Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: General — Rick Moran @ 7:26 am

What if John F. Kennedy had lived?

Such questions used to be the province of novelists. Only recently have historians begun to take such questions seriously.

As Niall Ferguson points out in his remarkable book “Virtual History” these “what if” questions or counterfactuals were considered little more than a parlor game until it became clear that scholars could, in fact, measure some of the impact one man or one event had on the historical timeline. (This book is a must read for its introduction alone which, in 90 pages, covers the history of historical philosophy in the western world from the time of Homer.)

This kind of alternative history is always fun. Let’s begin with a few basic alternative scenarios involving Oswald.

1. Suppose Roy Truly, Oswald’s employer at the book depository, had known or been told by the FBI that Oswald had been a defector? Oswald would have been fired and thus prevented from using the book depository as a sniper’s perch.

2. Suppose Oswald’s wife Marina hadn’t rejected his attempt at reconciliation the night before the assassination? This one’s sort of a stretch, but it’s clear Oswald was despondent over his failure to patch up his marriage. Marina also certainly would have made Oswald promise not to do “anything crazy” as she termed the attempted assassination of General Walker.

3. Suppose the FBI had told the secret service that Oswald was in Dallas? Agent Hosty of the FBI never thought of informing the secret service that Oswald was a threat. His reason? He didn’t know Oswald had left his job at the photo lab (which was nowhere near the motorcade route) and went to work at the book depository.

4. Suppose any one of several witnesses who saw Oswald in the 6th floor window of the depository had told a policeman or the secret service prior to the motorcade’s arrival in Dealy Plaza? Oswald sat in full view of the crowd below sighting his rifle for more than 20 minutes prior to the assassination. All the witnesses assumed he was a secret service agent.

What about Kennedy and his aides?

1. Suppose the Kennedy people had decided not to have the luncheon Kennedy was on his way to at the Dallas Trade Mart? There were two other possibilities that were rejected. If they had held the event somewhere else, Kennedy would have avoided the ambush.

2. Suppose Kennedy hadn’t gone to Dallas in the first place? John Connally didn’t want Kennedy interfering in the ongoing war he was waging against the liberal wing of the Texas Democratic Party and his nemeses Rep. Henry Gonzalez. Connally (among others) urged Kennedy not to go.

3. Suppose Secret Service Agent Roy Kellerman had floored the limo after hearing the second shot hit the President? The bullet, which entered Kennedy’s back and exited right below his adams apple was serious but not fatal. Kellerman had almost four seconds between that shot and the third and fatal shot. Instead of speeding up, Kellerman slowed to about 6 miles an hour giving Oswald an almost stationary target 88 yards away. Kennedy’s head looked as big as a pumpkin in Oswald’s telescopic sight. He could hardly have missed.

This is all well and good. But what if Kennedy had lived?

Conventional wisdom is that we wouldn’t have gotten bogged down in Viet Nam and that civil rights legislation would have moved through the Congress earlier. This assumes that Kennedy would have won the 1964 election against Goldwater. But, is all of that true?

1. There is a myth that Kennedy was enormously popular at the time of his death and would, like Johnson, have buried Goldwater in 1964. Both suppositions are wrong. Kennedy’s approval rating was at barely 50% in November of 1963. And the entire purpose of his going to Texas was to patch up the political feuds that threatened to give the state to Republicans in 1964. It seems probable that Goldwater, who ended up being very competitive in the south against Johnson would have had a real shot at cutting into what, at the time, was a solid base of support for the Democrats in the old confederacy. Couple that with the loss of the “sympathy vote” Johnson got in 1964 and all of a sudden Goldwater looks like a serious competitor.

2. No myth has been more resilient than the belief that, if Kennedy had lived, America wouldn’t have gotten bogged down in Viet Nam. Kennedy apologists have advanced this theory for years. Unfortunately, history tells a different story.

First, if Kennedy had tried to withdraw from South Viet Nam after the election, his own party would have turned against him. All the major committees in Congress (yes, ALL of them) were chaired by Southern Democrats. At the very least, these southerners would have demanded some kind of quid pro quo on civil rights in return for Kennedy sticking it out in Viet Nam.

In addition, whoever was President in the Spring of 1965 would have faced the same decision that President Johnson faced; the imminent collapse of the South Vietnamese military in the face of communist aggression. Such a clear defeat of a US ally would not have been tolerated by the American people at the time and would have handed Republicans an election winning issue in 1968.

3. Detente with the Russians. This “what if” is cited most often by conspiracy buffs when trying to pin the assassination on the CIA or the military. Frankly, I can’t imagine where this kind of liberal fantasy came from. The fact is that John Kennedy was the best friend the CIA and the military ever had (until Reagan). He gave the CIA absolute carte blanche in wide swaths of the world including Latin America and Viet Nam. He almost DOUBLED the defense budget in less than 4 years.

And as far as detente with Russia, this is the President that said at his inaugural that “we will bear any burden, pay any price” in the cause of freedom. Kennedy was, in fact, the coldest of cold warriors. And while the Cuban missile crisis sobered him somewhat, he never the less made it clear that he would confront Soviet expansionism wherever he could.

4. How serious was Kennedy about civil rights? The history of the Kennedy administration and civil rights was one of reaction. Kennedy’s proposals were only made after Birmingham made it clear that the civil rights movement was determined to achieve equality. His somewhat modest proposals were in fact expanded by Lyndon Johnson and presented to the country as part of JFK’s legacy. It remains one of the great mysteries of the Kennedy administration as to whether or not Kennedy could in fact have even gotten his modest proposals through the Congress. Johnson’s legendary lobbying prowess would have been not have been utilized to the fullest if one were to go by how the administration used Johnson in the first term.

Now, wasn’t that fun? Send me an email or leave a comment if you have any other interesting “what ifs” about Kennedy. I’ll post as many as I can.


  1. Best of Me Symphony #64
    Those moronic, patchouli perfumed poseurs who picked up the mantle when the first wave started getting bent and gray and retreated to the halls of academe have been beaten into the dustbin.

    Trackback by The Owner's Manual — 2/21/2005 @ 12:01 am

  2. If JFK had lived, Bobby Baker and Billie Sol Estes would have taken LBJ down with them, and Hoover would have been forced to retire in 1965. Speculating about JFK surviving an assassination attempt makes the what-if scenario so endless, it’s impossible to speculate.

    I personally think Kennedy would have sought the middle ground in Vietnam as he did in Laos (trying to broker a coalition) and Cuba (using the quarantine rather than invade) and Berlin (accepting the construction of the wall). All of those things would not have hurt JFK in 1964. They were all too far away for Americans to care about and Cuba although close was lost during a Republican administration.

    Kennedy even after losing Vietnam could make the point that Americans were still free even if others around the world were not and that there was therefore hope for freedom for all the world not just for the Americans. If someone says, yeh, that’s in spite of Kennedy, so be it. The problems Kennedy was dealing with existed before him, during him, and after him, as is the case for any President whether liberal or conservative.

    Comment by Jeff Cody — 11/13/2005 @ 1:03 am

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