What If Kennedy Had Lived? with a Second Term, JFK Would Have Diverted the US from a Series of Catastrophes

Article excerpt

Fraud of Distance--Fraud of Danger,
Fraud of Death--to bear--
It is Bounty--to Suspense's
Vague Calamity--

Staking our entire Possession
On a Hair's result--
Then--Seesawing--coolly--on it--
Trying if it split--

Emily Dickinson

On 22 November 2013, America and the world will observe the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy's assassination. The media coverage of the anniversary will no doubt prove that, alas, people still find the circumstances of Kennedy's death far more interesting than the achievements of his presidency. Dallas will become Graceland. JFK might just as well have been Elvis.



For the first quarter-century or so after JFK's murder, insensitive cynics sometimes remarked that having been assassinated was a great posthumous career move for Kennedy. They were wrong. The bizarre, still incompletely solved assassination has focused succeeding generations on the Kennedy fluff factor--all the hearsay and gossip involved in establishing JFK and his relatives as the unofficial American "royal family". To most, Dallas was tragic because he and his wife and children were beautiful, young and cool.

But to understand the significance of JFK's assassination, we need to move beyond the fluff and into a deep analysis of what he actually did and did not do as president. Here's the headline: his death was an Olympian tragedy because the United States and the world lost a leader whose number-one priority was to keep his nation out of war, including the possibility of a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union. Moreover, he proved during his 1,036 days in the White House that he had the backbone to face down his hawkish advisers who, on at least six occasions, recommended he take the nation to war.

The big what-if

It is the most tantalising what-ifin the history of US foreign policy: if JFK had survived Dallas, if he had been re-elected in November 1964, if he had remained healthy enough to serve out the second term through 20 January 1969--if these conditions had been met, what might JFK have decided in matters of war and peace? We believe a careful consideration of such a hypothetical scenario is important, but are also aware that the exploration involves both opportunities and risks.

On the one hand, something fundamental is missing from histories that lack reference to paths not taken, decisions not made, or histories that seem almost, but not quite, to have happened. Such histories seem to us sanitised, unreal, lacking in the contingency and uncertainty of historical moments as they pass by, one by one, full of anxiety and (sometimes) regret for those bearing the burden of responsibility.

History without an edgy contingency is bound to be uninteresting, and the drawing of lessons will make no sense, if it is assumed that what happened was bound to happen. Most of us believe intuitively that things could have been different and, in addition, we instinctively search for lessons we might draw from history.

On the other hand, there are risks in what-if history. As often practised, it is little more than a literary parlour game, in which the objective is principally to showcase the cleverness of whomever is spinning the counterfactual tale. The storyline is composed mostly of fictitious events, made seemingly out of thin air.

A previous project of ours, Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived (released as a film in 2008, published as a book in 2009), examined in some detail the distinction between counterfactual history, whose purpose, with few exceptions, is purely to entertain, and virtual history, which can yield important insights into history as it happened, and can lead to lessons applicable to the present and future. Virtual history requires the historian to move more deeply into the experience of a historical character (or characters) and/or events of interest. The focus is on what happened, how what happened forms a recognisable pattern, and why it makes sense to project that pattern cautiously into an account of the subsequent history that did not happen, but perhaps could have happened. …