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The Alternate History

The Path to the "Modern Aero-Age"

By Prof. Warren Gilmont, Harvard University (1938)

There was no single warning sign that pointed to the breakup of the United States of America. The American Civil War in 1860 may have played a part, say some, while others blame the so-called Founding Fathers, who failed to predict the collapse of the nation. Regardless of the root cause, the result is the same: the United States of America, that great experiment in Democracy, crumbled in the late 1920s.


The first signs of the coming collapse became apparent in 1920, in the aftermath of the post-War influenza epidemic. Many isolationist movements—whose supporters were already convinced that America’s involvement in Europe’s troubles—were only strengthened after so many citizens fell to a disease brought back by returning servicemen.

President Wilson's push to form the League of Nations drew increasing fire from U.S. citizens, allowing Warren G. Harding's "New Independence from Europe" campaign to gain momentum. Harding called for greater separation from the world in general, and the Regionalist party adopted it as part of their platform. Many Regionalists who won office in 1920 used their new power to push forward their own programs—most notably, Prohibition (which failed ratification as a Constitutional amendment that year).


Prohibition consumed the political scene for the next three years, splitting its supporters and detractors across regional lines. Its political power undercut by the Regionalists, Washington's indecisiveness forced politicians to support efforts to sign Prohibition into law, or to reject it, for their own states.

The death of President Harding in 1923 handed the Presidency to Calvin Coolidge, who refused to get behind the wavering Federal Prohibition Bill. Without Presidential support, the bill quickly died in committee.

The Prohibition issue that had polarized the country became a battle between regions that supported it, and those that did not. Checkpoints appeared on state borders as authorities tried to restrict the flow of alcohol into "dry" regions. Many states also used these checkpoints to levy unofficial—and highly illegal—tariffs.


The election campaigns of 1924 illustrated the growing shift in power from Washington to the statehouses. States demanded more authority, and state governments seized greater power for themselves. Despite Federal efforts to reverse the tide, the states continued to appropriate more power. The result—stronger states and weak central government—is exemplified by the 1924 Bluefield Incident.

Kentucky and West Virginia began armed conflict with the Virginia and North Carolina for control of the Appalachians (the source of a large percentage of illegal alcohol that was smuggled north). The Virginia National Guard captured a large Kentucky convoy outside the town of Bluefield, only to discover that their prize was a Kentucky guard unit running alcohol out of the Appalachians toward the West Virginia border. Though jurisdiction clearly belonged to Kentucky, the men were tried in Virginia on vague charges and jailed. Virginia refused Kentucky's request to transfer the men back to their home state, and later rejected a similar "suggestion" from Washington D.C. Only under the threat of U.S. Army intervention did Virginia finally release the prisoners to federal authorities, almost two years after their capture.


Except for the Bluefield Incident (and a few other isolated flashpoints in the United States and Mexico), the period from 1924 to 1927 were among the best the United States had known. The elections were over, the Prohibition issue was largely settled—at least within individual states—and the country had a brief respite from the growing political unrest. Unemployment dropped dramatically as states employed their own people to maintain growing internal infrastructures (even as the national infrastructure began to show signs of strain). Per capita income increased, and more people began investing in the stock market—foolishly, in most cases.

The Federal government might have reclaimed its authority then, but chose to wait for the next major election year to increase its power base and avoid reawakening Regionalist opposition. Washington waited too long.

In 1927, a new and deadly strain of the influenza that ravaged the country in 1918 appeared, delivering a crippling blow to national morale. States—and even many cities—closed their borders and converted their liquor checkpoints into quarantine-enforcement sites. Necessary border crossings were made under armed supervision with strict controls. Smugglers and raiders began adopting the airplane as their primary method of border-jumping, avoiding the limitations of ground-based transport.


The election of 1928 suffered from poor voter turnout, as most people avoided large groups (for fear of contracting influenza). Capitalizing on this, the Regionalists launched various "Strong State" platforms, effectively curtailing the Federal government's remaining power. Governors negotiated with their neighbors to establish interstate alliances, formalizing the segregated regions that had grown out of the preceding decade's isolationist policies. In many cases, these new alliances merely reinforced divisions that had existed from the United States' founding days.

In early 1929, Utah enacted the Smith Law, which made the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints the state's official religion, with state government support. With the federal government's impotence and Utah's isolation, cries to heed the traditional "separation of Church and State" were largely ignored. Fearing similar measures, strongly anti-Mormon states such as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts began to discriminate against the Mormons, driving many toward Utah.

In October of 1929, the stock market crash sounded the death knell for the United States. Regionalism had decimated the national economy and Washington D.C.'s call for financial assistance from state governments was roundly rejected. President Hoover called out the military to keep D.C. from slipping into lawlessness, further damaging the reputation of the central government.


On January 1, 1930, Texas seceded from the United States, with California, the Carolinas, Utah and New York following suit almost immediately afterwards. Each formed a new nation, much as the Confederacy had done in the 1800s. Unable to mount the political and military campaign necessary to hold the United States together, Washington was now powerless.

This new period of extreme Regionalism created turmoil on a grand scale. Quebec broke away from Canada, as well. Mexico moved against Texas, and a minor shooting war erupted. In the ten months following Texas’ secession, California, The Carolinas, Utah, and New York withdrew from the Union, forming independent nation-states.

North America’s love of airplanes—once rooted in the exotic, adventurous mystique surrounding them—became deeply rooted, as commerce between the new North American independent nations ground to a halt. Various brushfire wars demolished the intercontinental railway system at national borders, and the few large highway systems built or under construction quickly fell into disrepair or were sabotaged. The automobile, once thought destined to become the national shipping vehicle, gave way to gyrotaxis, aerobuses and large cargo zeppelins that commanded the skylines and made trade possible between friendly nations.

The first "air pirates" began capturing the public eye during this period of chaos. Generally small, disorganized bands of thrill-seekers and publicity hounds, these pirates began crime sprees that would inspire others to follow in their footsteps in later years.


As the Federal Government in Washington, D.C. crumbled, a large segment of the nation’s military began to desert. The soldiers’ pay was slow in coming, and many were starving. Many returned to their home states, while others began selling their skills as mercenaries or bandits. A few thousand troops remained loyal, relocating to Washington, D.C. to defend the capital.

The political geography continued shifting throughout the year: the short-lived Outer Banks nation of Virginia and the Carolinas quickly folded itself into the rest of the Southern states, giving rise to the new Confederation of Dixie throughout the South. Samuel Morrow formed the People’s Collective in the Midwest (abrogating all loans and mortgages among its citizens, a move that angered outside financial interests but kept the new nation from drowning in the Great Depression).

The formation of the People’s Republic also led to one of the last major engagements of the Federalist armed forces; on Presidential orders, the Army moved to retake the People’s Collective, but were roundly defeated.

Like dominos falling, various new nation states began to form quickly; the Industrial States of America (formed around the industrial centers of the Great Lakes); Appalachia formed in the South; the Maritime Provinces and Atlantic Coalition declared independence in the Northeast.

The first serious pirate threat manifested in mid-1931. Jonathan "Genghis" Kahn—a former businessman from Chicago—formed the infamous Red Skull Legion. The Skulls moved into Utah (posing as People’s Collective militia) and stole a military zeppelin, nearly starting a Utah-Collective war in the process. The age of the air pirate had begun.


In early 1932, the Native American Navajo and Lakota tribes took up arms and seized a large portion of territory in the American West. With little Federal opposition, the Natives managed to secure a fairly broad section of territory before closing their borders to outsiders. Particularly scornful of bootleggers, the Navajo and Lakota—never the greatest of allies—still band together to fight off any incursion by pirates, outsider militia forces, or anything else deemed a threat to the tribes.

Free Colorado, in contrast, formed for entirely different reasons; today, it is becoming a haven for pirates, bootleggers and the other, more-anarchistic elements. In light of the lawless freehold’s formation, President Coolidge ordered troops to seize the lands near Washington, D.C. (including parts of Maryland and Delaware) and declared a "state of emergency"; the nation of Columbia was born.

Louisiana seceded from Dixie soon afterward, requesting support from France for its independence. Ill-prepared to go it alone, the Midwestern states sank deep into the Depression and then resurrected themselves as a Christian Communist nation, the People’s Collective. The relatively strong Lakota and Navajo Native American tribes founded their own nations as well, carving territory out of the nearly defunct Dakotas and the barren deserts and plateau country of the American southwest.

Even worse, as national borders continued to form, conflict became inevitable. The first serious conflict occurred near the end of 1932, as I.S.A. forces clashed with People’s Collective militia. The source of the conflict is hazy; some claim it is a natural battle between capitalists and socialists, while others believe that the I.S.A. thought that their technological superiority would allow them to capture the territory—and therefore the natural resources—of the Collective. Whatever the case, through the rest of 1932 and into 1933, the conflict continued.


The political destabilization and shifting of borders continued throughout 1933; small brushfire conflicts between ground and air militias forged new national boundaries, fueled by the continuing conflict between the I.S.A. and People’s Collective. In light of the hostilities that seemed to be on the verge of blowing up into full-scale war, the Outer Banks nations (formerly the Carolinas and Virginia) formed an alliance with Dixie, becoming a Protectorate of the Confederacy, and fueling conflict between Appalachia, Dixie and the Outer Banks.

1934 - 35

The low-intensity border skirmishes between these new nations continued to flare up, and amidst the chaos, the bootleggers and pirates thrived. Scores of new militias—most determined to defend their hometown or state—formed to battle increasingly colorful and flamboyant raiders. The Redmann Gang, the Red Skull Legion, the Black Swans, and hosts of other pirate groups continued to raid across national boundaries (sparking additional conflicts as overzealous militia pilots strayed across borders into unfriendly territory in pursuit of the raiders).


The borders and politics of the North American nation-states solidified in 1936. Combined Navajo and Utah forces allied long enough to fight off incursions by pirates based in Free Colorado; the Broadway Bombers (the premier Empire State militia) decimated the Hell’s Henchmen pirate gang in the Alleghenies; I.S.A. and the Peoples’ Collective conflict flared up yet again, though this time the Collective fared far better than in previous engagements, retaking small parcels of their territory.


Sky pirates have prompted the rise of air militias to protect the shipping lanes. The pirates maintained an edge, however, and their early successes gave way to today's large and numerous pirate groups. Piracy got another boost when militias began raiding rival shipping, often receiving bonuses from their employers that reflected the value of the cargo taken or destroyed. As pirate and militia raids cut deeper into national economies, the various governments began subsidizing air wings.

Piracy actually lessened in the face of this organized response, though only briefly; the pirates adapted to the changing times by forming larger, better-armed gangs. From there, it was only a matter of time before nations began to subsidize pirates as well, handing out letters of marque in order to direct pirate activities away from their own zeppelin fleets and toward those of their enemies.

Today, North America is a hotbed of conflict: rival militias prey on each other at will, striking in defense of their nations’ interests; pirates and privateers battle the militias for control of the skies, and are too often victorious. The skies above North America are the new frontier, where a single individual with skill and nerve can make the difference between victory and defeat.