Maps are a powerful way of illustrating not only the world that is, but worlds that never have been. What follow are not fictional maps — there's no Westeros or Middle Earth — but plans and hypotheticals that never came to pass. You'll see military plans for invasions that didn't happen or conquests that were hoped-for and never achieved. You'll also find daring infrastructure schemes that would have remapped cities and even whole continents. There are proposals for political reform — some serious and some more fanciful — as well as deeply serious plans for entire independent nation-states that have never been brought to life. Welcome to maps of worlds that don't exist — but might.
War Plan Red: The invasion of Canada
Following the 1927 Geneva Naval Conference, the US Army — evidently bored with the peace and prosperity of the 1920s — decided to draw up plans for a hypothetical war between the United States and the British Empire. The document that resulted from this exercise, War Plan Red, was approved by the War Department in 1930 and not declassified until the 1970s. It assumed that Britain would start the war with a slightly larger navy and much larger army than the United States, so the key to American strategy was to start an essentially defensive effort until greater US industrial might could be brought to bear to construct a navy capable of blockading Britain. But the best way to defend the United States from a British invasion was to launch a preemptive invasion of Canada (code named Crimson), then still part of the British Empire. The first target was to be a quick amphibious assault on Halifax, Nova Scotia, which would deny Britain a convenient Canadian port and make it difficult for it to support Canada's military. Then two parallel invasion forces would head north from North Dakota and Vermont aimed at captured Winnipeg (a key rail junction) and Québec City (thus preventing the use of the St. Lawrence River as an alternate port) respectively. Actual British thinking about war with the United States at the time regarded Canada as indefensible and called for the use of Bermuda and Caribbean bases as jumping-off points for attacks on American commerce.
Operation Downfall: The invasion of Japan
Before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki convinced Japan to surrender, the US military was planning a massive invasion of the Japanese home islands. Code named Operation Downfall, the plan consisted of two parts. Phase one, named Operation Olympic, called for a massive ten-division invasion of the southern coast of Kyushu. Kyushu was the target because an amphibious landing on its southern coast could be supported by aircraft based on the previously conquered island of Okinawa. Once Kyushu was in American hands, it would become the base of operations for aircraft that would support Operation Coronet, the even-more-massive 14-division attack on Tokyo and its environs.
Generalplan Ost: The Nazification of Eastern Europe
Generalplan Ost ("east" in German) was Adolf Hitler's chilling vision to reorder central and eastern Europe in the wake of a projected military victory over the Soviet Union. All territory to the west of the dashed line was to be steadily denuded of its original inhabitants through a mixture of slaughter, enslavement, and deportation to Siberia. In their place would come ethnically German settlers and their descendents. Between the dashed line and the Ural Mountains, in central Russia east of Moscow, there were to be German-run military regimes that would prevent the re-emergence of any form of the Russian state. The city of Moscow itself was to be flooded through the demolition of a key dam, destroying the city and replacing it with a lake. In reality, Hitler's armies were stopped by Soviet forces just short of Moscow in December of 1941 — essentially sealing his fate, though the war would continue for three and a half more deadly years.
Soviet attack on Austria and Italy
This map, obtained by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1970, depicts plans for Warsaw Pact (the USSR and its allies) forces to attack Austria and Italy from bases in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The plan is especially noteworthy because Austria, though capitalist and democratic, was formally "neutral" in the Cold War and never joined the NATO alliance as part of the terms under which the country emerged from Allied occupation at the end of World War II. But Italy was a NATO member, and the plan here seems to envision a short march through neutral Austria in order to attack a perhaps not-so-well-defended northwestern Italy.
In 1917, anticipating that unrestricted submarine warfare would soon cause the United States to join World War I on the Allied side, Germany's foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a coded telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico. In the event the United States declared war on Germany, the ambassador was instructed to approach the Mexican government with a proposed alliance. Germany would help fund a military campaign to allow Mexico to retake some of the territory lost in the Mexican-American war seven decades earlier. This map shows Zimmermann's proposal: Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico would be annexed into Mexico (the red line shows Mexican territory before 1845). But the Brits were tapping undersea cables between Europe and the United States, and had broken Germany's codes. They deciphered Zimmerman's message and passed a copy to the Americans. The release of Zimmermann's telegram inflamed American public opinion and helped to build momentum for a US declaration of war, which occurred on April 6, 1917. Mexico, meanwhile, realized that it would have no hope of defeating the United States and rejected Germany's proposal.
Any Texan (ask my wife, or my former roommate, or Vox's own Kelsey McKinney) will tell you that Texas has the right to unilaterally split into five separate states. This is not actually true (see section three of article four of the US Constitution), but it's fun to think about. Naturally, there are any number of different ways in which this could be achieved, but my favorite plans follow the basic scheme of this map by Timmy Hunter-Kilmer. The idea is that the state's major cities — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin — should each anchor their own state, while a fifth state is composed of the largely empty, largely rural portions of the north and west. This division of Texas would greatly increase Republican representation in the US Senate, as four of the five sub-Texas' would be politically conservative. The blue colored Texas stretching from the Mexican border to San Antonio would, however, be quite left-wing and feature a majority Latino population.
In December 2013, venture capitalist Tim Draper introduced the world to his proposal to divide California into six smaller states and his intention to put the idea on the ballot as an initiative. The official story was that smaller states would be more democratic and better-governed. To opponents it looked like a rather transparent effort to boost Republican Party fortunes in national politics by breaking down the largest blue state, while perhaps creating the opportunity for the new (and still blue) state of Silicon Valley to enact drastic tax cuts now that its affluent residents no longer had to support lower-income portions of the state. Whatever Draper's real motives, the plan failed to qualify for the ballot.
The equal states of America
What if American state borders were redrawn such that each of the 50 had an approximately equal population? Well, it might look a little something like this map drawn by Neil Freeman and described as an electoral college reform proposal. In partisan terms, by packing so many liberals into incredibly lopsided urban states this concept would tilt the college in favor of the GOP. Nate Cohen, for example, has calculated that Mitt Romney would have won a narrow electoral college victory under this map in 2012, despite losing the popular vote by four percentage points. But there would be broader policy implications of creating several city-states that wouldn't be subordinated to state legislatures and would send their own urban-focused senators to Washington. This remapped America would have more non-white statewide elected officials, and give politics less of a pronounced regional schism.
A Russian professor's vision of US breakup
Russian professor Igor Panarin's 1998 prediction that the United States would break up by 2010 has been taken seriously in recent years in the Russian media (albeit with a revised timeline), especially a few years back when the US was reeling from the financial crisis and the Russian economy was riding high on a commodity price boom. "The US dollar isn't secured by anything," Panarin told Izvestia. "The country's foreign debt has grown like an avalanche; this is a pyramid which has to collapse." His idea was that after a period of chaos and civil war, the country would split into four pieces, each of which would be aligned with a different foreign power. The suggestion that Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina would naturally align with the northeastern states indicates a questionable level of familiarity with American society. But the sketch is an important window into the mentality of Russian hyper-nationalists and what they see as a realistic possible endgame for Russo-American geopolitical competition.
Obama's high-speed rail vision
The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $11 billion in funding to upgrade the speed and capacity of US intercity passenger rail. These modest though useful efforts, however, always intended to be the downpayment on something larger — a much more ambitious plan to build true high-speed rail connections from coast to coast. Something along those lines was announced in February of 2011 by Vice President Joe Biden, along with a request for $53 billion to start work. Given the prevailing politics of the time, the plan was dead on arrival in congress. What's more, though the plan proposes some real projects of merit, it also illustrates Amtrak's congenital weakness for spreading itself too thin. Service from Jacksonville to Columbia or Meridian to Birmingham or Little Rock to Texarkana helps build a broader political coalition, but there's little evidence of massive demand on these routes or the existence of overcrowded air corridors in need of relief.
There is no NAFTA Superhighway and there was never a plan to build one. There are, however, several highways that cross the US-Mexico border, several others that cross the US-Canada border, and quite a few north-south highways in the middle of the US. Various stakeholders sometimes seek support for expanding or improving these highways and parallel freight rail links. Somewhere when these plans entered the stew of mid-aughts chain email culture, they emerged as the NAFTA Superhighway. Jerome Corsi of "swift boat" fame stoked the flames with a 2006 Human Events article. These conspiracy theories on the right eventually merged with opposition to Texas Governor Rick Perry's (real) plans for a Trans-Texas Corridor, whereupon the theory gained new adherents on the left. On the right, meanwhile, things got bigger and the NAFTA Superhighway came to be seen as just one step in the longer-term plan to abolish American sovereignty and replace it with the insidious North American Union.
This late-1960s map depicts Robert Moses' plan to ruin New York City with a Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have destroyed a vast swathe of Soho to create a 10-lane highway connecting Brooklyn to New Jersey. The highway was not built and the area was eventually revitalized. During the mid-20th century, destroying the fabric of neighborhoods with intra-urban freeways that encouraged people to abandon central cities in favor of suburban living was all the rage. Manhattan was spared, but the Outer Boroughs were not, and most American cities are deeply scarred by freeway projects from this era. Meanwhile, the anti-development attitudes that served Lower Manhattan well in fighting the freeway were later put to use blocking new privately financed housing developments, contributing to an ever-growing crisis of housing scarcity.
Drain the East River
The invention of the automobile brought about the brand-new problem of traffic jams, and in 1924 Popular Science Monthly proposed one daring solution to New York City's woes — drain the east river. While a modern day dreamer might scheme of replacing the riverbed with affordable housing, the Jazz Age idea was to create what we'd nowadays recognize as an enormous freeway to sit between Manhattan and Brooklyn/Queens. City Hall and other monumental buildings could go in decked-over segments of the riverbed, but mostly it would be dedicated to automobile traffic. The plan, authored by John Harriss, a then-NYPD official charged with automobile traffic, called for the construction of two dams. One up by Hell's Gate would prevent water from the Hudson from flowing into the East River basin. The other, near where the Manhattan Bridge stands, would seal the riverbed at the other end.
The Qattara Depression, in Egypt, is a swathe of land about the size of Lake Ontario that sits near the Mediterrannean Sea, at an average depth of 200 meters below sea level. The Qattara Project was the brain child of a German hydrolic engineer named Friedrich Bassler who proposed digging a canal from the Mediterannean to flood the area. After about ten years, the water inside the depression would reach sea level. But the desert climate in the area would cause it to evaporate relatively rapidly, leading to a further influx of seawater. This ongoing flow was to be used to generate hydroelectricity. At the same time, the new, massive saline lake could transform a largely uninhabited desert area into a series of viable fishing communities. The part of the project where you dig a massive canal never penciled out as remotely cost-effective, but for some time the CIA maintained an interest in the project as part of its Cold War efforts to pull Egypt out of the Soviet orbit.
North American Water and Power Alliance
Alaska is too cold to be of much use to farmers, and much of America's warm, sunny landscape is on the dry side. In the 1950s, the US Army Corps of Engineers devised the only sensible solution — use "peaceful" nuclear explosions to divert several Alaskan rivers through the Rocky Mountain Trench into the Colorado and Yellowstone rivers, whence the extra water flow could be used to further bolster irrigation projects in the American southwest. The cost of the project was thought to be comparable in scope to the original construction of the Interstate Highway System, with the complicating factor that it would also require the cooperation of the Canadian government.
While Adolf Hitler dreamed of conquering vast new "living space" for the German people in eastern Europe (see Generalplan Ost above), architect Herman Sörgel had a more peaceful vision of opening up new space in the Mediterannean basin. To be clear, though Sörgel thought of this as an alternative to military conflict among European states, the Atlantropa scheme was still massively racist and involved the idea that substantially draining the Mediterannean would facilitate European colonial domination of Africa. The basic plan called for the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam at the Straights of Gibraltar that would provide Europe with a huge supply of clean electricity. The dam — in conjunction with subsidiary dams near Sicily and Turkey — would also be used to lower the level of the sea. This would expose substantial new swathes of new land available for agriculture and human settlement. The plan also called for an extension of the Suez Canal to keep the lines of commerce open. Rather touchingly, Sörgel also had a soft spot for Venice's scenic qualities and wanted a special canal to be built to keep the city watery even as the bulk of the Adriatic dried up.
The partition of Palestine
A 1947 commission appointed by the United Nations drew this map to create a pathway for the end of British mandate rule over Palestine, and its replacement by two independent states, one Jewish and one Arab, as well as a special international zone around Jerusalem. Land was split about fifty-fifty even though Arabs outnumbered Jews by about 2:1 in the area. The map attempted to simultaneously respect existing settlement patterns, create room for a foreseen influx of new Jewish refugees from Europe, and also respect religious sensibilities regarding the Jerusalem area. The resulting plan would have created two very unusual states, with the Arab population divided into three barely-touching sectors plus an exclave around Jaffa. Israel, too, would have been divided in three, though with its population concentrated in the coastal plain. Jerusalem and Bethlehem, meanwhile, were to have constituted a "corpus separatum" under international administration. Jewish leaders accepted the plan, as did most UN member states. Arab states rejected it. Israel declared independence and in the ensuing war with its Arab neighbors captures considerably more land than it would have been allocated under the UN scheme.
The United Provinces of South America
As Spanish rule over Latin America became unviable after Napoleon's conquest of the Spanish Empire's European homeland, it was by no means clear what shape the successor entities in the Western Hemisphere would take. Toward the southern end of Spanish America, one early proposed state was the United Provinces of South America, also known as the United Provinces of Rio de la Plata, maked here in blue. Politically speaking, this entity was centered on the port of Buenos Aires, just like modern-day Argentina. But it did not include much of the then-unsettled Pampas region, and extended north and west into a considerable portion of what's nowadays Bolivia. The proponents of the United Provinces also claimed modern-day Uruguay as well as territory that's currently in the hands of Brazil. The authorities in Buenos Aires were never able to effectively control the territory they claimed and the proto-state was wracked by constant civil war as well as conflict with Brazil. By 1828 or so, things had taken more or less their current form.
The invasion of Iraq and the later Civil War in Syria have allowed the Kurdish populations of those countries to obtain a large degree of autonomy. But the sovereign and united Kurdish state that activists and ethnic leaders have been campaigning for since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire has never come together. This map highlights several different proposals over the years for what Kurdistan might look like. The Treaty of Sèvres was a plan by the World War One victors to carve up much of present-day Turkey. Kemal Ataturk's revolution in the Turkish homeland and successful military campaigns prevented it from ever being implemented. Note that the green-shaded "Kurdish inhabited areas" on this map are also inhabited by non-Kurds, including some areas (the Iraqi city of Mosul, for example) that are majority non-Kurdish even while containing a large Kurdish population.
Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon drew this map using historical research into the location of 13th-century ethnic and tribal groups in Africa, and pictured them as if they were 20th-century nation-states with firm fixed boundaries. PhD student Rachel Strohm argues it's an interesting window into the question of what Africa might look like had it not been colonized by western powers. Real world African political boundaries tend to follow neither an ethnic logic nor to trace natural features of the geography. Instead you have a patchwork of European claims plus a series of diplomatic compromises between European powers who had no particular concern for the lives of the people whose fate they were deciding. Cyon's version of Africa has more states — reflecting the continent's considerable diversity — and many fewer straight lines as national boundaries. It's also "upside down" with south over north, in a play on the ways in which European military power ended up shaping our perceptions of the world. The actual geography of the planet gives us no guidance on which way is "up." The north on top convention comes directly from power politics.
Fantasy Political Reforms