes back to a brilliant philosopher of history in the 1930s called Collingwood, R.G.

Collingwood, who said the purpose of historical scholarship is to, is to find out and reconstitute past thought.

We're trying to work out what people in the past thought.

That's really what we're about.

And then we're going to juxtapose what they thought with what we think, and we will learn something from this.

It's a very profound insight.

Now, people at the time of any event that you care to name, let's call it the eve of World War II, did not know exactly when it would break out, if it would break out, and they certainly didn't know how it would end.

So if we want to understand the thought of people in 1939 or in 1941 in the United States, we have to understand the things that they thought might happen but didn't.

That's as much a part of historic, uh, historical experience as what did happen.

I remember being struck by this when I was sitting in, uh, the dining room of the U.S. Senate.

And there on, uh, in a glass case is a menu on which a group of senators wrote on the back of the menu their predictions for the outcome of World War II.

This was in 1941.

And that's a wonderful historical document because it shows you people don't know the future.

They don't know how events will turn out.

Nobody knew how World War II would end.

They didn't know when it would end.

They didn't know who would win.

So how can you write the history of the past?

How can you understand the experience of human beings if you don't capture that uncertainty?

The great problem with most historical writing is that it tells you a just-so story.

It tells you a story that you know how it's gonna end.

You never have any doubt.

You pick up the book about the Russian Revolution.

It's called "A People's Tragedy."

It's not gonna end well.

But that's not real history.

That's literature.

Now, I like literature.

I'll yield to nobody in my admiration of the great novelists.

But we are not writing novels.

We're trying to explain what it was like to be alive in 1939.

And that's the, to me, more powerful and compelling argument for counterfactuals.

They're very real to contemporaries.

And if you just shove them aside and say, "Well, it's not worth asking what would have happened if, if there had been no Hitler," you're missing the point.

You're missing the openness of historical events.

At some point, the future becomes the present and then the past.

But when it's the future, there's no such thing as the future.

That's singular.

There are many futures, and we're all sitting there trying to choose, trying to figure out which one we like, which one we think is most likely to happen.

And if we lose that, then we lose the historical process itself.

John Cochrane: So let me ask this.

My job is to be every man or simplicio.

Every economist.

And of course, I come as an economist.

We do nothing but cause and effect.

And we regard ourselves as the queen of social sciences.

You disagree, but the job of the social scientist is to disentangle causation from correlation, one way or another.

In fact, to some extent, economists might be obsessed with causal inference, even when it's hard to do.

But I want to phrase the question in a different way, which might be useful.

One way of seeing the question from a dynamic economist point of view, is history, well, when is history stable or unstable?

I'm using a word from dynamic systems.

A stable dynamic system, perturbed, comes back to where it was going to go anyway.

An unstable one, perturbed slightly, goes off onto a different path, never to reemerge.

The famous butterfly wing is a good example of a chaotic or unstable system.

Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

I mean, you know, the Hitler question, you said, well, somebody might argue, well, yes, if he hadn't done it, the forces of history were German expansionism, someone else would have done it.

That's an argument that this is a moment that's stable.

The grand forces of history, I think Marxists like this idea, the grand forces of history are moving and it doesn't really matter who is the person implementing them.

So when is history stable when it is unstable?

When are the decisions of particular people of import to history?

Or when, if, you know, if Einstein hadn't invented the theory of relativity, it's pretty clear somebody else would have done it 10 years later, brilliant contribution, you got there first, but there was no sense of history.

So when is it stable when it's unstable?

When do individual people, their characters, their personalities and decisions really matter versus when are they just instruments in what would happen?

And I just want to echo what Niall said, because my father was a historian and very much of your ilk, that one of the jobs of history is not just to understand cause and effect, but to understand the mentality of people in the past and to understand why they made the decisions they did.

As opposed to one of the trends I see in modern history is that our job is to look back in history and judge who is good and who is evil.

And our understanding of their decisions is limited to these were the good people, those were the bad people, they did what they did because they were bad.

Whereas instead, if, as you brilliantly said, if you put yourself with the knowledge they had, if you understand the contingency and unforecastability of history, that there are sometimes big forces, sometimes people saw them, some things they didn't, you can see, you could try to understand why they made the decisions they made, given what they knew and given how they thought the cause and effect department of the world worked at the time.

Niall Ferguson: The fun thing is that in a sense you're working both with individual agency and what you call the sort of great forces of history.

I, I can never quite see these great forces.

I think they're imaginary, but from Marx to Tolstoy, I mean, an entire era of thinkers in the 19th century were convinced the historical process was deterministic and that there really was no agency.

I think one can show that that's not true without throwing the historical forces out.

I'm an economic historian by training.

And one of the great questions that we used to grapple with when we were getting more quantitative back in the 1980s was what would the history of the United States have been like without the railroad?

And, and that might be a kind of miracle or the opposite of a miracle counterfactual.

It doesn't have a lot of plausibility because the resistance to building railroads was fairly weak.

So it's quite hard to imagine a world in which the technology is not imported from the United Kingdom, but it was a worthwhile exercise to calculate what the relative importance of railways were to American industrialization.

Nobody says let's industrialize America.

Well, maybe Alexander Hamilton does, but it's not really an individual decision that produces the industrialization of North America.

The historians interested, I think, in the points at which those forces that produce the industrialization of the United States interact with decision makers.

Sometimes there isn't a big role for human agency.

I mean, those railroads were getting built.

Even if you'd taken out the chief executives of all the railroad companies in a succession of carefully targeted assassinations, the railways would still have got built.

So I think this is a false dichotomy.

Stephen Kotkin: Because there were Chinese coolies.

That's why the railways got built.

Niall Ferguson: The structural forces supplied the labor, the resources of the United States supplied the hardware, the technology from the Industrial Revolution in Britain supplied the technology.

So you couldn't stop it, really.

And I think that's what we're really trying to do.

We're trying to tease out the interaction between human agency when it counts and these forces of history.

By the way, Tolstoy writes War and Peace partly to prove that history is deterministic.

And what he says constantly is Napoleon has the illusion that it's all him, rather like the movie that we just saw about Napoleon.

It's all about him.

And Tolstoy says this is a complete delusion.

The forces that cause the French to invade Russia and cause acts of violence and so on, all of this has got nothing really to do with Napoleon.

That's the real point of the novel.

And ordinary people's lives are turned upside down by these forces of history.

I became a historian after reading that book and reading the historical essay at the end in which he says it's all deterministic.

And I remember thinking that can't be right.

That just can't be right.

So we're having an argument that has been going on for a long time about the relationship between individual decision making, individual agency and historical forces.

And I think there is and must be a role for individual agency, for Napoleon, for Hitler.

Bill Whalen: I have nine counterfactuals in front of me.

I know you guys want to keep talking about this, but we're going to run out of time here.

John Cochrane: So I thought the answer, because our audience may be interested, the answer to that one, I thought was if absent the railroad, we would have built trucks and highways a lot sooner.

We would have built more canals and our cities would be located closer to oceans.

Niall Ferguson: And it's an interesting speculation, but you can see why it's in the miracle category, because there really isn't anybody forcefully and powerfully arguing not to build a railroad.

John Cochrane: If the UK had not invented the railroad, which itself is, I don't know how deep, Bill's not going to let us go into that.

That was, well, the economic history of it is just a litany of improbable contingencies that the UK went that way.

Stephen Kotkin: Right.

And so, but here's the challenge for you.

You say if Einstein hadn't invented relativity, someone else would have come along and done it 10 years later.

That is a theory about things in reality.

In other words, you haven't maybe discovered all of how nature works, but you're working to discover nature.

Then you're analogizing to processes where human beings are not discovering laws of how the universe works, but they're pursuing self-interest or whatever motivational theory of behavior you prefer.

And so with human beings, you have what you call the landscape, the existing landscape.

So for example, you can't change the geography very easily.

The oceans are in certain places.

The mountains are in certain places.

You can't change commodity prices very easily as a single human being.

So if you're a commodity exporting power, you're beholden to decisions made by people who look like Niall, but wear red suspenders.


I mean, so there's this full landscape of possibilities that you're acting in.

And so your ability to alter the landscape for yourself and for others is severely constrained, but it does exist.

And we can give examples as we now will do of when some choices are made.

It has consequences by constraining other possible choices, by changing the landscape for the other people in the situation.

So that's a different version of agency from Newton or Einstein.

We'd like to think that they're responding to nature and discovering something that exists rather than trying to seize moments inside a landscape that's much larger than they are to try to turn it.

John Cochrane: And I'm mostly on the, there are times when individuals and decisions send us off onto alternative histories.

I just wanted to give one example of one that didn't seem that way.

Niall Ferguson: The last theoretical thing, and then we get back to the examples is, and you touched on it, John, it's really important that the world of humans is a complex system.

I mean, and it actually behaves with all the characteristics of complexity, relatively small perturbations, the butterfly flaps.

But there are these periods in which relatively small perturbations have enormous and disproportionate consequences.

And I think the notion that the system is deterministic in a predictable way was one of the great delusions of Marxism.

It's deterministic, but in a non-predictable way, because of all the non-linearities of the complex system, we could easily delve into chaos theory, but let's not.

Bill Whalen: Thank you.

First counterfactual.

This is for Professor Kotkin.

Envision a coordinated access attack on the Soviet Union in 1941.

By that, I presume not just Germany attacking, but Japan as well.

What happens?

Stephen Kotkin: So here we are, World War II.

We know the outcome, just like Niall was alluding to earlier.

We have information that the actors didn't have.

And so we're tempted now to go back and redo it for them so that they can get the outcome that they desired, given what we know.

And so the question is, well, could the Nazis have won on the Eastern Front?

That's the question.

We'll get to the point where winning on the Eastern Front, could that have determined the outcome of the war?

Because Germany won on the Eastern Front in World War I, but of course didn't win the war.

So what does winning look like in the case of Russia?

Remember, you can get all the way to Moscow, you can take Moscow, and you cannot win.

We have our French friend, actually Corsican friend, to thank for that lesson.

So to win the World War II, you need to kill Stalin.

That's the only way you're going to achieve a victory on the Eastern Front.

You need the other side to stop fighting.

So when you take their capital, they don't necessarily stop fighting.

You can take Moscow, and they can decide that they can continue the war.

As long as they have the capacity to fight, which is industrial production, and the will to fight, which is the leader's commitment to the war, plus the population's buy-in, which the Germans continually fortified.

They continually fortified Soviet morale by being exterminations.

So your option is killing Stalin.

Even if the Japanese come in and fight on the, open up a second front in the Soviet Far East, it doesn't solve your problem that you need to take out the guy who is the system.

So here we have this episode in 1941, where Stalin stays in the capital.

It's October 1941.

The Germans are just outside Moscow.

They're not very far away.

There's chaos.

The regime is beginning to unravel, and Stalin gets credit for staying there, not abandoning the capital, and for holding the Revolution Day parade on November 7th, which was mere miles from the front, and then sending those soldiers who paraded with their weapons on Red Square, right to the front immediately, where they had come from.

And so yes, but think about that contribution to the potential victory by rallying morale and showing they wouldn't give up the capital.

That was Hitler's moment.

Because if he lands paratroopers behind the lines, and they capture or kill Stalin, he gets victory that way.

He doesn't need to capture Moscow.

He needs to capture this guy.

So that's the counterfactual.

But Hitler doesn't understand that.

He doesn't have a theory of victory that there is this one guy on the other side who is your problem.

He comes to that much later in the war when it's too late and he has no chance.

And then they fantasize about assassinating Stalin with all sorts of ridiculous, unfeasible methods.

The other thing is Stalin could just have died some other way.

Bill Whalen: Right.

So for example, the dacha where Stalin lived, so-called nearby dacha, just outside of Moscow, was mined because they didn't want to let it fall into German hands.

And the German front was really close to the dacha at this point.

So Beria, the head of Stalin's secret police, goes and mines the dacha to blow it up so that this trophy doesn't fall into Hitler's hands.

Stalin decides one night he's going to go to the dacha.

He's been living in the bunker in the Kremlin, which they're just, in the Ministry of Defense, because they don't have a bunker in the Kremlin yet.

They're building the bunker in the Kremlin.

He says he's going to go out to the dacha.

And Beria says, "I don't think that's a good idea."

Bill Whalen: Doesn't know where the mines are.

Stephen Kotkin: Exactly.

So Stalin could have gone to the dacha and could have stepped on a mine and blown himself to smithereens.

So without Hitler having to do anything, Stalin could have taken himself out of the war.

How do we know that this is significant?

Six days into the war, in June, June 28th, Stalin leaves the war.

What happens is the Germans take Minsk, just a mere five, six days into the war.

It's just incredible.

And it's on the pathway to Moscow.

And it's not defended because the Soviet, the Red Army is predominantly in the South defending Ukraine because that's where the Germans, using disinformation, say that there's main axis of attack.

Their main axis of attack is the central axis.

They've got Minsk.

Smolensk is next.

Moscow is after that.

Stalin understands this very well.

He calls the defense commissariat, "What's happening in Minsk?

Can you report?"

And they say, "No, we've lost contact with Minsk."

So he takes the cronies.

It's kind of like a Goodfellows show.

He puts them into the Packard.

He doesn't have the Packard yet.

I'm a little bit ahead of the story.

He gets the armored Packard from Roosevelt.

Anyway, he puts them into the car.

They go to the defense ministry.

He has a showdown with the guys.

And he says, "What's happening?"

And one of them says to him, "The Germans are on the eastern side of Minsk."

And so he has this infamous outburst where he says, "Lenin built this amazing state, and we effed it up."

Basralis, you'll excuse the Russian.

"We effed it up."

And then he goes to the Dacha.

This is June 27th, 28th, 29th.

He goes to the Dacha.

He doesn't come back to the Kremlin.

What do the other guys do?

It's like, "H.R.'s not here.

You bring me in, but what should you have done?"

What they do is they get up the courage to go out to the Dacha and beg him to come back to the Kremlin.

Niall Ferguson:  And he thinks maybe they've come to arrest him.

That's the sweet moment.

That we get from Mikoyan's memoirs, which is an invention, but nonetheless, too great a story to check.

But Stalin doesn't know why they're there.

He's a suspicious guy, so that's a plausible story.

So they beg him to come back.

Instead of saying, "Oh, we're going to survive now.

We'll take over.

Molotov, number two, will run the war."

They know that they can't run this regime or the war or survive without Stalin.

And so they beg him to come back, and he does come back, and they form this new administrative unit.

And so they're proving in June when Minsk falls, begging him to come back, what Hitler didn't understand.

So the great counterfactual that you posed, what if the Japanese had opened up that front on the eastern side, the Red Army could have beaten the Japanese back over there.

The Japanese Army did not have weapons that were as modern.

Japanese tactics were not as sophisticated as the Red Army tactics.

And so the issue really was the counterfactual, can we take Stalin out of the picture, and if so, how?

Either by assassination or by natural causes or by something else.

And so now we understand, which Hitler didn't understand in Niall's prospective in real time, how he could have won the war.

Bill Whalen: If you want to add something, then I want to get to the next one.

John Cochrane:  Okay, I'll be quick.

Because I think this is a good one to debate the grand question, what is stable and unstable?

World War II, of course, for World War II buffs, which I am one, too, is full of little things that could have gone differently.

But I like this one because maybe it isn't.

Tokyo is a long way from Moscow, a long, long way from Moscow.

Japan did not even invade and conquer all of China, let alone, you know, Russia didn't have to fight.

It said, okay, see you when you get to Moscow.

You got a long walk through Siberia, buddy.

Niall Ferguson: But all they had to do, John, was they had to, if they'd launched a simultaneous offense against the Red Army, Stalin could not have moved the divisions that were out there for Japan to the other end of the Soviet Union.

And of course, the Japanese thought about it, and that's the important point.

Stephen Kotkin:  But those divisions never moved.

That's another one of those stories, too good to check.

None of those major divisions moved because Stalin didn't trust the Japanese.

He thought they were going to do it to him anyway.

And so he kept those.

Who defended Moscow were raw troops from the interior of Russia who had been conscripted at the last second.

It wasn't the cracked Siberian troops.

They were still in place to defend against.

And so the Japanese could not garrison China.

That was a crazy idea, and they broke their teeth in China.

And the idea that they could have marched through Siberia I don't think is plausible either because Tokyo is very far.

But the Stalin thing, where are you going to come down on that?

John Cochrane: You're making my point.

Had Japan declared war, those divisions, they were tying down those divisions anyway.

In fact, the war might have ended sooner because Japan would have lost to the U.S. all that more quickly had they been embroiled.

They knew very well why they didn't because they had some other problems to deal with.

So the grand forces of World War II and the Germans and Japanese losing I think would have been just the same with minor differences had they done it.

This is a case of –

Stephen Kotkin: Structuralist John Cochrane.

John Cochrane:  No, in this case.

Sometimes it's divergent.

Sometimes it doesn't change.

Stephen Kotkin:  So here we have to go back to Niall because let's suppose that Stalin is killed or dies, and the Germans win on the Eastern Front somehow.

What then happens to the larger outcome of the war?

Is it a John Cochrane story where it doesn't matter, the Axis can't win anyway, even if they win on the Eastern Front?

That's the implication of what you just said.

John Cochrane: Well.

Stephen Kotkin: Or can the British blow this?

Niall Ferguson: I don't think the Americans can blow it.

I mean, the key point is once the United States is in the war, if you just want to be an economic determinist, it's easy because the U.S. economy is so dominant relative to the other economies that there's just no contest after the U.S. is in.

So Hitler's decision to declare war on the United States looks with hindsight like one of the great blunders.

But it is a blunder.

He has a choice.

He doesn't need to do it.

And there are key choices at each stage in World War II that have consequences.

It's still hard to imagine a different outcome once the United States is fully engaged.

And if you play, here's where you can actually test this out, goodfellows fans.

If you get a good strategy game, whether it's a simple one like Axis and Allies, or a more complex one like the video game Making History, and you play World War II 100 times, and you make different decisions along the way, it is exceedingly hard for the Axis to win, in almost any conceivable scenario.

John Cochrane:  Except for one way, which I want to ask.

This is a question.

Stephen Kotkin: Yeah, go for it.

John Cochrane:  War is a means to a political end.

I'm sorry, I'm going to get my Clausewitz quote wrong.

Hitler never had a when do we stop.

He never had a political end short of conquering the whole world, which is not going to happen.

And unless you have a political end, this is where we stop, and you're Germany, it's hopeless.

America had a political end, unconditional surrender.

That one works.

And we had the means to do it.

So the only way for them to win in the end was to have a political end, a point where we can say that's enough, we sue for peace.

Niall Ferguson: Well, at the risk of taking ours entirely off script,

Stephen Kotkin: Poor Bill.

Bill Whalen: The counterfactual show.

Niall Ferguson: The counterfactual that's most chilling, if one's talking World War II, is before any of this, and it's before Barbarossa, it's before the United States comes into the war, it's before Pearl Harbor, it's the Battle of Britain, and it's whether or not the Germans can defeat Britain in 1940.

France, they overrun.

Britain faces the threat of invasion.

And there is, I think, a tremendous power in Len Dayton's novel SSGB that imagines a successful invasion and the defeat of the Churchill government, indeed the death of Churchill.

And that, I think, is a counterfactual that has much more plausibility because it was much more finely balanced.

Stephen Kotkin:  This is what crossfire looks like, by the way.

John Cochrane:  On the butterfly wings.

Stephen Kotkin:  If you've never fought in war, and I haven't.

John Cochrane:  The butterfly wings isn't the decision.

The U.K. bombed a German city, I forget which one.

Hitler said stop bombing the airfields, go bomb London.

That gave the RAF time to breathe.

That strikes me as one of those butterflies.

Had he said screw it, we're going to go after the RAF.

Niall Ferguson: There are a number of those decisions, John.

The decision not to annihilate the British army at Dunkirk is another.

Stephen Kotkin:  I know.

You've got to get to your agenda.

John Cochrane: There are butterfly wing moments.

Stephen Kotkin: This is the deal.

You win if the other side decides to give up.

That's the thing.

You might not be supposed to win, and the two of you can do the charts on who's got which capacity.

But the French capitulated.

That's why Hitler won in six weeks there.

The French had as good an army, they had a better air force, they had superior intelligence, and they capitulated.

So their elites threw in the towel on the French republic, on the third republic, and were only too happy, in some cases, not in all cases, to have a collaborationist regime, so-called Vichy regime.

So Britain could have capitulated, for example.

Niall Ferguson:  Plenty of people already.

Stephen Kotkin:  Yes.

John Cochrane:  But it could have fought on, moved to the colonies.

Stephen Kotkin:  Their descendants are still there, by the way.

And the U.S. could have decided to go in only in part, let and lease, but no more than that.

There are decisions of not deciding to fight whole hog, despite having the capability to fight, and that's the contingency that I think fills in your argument, because the French did show you that if you capitulate, it doesn't matter if you're a match for the German army, and the British showed you the opposite.

They were not a match for the German army on the battlefield, except for air force and sea, but not on land.

But they didn't capitulate.

And so the decision not to capitulate in the British case is a decisive decision that's not necessarily part of the structural forces that a guy who's maybe named John Cochrane would bring in and trump us with the decision-maker.

Niall Ferguson:  At this point, who could really be against counterfactual history?

It's by a clear margin more fun than any other kind of history.

John Cochrane:  Way more fun.

Stephen Kotkin: Except for poor Bill.

Bill Whalen: Except for poor Bill.

So let's stick with World War II, and, Niall, you proposed this one.

If Churchill had been killed in New York in 1931, the Germans would probably have won the war.

What you're referring to, Churchill was in New York that year, and I believe the story, Niall, correct me if I'm wrong, he is in a cab going, I think, up 5th Avenue.

I think he's going to have dinner with Bernard Baruch.

Niall Ferguson: That's correct.

Bill Whalen: He doesn't know where he's going.

He's just looking.

Niall Ferguson: He's somewhat lost.

Bill Whalen: He's somewhat lost, and he decides to get out in the middle of the street.

Niall Ferguson: And makes a mistake that all British people are prone to make in the United States.

He forgets which way, which side of the road the cars drive on.

Stephen Kotkin: He looks the wrong way.

John Cochrane:  We don't have those lovely look-both-ways that they have on.

Bill Whalen: Yes.

Niall Ferguson: In the U.K., the cars go on the other side of the road, right?

Bill Whalen: And he gets hit, and he suffers, I think, a couple of broken ribs and a scalp injury.

He's very lucky.

Niall Ferguson: He gets hit, and he could, of course, have been killed, and this is a very good example of a counterfactual.

We've talked a minute ago about what happens if Stalin's killed.

What if Churchill's killed is interesting, because...

Stephen Kotkin: We're killing a lot of people on this show.

Niall Ferguson: Well, they killed a lot more.

At least Stalin did.

So let's remember that in one case, we're talking about a dictator, and some listeners might have thought, well, of course it matters if the dictator's alive or dead, 'cause the dictator's all-powerful.

What's interesting about the Churchill case is that he ends up being the prime minister in a democracy, but he still matters.

To go back to what Steve was just saying, why does Britain not fold?

Because Churchill is there, and Churchill has been vindicated by everything that has happened in the course of 1938, '39, and 1940, and becomes prime minister.

But his position in 1938 had been deeply unfashionable.

He'd been a warmonger.

He'd been shunned.

The key to Britain's survival, and I believe the survival of Western civilization, is that Churchill's vindication gives him the power to lead, even after the defeat of 1940, even after Dunkirk, to lead Britain into a war in which it's completely alone, in which the odds are against it, at a time when many members of the British establishment, including members of his own party and the aristocracy, are ready to make a... to cut a deal with Hitler.

And Churchill overrides them.

And that's the turning point of World War II.

That's the moment at which things could have gone differently, because if he'd not been prime minister, and let's say Lord Halifax had been prime minister, it was a close-run thing, I think the outcome would have been profoundly different.

Why is this interesting to me?

Because it's Churchill's leadership of a free people that is the magical thing that changes the outcome.

It's only through Churchill's extraordinary capacity to rally morale after the humiliation, and it was a humiliation, of Dunkirk, that Britain is able to fight on.

And its morale doesn't fold, even when things continue to go wrong.

I mean, they continue to go wrong.

Singapore falls.

Britain doesn't look to be getting anywhere in the war for quite a long time.

And yet morale holds up.

And I think that that is one of the best illustrations of the argument that the individual really does matter in history.

Even A. J. P. Taylor, who didn't like counterfactuals, as you mentioned earlier, acknowledged in his history of England that Churchill was the saviour of his nation, and that wasn't something that Taylor, who was no Tory, must have enjoyed writing.

But it's true.

So I think when one thinks about the contingencies and counterfactuals of World War II, that moment in 1931, it's a banal moment, where Churchill's not killed, is absolutely crucial.

Because if he's not there in '38, '39, '40, Halifax is probably prime minister.

Stephen Kotkin: This is an argument for assassination.

Well, I can look over the world today, and I can see where the West has certain good leaders and certain not so good leaders.

And if I'm an adversary of the West, I'm going to start picking them off based on what Niall Ferguson is saying.

Niall Ferguson: I'm just seeing the Stanford Daily headline now, "Hoover Fellows Come Out in Favor of Assassination."

Stephen Kotkin: When push comes to shove, those people are going to rally the nation against my aggression.

So I better get ahead of history here a little bit, knowing my counterfactuals.

Niall Ferguson: Well, assassinations are...

Actually, there's a good paper that shows how often assassinations do have meaningful consequences.

And that's why throughout most of history, assassinations are not a bug, but a feature, particularly of how republics run themselves.

Thankfully, we've stopped doing that in the United States.

John Cochrane: Niall, I want you to skewer the counterargument.

This is an invitation to skewer what I'm going to say.

Had Churchill been killed in that car accident, somebody else would have been writing about the menace to Hitler.

Somebody else would have been in Parliament.

They would have...

Clearly, the minute Chamberlain came home with "Peace in Our Time" and was proved to be a fool, they would have voted somebody else in.

So is the personality and intelligence of one human being crucial to this, or would someone else have filled in the gap?

Niall Ferguson: Well, this is a good way to put the question, a good way to test the counterfactual.

Of course, there were people who agreed.

John Cochrane: You mentioned Halifax.

I don't know who he is other than the name of a bomber.

Bill Whalen: Or Halifax.

Niall Ferguson: He was somebody who was an obvious contender for the role of prime minister when it was clear that Chamberlain had to go.

The point that you're right about is that there were plenty of people who agreed with Churchill.

He had his own circle of people who hated the appeasers and, for a variety of reasons, took his side.

But it's hard to think of any of them as having his capacity for oratory.

Read Andrew Roberts's...

Fellow, fellow Andrew Roberts's brilliant biography, and you see that Churchill was sui generis.

There really was nobody like him.

Nobody could have written those speeches.

And the speeches are amongst the most powerful in all of Western history.

Everyone should listen to them at least once a year because you realize the extraordinary power of one man's literary ability.

Notice also that he was an exceptionally well-read, historically-minded individual.

Churchill studied history and saw himself as applying it, including the history of his own family, to contemporary situations.

There is nobody in his league in his circle.

And so in the counterfactual that he's dead and somebody else has to be Churchill, I think they quite plausibly fail.

Remember, the arguments for doing a deal with Hitler are very tempting.

They're very appealing.

You've just been routed.

Unlike in 1914-18, your army has been turned around and has had to flee across the Channel, leaving all its equipment behind.

They're demoralized so badly so that you have to kind of cut them off from the civilian population.

The arguments for cutting a deal, which Hitler makes sound quite plausible.

I don't really have a grievance against you people.

This is a tempting deal to cut.

And if one looks at the attitudes of people in 1940 who would have been the alternate Churchills, most of them are ready to take that deal.

Stephen Kotkin: There are two parts to your question.

John Cochrane: You said how great a historian is.

I must say, if you'd known a little more economics, things might have turned out even better.

Niall Ferguson: Well, that's another counterfactual.

Stephen Kotkin: There are two parts to your question.

One is, was there another political entrepreneur to fill the space?

And the answer is, of course, there were many political entrepreneurs to fill the space.

In other words, the establishment was behind appeasement because they wanted to defend the empire at all costs and many other considerations, which we won't go into.

But that leaves open the possibility that you could rise to power with opposite arguments against that establishment and play the political game.

The question that Niall is posing is, were any of those good enough compared to Churchill?

And so that gives you what would have been good enough.

Did you need a person at the level of Churchill to rally the cause of confronting Hitler?

Or could you have gotten away with someone who was on that side, but let's say not...

Niall Ferguson: Leo Amory, for example.

Stephen Kotkin: Yeah, not world historical level, but could have pulled it off.

And so there it's very hard to tell what level of confrontation with Hitler was, what skill level was necessary on the confrontation team to pull this off.

Now, in the case of Stalin, where you embody the regime, you build the regime and the people around you are pygmies, you can see that substituting for that is really difficult.

But in a democracy where you have a strong establishment, you have a lot of people from different walks of life.

Okay, they all went to one school.

I get that.

They're all chums.

Niall Ferguson: Still true. Still true.

Stephen Kotkin: They're all chums.

We understand that, but still it's a robust size crowd.

And so I would be of the opinion that we didn't need a Churchill level figure to fill that entrepreneurial space.

So without Churchill, it's plausible that the UK could have still decided to stand up, but I can't know that.

And it's very hard to prove that because I can't rerun the experiment now, which is why counterfactual history is hard.

Bill Whalen: Let's move across the ocean to another counterfactual courtesy of Brother Cochran.

He writes, "Would a failed American revolution have really stopped the emergence of liberty, or would we just be Canada?"

Niall Ferguson: Well, this is one of the chapters in Virtual History by J. C. D. Clarke.

Bill Whalen: Hold it up.

Niall Ferguson: And my favorite of the chapters, actually, because no contributor other than Clarke shows all the problems with the methodology and explores the different paths that plausibly one could have gone down.

Now, I think the key argument here is that without French intervention and without British half-heartedness, uh, there you are, British America, what if there'd be no American revolution?

He looks at various different moments at which it could have been aborted.

I think the interesting one is, you know, the revolutionary armies are definitely beatable if Britain wholeheartedly commits to beating them, uh, and fights a large-scale war.

And I think the lesson of the French Revolution is that if you're in a large-scale war, liberty lasts not very long.

But they'd never have to fight a large-scale war because Britain's half-hearted about it, and then the French come in and sort things out, and you get the outcome that you get.

So, I think it's a really interesting question because it gets us to why does liberty survive in a war that's quite protracted?

If it had been a really large-scale war, if Britain had, both parties in Britain had wholeheartedly wanted to win it, and there had been a full-scale deployment of forces, I'm not so sure that the ideals of, uh, the American revolution would have held up.

The, the ideals of the French revolution did not because they had to fight a much bigger war, and you have no idea.

It's like an order of magnitude or more bigger in terms of the mobilization, in terms of the casualties, in terms of the economic cost.

The American Revolutionary War is small by comparison with the French Revolutionary War.

Stephen Kotkin: Yeah.

So, this is one of those where, here you are today, you have a nation of 330 million people, the largest economy in the world, 25 percent more or less of the global economy for more than 100 years now.

You're 5 percent of global population, you're 25 percent of GDP, and you're almost 50 percent or around 50 percent of global military.

So, this American superpower, for which there's no equivalent in recorded history, is what we have now.

Let's go back to the 18th century.

Instead of 330 million, you've got 3 million.

That's the population of the colonies.

You have these 13 forlorn colonies on the eastern seaboard that are a bit of a flyer.

You don't know where, if anywhere, this is going.

Uh, the so-called indigenous peoples, the ones that they encountered who are already there, they're dominating this continent well into the 19th century.

The maps that show America are false impressions of what the colonies on the eastern coast actually controlled.

It wasn't until the last third of the 19th century that there was a decisive shift.

So, you would not have predicted, had you been there at the time, had you been Bill Whalen, remember, he doesn't have California yet, he doesn't have the Louisiana Purchase, he's got no Chicago.

Forget about railroads.

I mean, he's got nothing but this tiny little eastern seaboard.

That becomes this world historical superpower, not foreseeable in any way except retrospectively.

Now, the piece inside that, that, that John is interested in is the liberty piece.


In other words, there's a political project inside that future superpower that's unforeseeable.

The political project is foreseeable at the time.

It's the political project, the norms, the values, all the associationalism, what Tocqueville will see when he steps into the picture in the first part of the 19th, in the first third of the 19th century, in that famous Democracy in America.

He's looking at, at those traits and norms and values, what he calls mores, what we would call values, as well as institutions, and he's seeing what you're seeing.

He's seeing the liberty picture and he understands that that's the power of America.

And so in some ways, the implausible superpower story is related to the more foreseeable understanding of what you're looking at.

I don't think without French participation in the war, we have a successful American victory against the Brits.

Now, Niall has articulated why the Brits weren't not all in and not very effective, but the French support of the US is definitely really, really important.

But this leads to the larger story.


Suppose the Americans had lost the war.

Wouldn't Einstein have come along 10 years later and created the American Republic in some other way anyway?

In other words, was there another pathway, given that the values and the mores, why they fled the UK in the first place, why they came there to, I'm sorry, why they fled England and Scotland and Wales, why they came there in the first, given that all that was in some ways the DNA?

Would the circumstances have contrived to produce an outcome that wasn't dependent entirely or even predominantly on that conjuncture of the Revolutionary War period?

That's where you're going in some ways.

John Cochrane:I ask this because I'm, of course, so impressed with our founding generation, their understanding of history, what they created is just amazing.

Washington as a commander understood his job was not to lose, and he brilliantly did not lose, something that Lee didn't understand.

And clearly in the 19th century, the model of, "Oh, there is a successful Republic," was very important.

On the other hand, our ideals, what they wanted was their rights as British citizens and the enlightenment, the gradual improvement of rights, that it's, you know, from Magna Carta through the Glorious Revolution, that was a British thing.

Surely the UK would have come to an understanding with its colonies that allowed them much, as they did afterwards.

Now, Canada, of course, wouldn't be Canada without the American Revolution.

Niall Ferguson: But this is the point.

I mean, if one looks at the trajectory of Canada, it's not as if Canadians are dirt poor and look longingly across the border to a much wealthier United States.

In reality, the economic paths that the two countries have taken are remarkably alike.

And that's because liberty was not something that the Founding Fathers just invented.

There was already a strong tradition of liberty that the settlers had brought over from the British Isles and established in their colonies.

And so it's a modified version of British conceptions of liberty that produces the American Revolution.

And I actually don't think that North America looks radically different if the revolutionaries are defeated and it just is a big Canada.

I don't think that produces a dramatically different outcome economically and socially.

John Cochrane: After losing the Revolutionary War, the UK said, "Oh," and granted a lot more autonomy and dependence to Canada, to Australia, to New Zealand and so forth.

So had they won and we remained colonies, yes, there would have been some delegation of authority, but Canada would not be Canada.

And the great thing is contemporaries talked about that.

Niall Ferguson: The great thing is that all the opponents of fighting the American revolutionaries, all the people who were on their side back in London, made this point that ultimately the potential on the other side of the Atlantic, this was a point that Adam Smith made, is so enormous that it's stupid to get into a fight with these people.

Even if you win, eventually the centre of gravity is likely to move across the Atlantic.

So I think this is where your structural version of history is quite compelling.

This is a demographic story.

There are lots of people being produced in the British Isles in the 18th century, a substantial oversupply of people.

And this is part of the reason why there's so many more people crossing the Atlantic from Britain than from France or Spain.

And that's something that doesn't have anything to do with individual agency.

It's just that the age at marriage falls and everybody has way more children.

John Cochrane: But like Churchill, I still have to believe that the brilliance of the founding generation mattered.

Stephen Kotkin: I'm going to get a word in edgewise.

Niall Ferguson: Good luck.

Bill Whalen: That's my job.

Stephen Kotkin: I was invited.

I didn't invite myself.

So this is a deep point about counterfactuals that Niall just made in response to your intervention.

Can you actually change just one thing?

Because when you change one thing, you're changing the sequence of things that follow.

You're changing the consequences.

So Niall pointed out that Britain changed policy vis-a-vis Canada because of the outcome of the revolutionary events.

So the Canada that we think was a possible outcome for the US, even if they had lost the revolution, might not have been the outcome for Canada.

Of course, Canada is in the north.

So Canada is, again, geography is just a really big thing to overcome.

It's a very successful nation, very high standard of living, very well governed.

But they just put it in a place that's really hard to get to 330 million people the way that we were able.

Of course, there are other northern countries with a larger population based upon geographics.

It's not impossible.

But this idea of counterfactuals where, oh, we're only going to change one thing and then hold everything else constant and run the experiment that way, that's not actually a good version.

John Cochrane: We call that the general equilibrium response.

And I want to congratulate you as a economist.

Bill Whalen: We have about five minutes left, so let's see if we can do two counterfactuals.

And Niall, I'm going to challenge you to a 30-second counterfactual, which is this.

In honor of your recent 60th birthday, Steve, you missed the show.

It was a wonderful tribute.

We put him on a scale and weighed gold against him.

It was quite fantastic.

I went back and I looked at April 1964, Niall.

And you know what I found?

You were born at the height of the British invasion.

Beatlemania had just kicked off.

They had done the Sullivan show in February that year.

Here's the question, my friend.

What if Paul McCartney and John Lennon never crossed paths and there's never a band called the Beatles?

Is there still a British invasion?

And if there is, whose media is it?

Niall Ferguson: 30 seconds.

It's an easy one.

The Stones have an even faster track.

It's a glory.

But even if the Stones don't make it, what's amazing about this is that there are so many young British men in 1964 forming bands that it really was only -- and they were all quite interchangeable in reality.

Sure, you can say Lennon and McCartney were fantastically gifted songwriters, but so were Jagger and Richards.

I think this is one thing that would have happened because something very peculiar had taken place.

American music, American black music, had been imported to the U.K. and fused with folk music traditions in the British Isles to produce something called pop.

And it was irresistible everywhere.

So I don't think you need Lennon and McCartney to meet.

You have -- you're bound to have pop music.

Bill Whalen: Anybody want to add to that?

John Cochrane:I'm on the Beatles versus Stones side of the debate, but this is Einstein who 10 years later someone else would have –

Niall Ferguson:Or Newton and Leibniz.

Stephen Kotkin: I was at the farmer's market on California Avenue yesterday, and there were a bunch of people who looked like they were already adults when the Beatles came around playing music for the crowd there.

And they said, "Has anybody heard of the Beatles?"

And nobody said yes.

California Avenue, farmer's market, Palo Alto, California, 2024.

So how consequential in the sweep of history, in Niall Ferguson's career, which is the measurement here, how consequential were the Beatles, except for the people who were there at the time, who were influenced and sing those songs now at the farmer's market.

My kids don't sing Beatles songs.

They sing other songs, and they're kids, and I don't know.

John Cochrane:  I think you're absolutely wrong

Actually, the most amazing thing about our culture now is how little it has changed, how many young people -- I was up by a fraternity, and they were playing "Tommy" from the Who outside, and the speakers outside.

Thanks to the Internet, they have way more access to 60-year-old music than anybody in the 1960s who was not playing jazz.

Stephen Kotkin: I knew you'd get the techno-optimism in there.

Bill Whalen:  By the way, Stepper teaches, I think, not one but two classes on Taylor Swift.

Stephen Kotkin: Four classes on Taylor Swift, and none on the Vietnam War, because they're just trying to balance kids' education.

Bill Whalen: Okay, we have five minutes left.

One final counterfactual.

Niall Ferguson:  Are you heading over to the encampment with me after this?

Stephen Kotkin: I'm trying to get the Qataris to contribute money so they can build tunnels underneath the U.S.

[ Laughter ] Niall Ferguson: You know what?

The great counterfactual is, what if you had been national security advisor instead of H.R.?

Stephen Kotkin: Oh, boy.

Niall Ferguson: Let's just think about that for a moment.

Stephen Kotkin:  Oh, boy.

He's a better tank driver.

Bill Whalen:  Final counterfactual, and I apologize for the brevity, gentlemen.

We only have five minutes left.

It comes from Niall.

What if Trump had won in 2020?

No Russian invasion of Ukraine.

No October 7th.

Niall Ferguson:  I like this counterfactual because he himself has proposed it.

So at least it has the -- we can quote it.

We have a source for this, which was Trump on telephone in 2022 telling one of his golfing buddies, if I'd been president, none of this would be happening because -- and this is a great line -- "I said to Putin, if you go into Ukraine, I'll bomb Moscow.

All those lovely domes will be gone."

Now, we don't know if he ever really said that to Putin, but I do remember asking someone in the administration who said, "Niall, he said that stuff all the time."

So I like the idea that there would be a very different world if he'd won the election.

I think he lost the election because of COVID, mostly.

I think he would have won without the pandemic.

And I don't think this administration has been nearly as good at deterring our adversaries as Trump was, if only because Trump was madman theory.

You did not really know quite what his move would be.

So I think there's a lot of plausibility to this, even though he said it himself.

Shoot me down.

John Cochrane:  I think the big counterfactual of Trump winning in 2020 would not be that much in foreign policy, though there are plenty, and I guess our current administration is on track to lose three wars, which is a little bit different, but on what's happened in domestic policy.

And I won't go on a litany of what's happened under the Biden administration.

But we would have not had -- fill in all the things that have happened under the Biden administration.

We would not have a resurgent Trump.

We would not have the exposure of what the progressive left is really all about in this country.

And we'd possibly be -- of course, he would now be losing.

We'd be voting Democrats back in again, but in a much, much different world, largely on domestic policy issues.

And in the interest of time, I won't give you a litany of all the things that would not have happened.

Bill Whalen: Well, let's add on to that.

Also in 2020, what if there's no COVID?

Do you write "Doom"?

Niall Ferguson: I probably do.

I actually had started work on it before the pandemic and had persuaded my reluctant editor that a book about the history of catastrophe was a good idea.

I don't think he would have published it until without the pandemic, but I would probably still have written it.

But I want to hear Professor Kotkin on a different 2020.

And a no-COVID Trump wins 2020, does it have the geopolitical consequences that I think it does?

Stephen Kotkin: Remind me who's Trump?

Niall Ferguson: Some guy.

Some guy.

Stephen Kotkin: I deal in big historical questions.

John Cochrane:  Well, if I may just -- you wouldn't have sold so much of "Doom" if they hadn't had COVID and hence inflation, I wouldn't be selling copies of "The Fiscal Theory" at the highest price level.

Niall Ferguson: So, you know, it's worked out well for both of us.

John Cochrane: There were some silver linings in that play.

Stephen Kotkin: I've got to figure out how to monetize much better compared to you guys if I'm ever going to come on this show again.

You guys are monetizing with contemporary...

Niall Ferguson: You can't duck the tough political questions.

And you can answer in a non-partisan way, because that's really a question about Putin.

Does Putin act differently if Trump is still in the White House?

That's really the question.

Stephen Kotkin: Trump wanted to give away what Putin now has to take militarily.

That's the answer to the question.

And Putin was waiting for Trump to hand it to him in some fashion.

And Trump proved to be disorganized, attention span was complex, his administration didn't seem like it had a single policy or a single direction.

And Putin was waiting for the gift that never came.

John Cochrane: A gift?

Stephen Kotkin: That's, I think, a realistic picture of what it looked like on the Moscow side.

Who is this guy Trump?

Is he crazy?

Is he really going to do what he says he's going to do?

And they couldn't never really get a handle on what he was offering.

But this is the thing about the world.

The Russia-Ukraine thing has nothing to do with Trump.

It's got nothing to do with Biden.

It's got nothing to do with ephemeral people.

John Cochrane: Stalin, maybe.

Stephen Kotkin: That's right.

It doesn't have anything to do with the ephemeral nature of some of contemporary American politics, right?

We're now going to have a lame duck second term, which is going to look one way or the other way.

And a lot of people are going to think it's the end of the world.

If it goes the opposite way from their hopes.

And then we're going to be on the other side of that four years later.

And it's not going to be an apocalypse.

It's not going to be existential.

It's just going to be American life in the 21st century.

The Ukraine-Russia thing is about much deeper, century-long processes having to do with stuff that predates the American Republic.

And unfortunately, we'll post-date whatever administration is elected.

John Cochrane:  In our closing moments, this is great.

Because you started off on kind of the butterfly theory.

And now we're on to kind of the grand –

Stephen Kotkin:  I had the landscape of –

John Cochrane: Half of our country, no matter what happens in a year, half of our country is convinced this is the end of democracy, the great butterfly moment.

And you're saying calm down.

The great forces of history are moving along.

It's going to be okay.

Stephen Kotkin: We had four years of Trump, as I recall.

It's very faint of recollection.

We've now had almost four years of Biden.

And so we've proven that we're on the other side of Trump.

And we'll prove soon that we'll be on the other side of Biden, potentially.

We may end up with eight years of that.

I don't know what the life expectancy is these days in America.

I heard it's going down.

But anyway, the point being is that it's both, obviously, right?

There are moments in which agency is decisive.

Those moments are fewer than we think.

And fewer people than we think.

And there are moments that are not inflection points that look like inflection points to us.

Because we live in the moment.

And as Niall started us off, we can't see outside of the moment that we're in.

If we could, we would not be on this show.

We would work for Goldman Sachs or we would work for somebody where you could make money knowing the future instead of doing a show.

I'm so sorry we ruined your agenda here, Bill.

But I got to say, that was the one thing that was predictable.

That was the future I could have foreseen before the show started.

John Cochrane:  It was foreseen.

Bill Whalen: That's a good fellow's counterfactual.

We stick to the script.

Niall Ferguson:  What if we stuck to the script?

John Cochrane: And a miraculous one at that.

Bill Whalen: Very miraculous.

Gentlemen, great conversation.

John Cochran's got a meeting to get to.

Steve, you got books to go buy from Niall and John.

Niall Ferguson: Let's not forget his biography of Stalin, available in all good bookstores.

John Cochrane: And if you want to know how "The Death of Stalin" works out, I can recommend a wonderful movie.

Bill Whalen:  I watched it last night, actually.

Niall Ferguson: He's still writing that.

Stephen Kotkin: He does die, but it's not as consequential as people think, his death.

Niall Ferguson: End of the Korean War, though, no?

Stephen Kotkin: My biography does not end with his death, because he's still the most consequential person in the country, even though he's not there anymore.

Bill Whalen: Okay.

Guys, great conversation.

Dr. Kotkin, please come back soon.

Stephen Kotkin: Thank you for the invitation.

Deeply appreciate it.

Bill Whalen: And that's it for this episode of "Goodfellow."

We hope you enjoyed the conversation.

We didn't get to "Lightning Round" this week, for obvious reasons.

That shouldn't stop you from sending in questions.

Go to hoover.org/askgoodfellas, and write away to Niall, John, H.R., Dr. Cochrane  if you want to.

And, yes, you can start pounding the drums.

I have him back on the show.

I know he loves the attention.

We'll have another episode of "Goodfellas" at the end of May, early June.

That's going to be a retrospective, I think, on the year so far, because we're going to go into our summer schedule very soon, which means you won't be seeing much of us.

So don't freak out if we're not back every two weeks.

On behalf of my colleagues Niall Ferguson, John Cochran, the great Stephen Cochran, we hope you enjoyed the conversation.

Thanks again for watching.

We'll see you soon.

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