A few months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the U.S. Information Agency produced a commemorative film, Years of Lightning/Day of Drums. The narration concluded with these words:
Some day, there will come a time when the early 1960s will be a very long time ago.”
In 2013 the world will note the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death — November 22, 1963 — and today, the early 1960s are truly a very long time ago.
And people still ask: What would the world be like today if Kennedy has escaped death on that fateful day in Dallas?
Writers of “virtual history” – where the what ifs of history are examined to find alternative outcomes to real events – have produced books envisioning a world where the Nazis won World War II, and an America where the South won the Civil War.
On the wall of my office hangs the papier-mâché matrix from which the front page of The Toronto Telegram was printed the day of the assassination. The headline reads, KENNEDY SHOT, DIES. Each time I glance at this now historic artifact the thought is renewed in my mind: “What if Kennedy had lived?”
The pursuit of this thought led me into the arena of virtual history, and has resulted in my new, short e-book, “Kennedy After Dallas: JFK’s Return to the White House for an Epochal 2nd Term.”
While I am admirer of John F. Kennedy and revere his memory, I have not attempted to portray an idealized version of the man, free of faults and absent of mistakes.
In speculating on what might have transpired had Kennedy not been killed, I have built on the historical record of his administration to project the logical outcome of policies set in motion by JFK before Dallas.
For example. JFK had shown considerable skepticism about the wisdom of U.S. military policy and had expressed his apprehension about the consequences of another Bay of Pigs or Cuban missile crisis.
For example, there was the time when he walked out of a meeting of his National Security Council as it debated the merits of a preemptive first strike on the Soviet Union. “And we call ourselves the human race,” he said later to his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk.
If Kennedy had lived, history would have unfolded differently. Our narrative sets out the alternative reality that would almost assuredly come to pass had fate allowed JFK to return to the White House after Dallas.
Across a range of areas — foreign policy, civil rights, civil liberties, outer space — JFK set in motion attitude and ideas that would after his death come to be accepted as conventional wisdom.
“The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city.” he says in Years of Lightning/Day of Drums. It was a recognition of an unwelcome truth in a demonstration of realpolitic that has been unmatched by any succeeding president.
Vietnam, of course, was the greatest challenge of the Kennedy years and those that followed. Would he have done things differently if he had lived?
Vietnam was already a divided country when Kennedy took office in 1961. The old French colony of Indochina had been cut in half – communist and non-communist – at the Geneva peace conference of 1954.
In a debate in the Senate that year, young Senator Kennedy set out the view that would guide his future presidency. It would be “dangerously futile and self-destructive,” he declared, “to pour money, materials and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory.”
Less than three months before his death, Kennedy told newscaster Walter Cronkite: “In the final analysis it’s their war. They’re the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors but they have to win it. The people of Vietnam against the communists … I don’t think the war can be won unless the people support the effort …”
There was a quicker and cheaper way out of Vietnam than that which was finally followed by the United states. I am convinced JFK would have found it, and Kennedy After Dallas describes how it might have come about.
A reviewer of my book has challenged me on what Kennedy would have done to inquire into the attempt on his death. The reviewer suggests he would have gone all out to find out who was behind the actions of Lee Oswald Harvey, and suggests it might have been Lyndon B. Johnson. I do not accept that judgement, not because I think Johnson incapable of leading such a murderous mission, but because I believe Kennedy’s commitment to the sanctity of the American political system would have deterred him from seeking such an earth-shaking explanation.
Kennedy had a strong fatalistic streak. On the day after the settlement of the Cuban missile crisis, he told his brother, “This is the night I should go to the theater.” He left on his desk a slip of paper on which he had written a line from a prayer of Abraham Lincoln: “I know there is a God – and I see a storm coming. If he has a place for me, I believe that I am ready.”