Phil Mason: The course of history often hinges on small accidents of chance

Roundup: Talking About History

Ronnie of the Commies?

Ronald Reagan, the slayer of the "Evil Empire", might have been ruined before his political career began had his attempt to join the American Communist Party succeeded. He was rejected because the Communists thought him too dim. It emerged in a 1999 authorised biography that he had tried to join in 1938. Some of his closest friends were members. One, scriptwriter Howard Fast, revealed that he had felt "passionate" about it. But the Party refused him. "They thought he was a feather brain... a flake who couldn't be trusted with a political opinion for more than 20 minutes." As the anti-Communist blacklisting in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s destroyed many careers, Reagan flourished as an actor, then as President of the Screen Actors Guild, the actors' union. And, most importantly, his political credentials remained all-American.

The key to this disaster

The Titanic disaster might have been prevented had a member of the crew not forgotten to hand over the key to his locker. Second Officer David Blair was removed from the ship's roster at the last minute before the Titanic's departure in April 1912. In the haste of being replaced, Blair failed to pass to his replacement the key to the crow's nest locker, which held the binoculars. After the disaster, one of the surviving lookouts, Fred Fleet, giving evidence to the US inquiry, confirmed that they did not have any binoculars. Had they done so, he testified, they could have seen the iceberg earlier. When the inquiry chairman asked, "How much earlier?" the lookout replied, "Well, enough to get out of the way."...

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