This question is directly related to my last: What would be the impact of a modern programmer and laptop being dropped into World War II, possibly breaking Enigma? Where a young programer, and laptop. is somehow accidentally sent back to early WW2 time.

The problem is that the protagonist is a quasi-pacifist (not oppose to all war, willing to agree that WW2 probably has to happen now that Hitler is in power, but still is very uneasy supporting the war). He would rather focus on progressing science, quality of life, and pushing the government towards more progressive/modern policies, particularly in terms of civil rights and treatment of others.

He will get attention for himself by mentioning he could break Enigma with little effort, drawing the attention of the military. However, he tries hard to push towards using the laptop for non-military proposes, or trading it's military use for some other positive policy being enacted. For instance I'm almost certain he would try to exchange the ability to do code breaking for minimizing or stopping the Japanese Internment camps that he sees as a shameful black mark on US history. The question is could he make 'trades' like this?

This involves a few questions. First, how does he keep the government from just taking his computer and tossing him out when he becomes a nuisance? He will claim to have placed hooks in the OS, so that if he doesn't get occasional unsupervised access to 'defuse' them the computer it will lock itself or wipe the harddrive. The truth is he doesn't know how to do this, it's a bluff to try to discourage the laptop being taken away from him.

He's also the only programmer they have. The loss of his programing and computer expertise would greatly limit the usefulness of the laptop, though they could eventually figure out how to write code on it themselves. The government could try to bully him into writing code, but he has pointed out it's quit easy for him to lie about what can or can't be done, work at a slow down, provide false results, or just run an application that fries the computer by overclocking it, having someone doing such important work uncooperative is dangerous.

How much bargaining power could he reasonably have in a situation like this? Could anyone make as massive a promise as to cut back or stop the Japaneses internment camps, or is the government simply too big for any party to be able to follow through with something like that? What bargaining chips could someone high up in the government who is desperate for his support of the war effort offer that they could actually gaurentee? How far could someone like our time traveler push before the government of WW2 era would likely stop bargaining and start strong arming?

Keep in mind he would likely mildly alienate those involved in the war effort with his different world views. He is offended and tries hard to argue against the racist cartoons/propaganda against jap and German people, which, combined with his more pacifist view to the war effort, would make some see him as an enemy sympathizer, or perhaps just foolishly naive. Culture clash over other topics, like civil rights, smoking, and sex/sexuality, could also occur.

He also has to deal with the fact that anyone who hasn't seen his laptop in action will never believe he is a time traveler, and even those that have often suspect he got it from some group with advanced technology as being more believable then time travel. He may try "the future will look back and be ashamed of this action", but not everyone will believe that's true.

In this scenario the programer has very limited interest or knowledge of History in general, and particularly knows very little of the war due to his pacifist nature causing him to avoid listening to or learning about war history. What history he does know is more of a cause->effect concept, but he can never remember dates or time frames. As such he has limited historical knowledge which could be of any use directly in the war effort. He knows D-day, pearl harbor, and maybe midway happened, but not when, and not too much about how. He knows more about non-war history, particularly history of science and computers, but still nothing too specialized. I may have him be more aware/interested in internet and history of it's development, as something he may to try to push them towards developing sooner.

He fell through time while walking to college, and as such has with him his backpack and school supplies. This includes his laptop, one Graphing Calculator, and a cheap smart phone who's battery ran out very shortly after arriving. The Graphing calculator is in some ways more useful then the laptop, because it's much easier to teach scientists how to use it without having to go through him, but at the same time that also makes it much harder to keep the government from just taking it and using it without his permission.

His backpack could also have 1-2 textbooks, of whatever subject I decide it's reasonable and interesting for him to have. The books will not include "history of WW2" or anything too 'game breaking', but I'm keeping open the possibility of having a book which is somewhat relevant if it makes the story interesting. Computer Networking, some civil rights-related course, and basket weaving 101 are all possible textbook topics :)

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    $\begingroup$ The graphing calculator may also have a limited lifespan, as AAA batteries (which most graphing calculators run on) were not introduced until 9 years after WWII ended. I'm sure the invention period of those could be pushed up...especially if you gave the dead batteries over to scientists to reverse engineer. And the smartphone could be recharged if someone could figure out how to make a USB cable so he can plug it into the laptop... $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ even without aaa batteries its still possible to hack a powersource $\endgroup$
    – Jorge Aldo
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ Reverse engineering any of the chips is not really an option. We just didn't have the tech to do so. Modern circuits are so small you would need a microscope to view them, and they make some use of layers. And the overall architecture is so vast and complex that no human actually understands them on a physical level, we use computer algorithms to design them. That said, maybe you could get something from the hard disk drive or other parts by disassembling it. $\endgroup$
    – Bryon
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ As far as supplying power, rigging a replacement for batteries is easy, they should even list the voltage on their label. Any clever electrician could handle it. The phone is only a bit more challenging, because USB is fairly simple. Some careful experimenting and they should be able to do it. Just have to hope they don't accidentally apply too much power to the wrong place and fry it. $\endgroup$
    – Bryon
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 17:20
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    $\begingroup$ Running out of power isn't a good way to take the smartphone out - as pointed out, too easy to rig a power supply. If you want something more believable, why not have him in the middle of texting when he falls through time, is shocked by the world around him changing, drops the smartphone and it is irreparably broken? $\endgroup$
    – LeBleu
    Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 17:59

3 Answers 3


He's actually got a lot of power in this situation, owing almost entirely to the fact that he is literally the only man on the planet capable of operating his laptop. At least in the time frame the military would want it used in (i.e. immediately). On the other hand, he's completely at the government's mercy in terms of whether or not what he thinks he's getting in return is actually even happening.

Code-breaking is only one of many ways such a powerful tool could be used: he could, for instance, quickly and easily collect and index in the one device all information about known enemy troop deployments and movements, and with just a few keystrokes provide detailed analyses to intelligence officials that would normally have taken them days -- if not weeks -- of poring through paper files to come up with. That's a huge asymmetrical advantage to the US, being able to analyze enemy troop dispositions far more quickly than their enemies can analyze theirs, and handing that information to the right strategic minds lets the US quickly take advantage of weaknesses while avoiding strong points and ambushes.

He will claim to have placed hooks in the OS, so that if he doesn't get occasional unsupervised access to 'defuse' them the computer it will lock itself or wipe the harddrive. The truth is he doesn't know how to do this, it's a bluff to try to discourage the laptop being taken away from him.

Of course he does! Anyone who can reasonably be called a programmer knows how to set up "deadman switches" and other traps in a computer that could wipe it at the first sign of unauthorized access. He'd be very unlikely to know how to do it in a way that could thwart modern day experts (or even his own colleagues), but he wouldn't need to -- simply dragging a file to the Recycle Bin and then emptying it is plenty to make it irrecoverable to even the top minds of the day, even though modern-day experts can easily recover such a file without even batting an eye.

Remember, the folks of this era don't know the "tricks" you and I take for granted, like Alt-Tab'ing out of programs or Ctrl-Alt-Del to get to Task Manager and killing programs. He wouldn't even have to worry about full-disk encryption, since there's zero chance the best minds of this era could even defeat the venerable Windows Login Screen, a mild annoyance at best to anyone today trying to access a computer.

The loss of his programing and computer expertise would greatly limit the usefulness of the laptop, though they could eventually figure out how to write code on it themselves.

If by "eventually" you mean decades later to come up with even the most trivial of programs -- well after the war was over anyway -- then yes, you're right. In all likelihood the original dawn of the Computer Age would occur before they make serious inroads on figuring out this laptop on their own, though of course once they do it will greatly accelerate technological progress.

Now, if his backpack includes "Programming 101", that could accelerate efforts to cut him out of the picture and put the laptop itself into direct service of the war effort -- but even the most hard-headed pro-war military officer would know full well that they'd get much further much faster with the programmer's help than without it.

Could anyone make as massive a promise as to cut back or stop the Japaneses internment camps, or is the government simply too big for any party to be able to follow through with something like that?

The President would almost certainly get involved at some point. He would be, after all, the US's most important military asset. And with the President's backing, things like an end to the internment camps could indeed be promised with the power to be followed through on.

Whether or not they actually would, however...

What bargaining chips could someone high up in the government who is desperate for his support of the war effort offer that they could actually gaurentee?

They'd offer him all sorts of creature comforts: A big house, a government spending account so large he'd have a hard time spending it all, a veritable army of aides to see to his every need, etc. And of course a security detail to rival that of the President's own, because this one guy is arguably the most important military asset at the US's disposal.

If he's as principled as you suggest, however, he may actually turn these carrots down (or at least some of them), and instead demand concessions like an end to the internment camps and a promise to never use the nukes. Whether or not these are genuinely offered is another matter...

How far could someone like our time traveler push before the government of WW2 era would likely stop bargaining and start strong arming?

Honestly I doubt they'd do much overt strong-arming at all. Like you said, it's far too easy for him to simply refuse to help them, or to provide false information or deliberately work more slowly. And in many cases they'd have no way of knowing. "I'm sorry, sir, but searching a million database records for one keyword is a time-consuming process. I'm sure it will be done within the next 20 or 30 hours, though."1

What they would do, however, when his demands become too much for them to stomach, is to mount a campaign of deception and propaganda against him. By controlling what he can see on the television and creating custom-written newspapers just for him, they could trivially convince him that they've honored his requests. They could write stories about how a broken code lead to the bloodless surrendering of an entire company of Nazi soldiers (when the truth is that the broken code allowed the Allies to surprise them and slaughter them to the last man); he could read about the end of the Japanese-American internment camps and the official apologies and reparations paid to its victims (when in reality nothing changed with the program); he might see television broadcasts announcing the capitulation of Japan after Hitler's surrender, when the truth is that he's watching actors reading from a script while Japan is being nuked following Hitler's suicide.

He's just one man. He has no connections in the present era. The military could easily control access to him under the guise that they're protecting him (actually not really a guise, they would be) and thus easily control what information reaches him. It's not like he can just hop on the internet and find out the truth -- if the television, newspapers, and people around him are all telling him that his efforts are contributing to less bloodshed and Allied victory, he'd happily redouble his efforts on behalf of the US military!

Cue the dramatic turning point of the story when someone breaks the rules and tells him he's been Truman Show'd, that everything he thought was true has been a lie all along, and that the reality is that with his help Axis casualties have tripled while none of the improvements at home he demanded ever actually happened...

The graphing calculator would be pretty trivial for the mathematicians of the day to figure out how to use, but on the other hand it wouldn't give them a whole lot of advantage. Not a single a calculator, and certainly not on balance against the huge advantage embodied by the programmer and his laptop. Batteries for it wouldn't be an issue -- once they die, all you need is to hard-wire in a simple 4.5V or 6V power supply (depending on whether it's 3 or 4 batteries -- I've seen both configurations, depending on model), pretty simple even in WWII, just not as portable as AA batteries.

Similarly, the smart phone would be of little use. Nifty "wow" factor, and once he hacks together (or has someone of the era build) a basic power source for it (really, not hard even in WWII to produce 5V @1A, plenty to power and even recharge the device) he'll be able to fill his downtime with Angry Birds again, but the real power of smart phones comes from their connectivity -- and without that, it's of little more use than the graphing calculator, and certainly a lot less use than the laptop.

1 For those unaware, a million records is a small database, and a simple search for a single keyword would take a fraction of a second on even low-end hardware today.

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    $\begingroup$ Also to note: These are all excellent points, and he would be of even more use AFTER the war in which the Space Race begins. Not only would he be an enormous military asset, but would turn into something of a national treasure. Keep in mind, the moon landing was accomplished with a computer that was little better than a modern day calculator. Imagine a program in which physics concepts are implemented and calculated, or maybe (possibly depending on if he's a gamer), Kerbal Space Program is installed! $\endgroup$
    – Anoplexian
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Anoplexian I actually think it would be very amusing to offer to help the space race by suggesting NASA employees start playing Kerbal Space Program. Not familiar enough with it to say rather it's emulation of real physics, while good, is good enough to be useful for sanity checking anything though. It's just an amusing scene I would want to see happen :) $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 20:28
  • $\begingroup$ "there's zero chance the best minds of this era could even defeat the venerable Windows Login Screen" He is a software engineer and a passivist. Rubber Tube + Time will defeat the windows login screen. $\endgroup$
    – Questor
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 20:43

How do they do it?

I don't believe programming skill is enough to bargin for change. During early WW2 era, the allies could have called in people like Alan Turing, John von Neumann, Grace Hopper or even Albert Einstein to examine your claims and technology.

My experience (as a programmer who has briefly taught one young genius), is that a few minutes showing how to get a compile, run, observe, development cycle working, is that a very good mathematician of the era could out perform the young programmer very quickly, making the knowledge of programming and of the modern technology of little value to people like Turing.

Which leaves me with social engineering.

The time traveler could freely volunteer everything they know, help and handover the devices. All this would build credence. There would be no counter evidence if they then used this standing to talk to people about their legacy and how the future will view them. Imagine if you could talk to Turing about how gay rights had changed within your time? Or Einstein about the history of the holocaust?.

Things like those internment camps? They stemmed from what some (not all), thought was the best thing to do at the time. With your basic knowledge - you can simply state they achieved little and that post imperial Japan quickly becomes an ally. I suspect with that knowledge they would not bother to spend the time and money on pointless activities like the camps; when they would be very busy focusing on nuclear power, ballistic missiles, guidence systems, building computers and so much more...

  • $\begingroup$ Gay rights in your time won't mean jack to Turing, unless you offer to take him. Post Imperial Japan was and is an American protectorate forbidden to have nukes or a navy. Japan fought to the death very often, since they were convinced that the Americans would kill them as prisoners, which is not an unreasonable concern, given what America had done in the Philippines, or to the natives in America, or to the blacks, or the Chinese. Sure they did much the same thing, but it's always different when it's you. 2 Nukes as well. $\endgroup$
    – chiggsy
    Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 11:13

I'd be very worried if my pacifist programmer friend was sent in the conditions you describe during the war. He would have to be extremely fast at proving he (and only he) can provide significant help to the country. Well, either extremely fast OR in a way that puts him in a situation of power. Read "blackmail the authorities of the country". Not to extort any money of course, but just to garantee his own safety and freedom.

How far could someone like our time traveler push before the government of WW2 era would likely stop bargaining and start strong arming?

My view on this one is the exact opposite of Kromey. That would be almost instantaneous. Your programmer just arrived here, has contacted them on his initiative (they didn't send someone to pick him up). They will assume he's a patriot coming to help his country. They will not take it lightly when he starts to make requests in exchange of his help. Except for maybe two types of request which the generals might understand and agree to "consider":

  • Money: Even if you're not greedy yourself, you know the world is full of them so nobody would be surprised by such a request. The rest of the negotiations would just turn around the final amount.
  • Emotional: "Please help my wife and children still stuck in Poland" or similar. They would understand it is important for you so they'd probably promise to "do something about it" to get your cooperation.

Any other request type, if they cannot understand why it is important for you, will make them suspicious and on the defensive. (pacifist request might be very important for your programmer, but a general in the middle of a conflict is not ready to appreciate that).

If the war is started, the authorities of the country you land in do not have the same thought process as in peace time. A lot of the main and first concerns are military. How can I finish this war as quickly as I can. What can I do to get an edge on the enemy and what can I do to protect against the opposite. The civilian concerns comes next. Of course they also want to protect their population, organise the food banks etc, but they accept in their mind that not ALL of the population can be saved, there will be casualties ... for the cause. Even in our so called "developped countries", in times of war the value of an individual life is nowwhere near where it is in time of peace, and is nearly nothing if put in balance against several or many other lifes.

Now imagine your programmer arriving there, and starting to try to trade promises of great benefits/helps against ... whatever actually. The risk here is to try to trade with someone in position of power over you. Remember you are at war. Many generals, or military oriented politicians, might simply tell him: "You are a patriot, then do this for us, or else you are a traitor". Sure the programmer can decide to go on a hunger strike in the bottom of his cell and not do any computing work for them ... but that's assuming that they'd put him in a comfortable full board jail. Torture has been used all over the world since it's beginning, and do not ever think your government (whichever country you're from) has never used some form of it. All these people in power, not affraid to loose an individual life for their cause, with the chance of getting a formidable boost ... I'd be very worried that they'd just lean on him until he breaks or he agrees to help.

Reader: Ok, but what about:

The loss of his programing and computer expertise would greatly limit the usefulness of the laptop

True! But they do not know yet what they are loosing. A simple one time demonstration would not be enough to convince everyone that the benefit of him+laptop are tremendous, or that it's repeatable, or that it's not an elaborate trick. They would need repeat results over time to appreciate the value of it. Time your programmer might not have if he come into negotiation too strong too early.

Now as said in the beginning, that's likely if he tries to trade before showing his superiority. So if he somehow manage to get his hand on an encrypted message and decode it, or any other feature that can be recognised by the authorities as something extraordinary (not something common in their time), then he has better bargaining chip to begin with. He will still need to also convince them that only him can operate/achieve whatever feat he did to convince them.

But even then, it is not garanteed. Remember nobody believes in time travel until they actually time travel or see someone doing it. The authorities in 1939 didn't think that time travel existed, so it might not be easy to convince them you are actually coming from the future. They still might think you're just a crazy lunatic/scientist and all the gears in your backpack are "advanced" but comtemporary to them. If they think it's contemporary, then they probably also think that they can operate/reverse engineer anything you've got with the help of all the great minds they just happen to have available. Whether they could actually do it or not is not relevant, the point is if they do not see your particular value, then you're just a speck of dust in the middle of a battlefield and you are completely disposable, not a good position to trade (specially with pacifist requests to a militarized government right in the middle of a conflict).

So for me his best bet would be to fully collaborate from the start, not making any request yet, and abiding happily to what he is asked for. At least for a while. Basically he'd have to turn a blind eye to his convictions for a few months. Once he's been judged collaborative and useful, he will get a status similar to the great scientist recruted at the time. This will allow him to voice his convictions again, but not necessarily to get his request granted yet. Many of the scientists had freedom of movement, but for some it was very conditional to their participation (and still somewhat limited).

Basically, do not try to bargain hard with a government already at war. They'll have very limited patience to foolhardy requests (pacifist requests when we just entered a war!!), and in times of war individual rights are lessened so ... play at your own risks.


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