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60 Years After JFK’s Assassination: What Might Have Happened Had He Lived

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What We Know

There was a sense of optimism about the prospects for peace.

After a nail-biting, but peaceful, resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was determined to find a way out of the Cold War. He had run for president in 1960 as a defense hawk, raising the specter of a (nonexistent) “missile gap” with the Soviet Union, and had backed the disastrous Bay of Pigs assault on Fidel Castro’s Cuba, which had allied with the Soviet communists.

But in June of 1963, he’d given a speech arguing that it was time to “reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union.” A few months later, Washington and Moscow agreed to a limited, nuclear test ban and more than two-thirds of the Senate voted to ratify it. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” JFK said, quoting a Chinese proverb. But it was a notable step for a generation that had spent schooldays crouching under their desks to prepare for a nuclear attack.

In 1963, the U.S. economy was in a golden age.

Fifteen years after World War II had left America as the only real economic superpower, the numbers told an enviable story: Unemployment was at 5 percent and declining; the inflation rate was 1.2 percent; real economic growth was 4.4 percent, and that year’s budget forecast predicted a modest surplus of $500 million.

The big debate at the time was whether to enact Kennedy’s proposed tax cut to spur further economic growth. (Republicans thought it a reckless budget-buster and resisted.)

Kennedy’s reelection prospects were at real risk.

Forget about the posthumous icon he became. Despite the booming economy and the easing international tensions, Kennedy was facing a serious reelection contest. At the center of his challenges? Race. After two years of diffident efforts on civil rights — in part because segregationist Democratic committee chairs held his agenda hostage in Congress — he had thrown himself behind a serious civil rights bill in the wake of violent police attacks on peaceful protesters. That triggered a furious reaction in the South, and in September of 1963, a Gallup Poll showed that in the 11 states of the former Confederacy, Barry Goldwater was beating JFK by a 59-41 margin.

But the tensions over race were not confined to the South. Violent crime rates were beginning to rise in the big cities; fights over (de facto) segregated schools were erupting in places like New York and Boston, where “preserving neighborhoods” was becoming a potent political force. Fears that integration would depress property values caused the voters of Seattle and Berkeley to repeal fair-housing laws in their cities. A September Gallup Poll revealed that more than half the electorate thought Kennedy was pushing “too hard” on civil rights.

In the one meeting that JFK and his political team held to look at the forthcoming campaign before he was killed, Kennedy had suggested a theme inspired by Michael Harrington’s book about poverty, “The Other America.” An ambitious effort to tackle poverty, he thought, might unite rural whites and urban blacks. No, one adviser countered, you need to be seen with policemen and working the suburbs.

There was, however, one issue that could conceivably override the race question: peace. In a swing through the West, Kennedy’s reference to the nuclear test ban treaty brought huge cheers and applause. It became a staple of his speeches and would have been a central message in 1964 — especially if the Republicans nominated Goldwater, a conservative hero with a bellicose approach to international affairs.

What Might Have Been

JFK would not have escalated the War in Vietnam.

As a candidate, Kennedy proposed aggressive tactics in Vietnam, including sending forces to infiltrate the north. As president, he’d effectively overseen the birth of the Green Berets, a special forces outfit designed to launch counterinsurgencies. And it was Kennedy’s decision to put thousands of U.S. “advisers” into South Vietnam. But his skepticism about involvement in the region dated back years. He’d visited Vietnam in 1951 as a member of Congress and came back convinced that the power of nationalism would ultimately overwhelm Western efforts to hold power there. He’d infuriated the Democratic establishment in 1956 by advocating independence for Algeria from the French, and a year later argued that “the single most important test of American foreign policy is how we meet the test of imperialism … the forces of nationalism are forever changing the political map of the world.”

His presidency reflected that view. In his first months, he’d rejected the advice of his Joint Chiefs (and former President Dwight Eisenhower) to engage militarily in Laos; stayed his hand when East Germany built a wall to imprison its citizens; and resisted the urging of his military chiefs during the Cuban Missile Crisis to bomb the missile sites. He would reply to advisers urging greater involvement in Vietnam by telling them that if they could get Douglas MacArthur to approve the idea of a land war in Asia, he might agree. And on Nov. 21, 1963, as he was leaving for Texas, he told aide Mike Forrestal to organize a top-to-bottom review of “every option we’ve got, including how we get out of there.”

None of this fully resolves the question, of course; the political impact of leaving Vietnam would have been serious, with Republicans and hawkish Democrats accusing him of appeasement or worse (as a young House member, JFK himself was part of the “Who lost China?” attack on the Truman administration). It was unlikely there’d be a candid speech to the nation about leaving, as Charles de Gaulle had done when France finally granted Algeria independence. JFK himself always said he could take no such step until after he’d been reelected. It is more likely he’d have left the way a Western gunfighter would back out of a bar, one cautious step at a time.

The most ambitious effort to tackle this topic can be found in the book “Vietnam: If Kennedy Had Lived.” It is the result of a 2005 conference bringing together academics, officials and experts on the region to debate that single question of what would JFK have done with Vietnam. The conclusion — a consensus, but not a unanimous one — is that he would not have escalated the war.

The 1960’s would have been a lot less angry.

The civil rights movement, including the growth of a more radical Black constituency, and the birth of the counterculture stemmed from powerful forces that were independent of who occupied the Oval Office. But — assuming Kennedy did not escalate in Vietnam — the tenor of the times might well have been different had he not been assassinated. For instance, the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society began as a relatively reformist, not radical, movement; in 1964, it endorsed Lyndon Johnson’s reelection with the slogan “part of the way with LBJ.” Without Vietnam, the descent of SDS into competing factions of delusion — Maoists vs. Weathermen — would probably not have happened.

Two of the group’s most prominent leaders support this idea, including Todd Gitlin, whom I interviewed for my book “If Kennedy Lived.”

“I think you have a very different history if JFK lives,” he said. “The whole left would have had a soft landing. You’d have had cultural estrangement but not bitterness.”

Similarly, SDS founder Tom Hayden told me, “The model was peaceful transition. JFK’s death drained a sense of optimism out of the movement.”

Apart from the radicalization of the New Left, the assassination birthed myriad conspiracy theories that continue to breed cynicism and distrust. Countless people believe that powerful forces in their own government killed the president because he was determined to end the Cold War or for some other fantastical reason.

To believe that is to believe not that our leaders can be wrongheaded or mistaken, but that they are positively malevolent.

Kennedy’s private life would have become public.

Now we turn to JFK’s own personal and political future. Did the media cover up John Kennedy’s reckless philandering? That’s been received wisdom for decades. It’s not entirely true. In the last months of Kennedy’s life, the press was beginning to look hard at the president’s behavior.

In June 1963, Bobby Kennedy had confronted two reporters for the New York Journal-American who’d published a story linking a British prostitute to a “high elected American official” — clearly meaning the president. When a scandal erupted over a Senate aide’s financial misdeeds, the story widened into reports that the aide had supplied “party girls” to high-ranking officials. One of the women was Ellen Rometsch, a frequent White House visitor. The story caught the eye of Clark Mollenhoff of the Des Moines Register, one of the most feared investigative reporters in Washington. He wrote in late October of 1963 that “evidence is likely to include identification of several high executive branch officials” who were involved with Rometsch.

The potential for disaster was not confined to a few reporters. Kennedy’s extramarital behavior was known to the imperious FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who was delighted to let Bobby Kennedy know the FBI had learned about the president’s liaisons — it was the best job security the director could have.

At the same time, this was valuable information that JFK’s enemies could use against him. If the 1964 election had become close, Hoover might have been tempted leak it against a president he considered morally depraved.

If Republicans in Congress had discovered Kennedy’s conduct, they might have shrugged off the customs of the day and aired the affairs to the public given potential “national security” implications.

Still, it’s possible the Kennedys could have used the power of the office to keep the rumors under wraps. There was, after all, no social media, no Drudge Report, to bring the story into public attention outside the traditional press. And there were plenty of tools of intimidation — tax audits, antitrust suits, bureaucratic harassment — to aim at a too-curious press.

We’ll never know for sure. The best we can offer is that, had Kennedy lived, there were a multitude of people with the knowledge, the means, the desire and the opportunity to finish Kennedy politically. And then his place in history would have been radically different.


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