By Gwynne Dyer
FORMER president Lyndon B Johnson is only a black-and-white sound-bite in History Channel documentaries for the most of today’s audience, but John F Kennedy, who preceded him as president, sti
ll lives in the public memory on both sides of the Atlantic 40 years after he was shot on November 22, 1963. The question is: do we just remember him because of the manner of his death?
Kennedy’s assassination was the 9/11 of his generation: people who were adults at the time can still tell you exactly what they were doing when they got the news, and not just in America. The endless conspiracy theories about the assassination, topped by the Oliver Stone movie, have kept those few hours in Dallas on November 22, 1963 alive in the world’s imagination down to this day. But what would JFK be famous for if he had not been assassinated – if, instead, he had been re-elected in 1964 and spent a full eight years in the White House?
He would certainly still be remembered for his masterly handling of the Cuban missile crisis, which averted a nuclear war. But would he have avoided the Vietnam war, too? Would he have achieved anything else remarkable had he been spared?
JFK rose to the occasion magnificently in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, keeping his own trigger-happy military in check while he persuaded the Russians to remove their missiles from Cuban territory, and earned the permanent gratitude of a generation that held its breath for two weeks while it waited to learn if it would die in a nuclear war. He sent in National Guard troops to enforce desegregation in Mississippi, earning the permanent hostility of many white southerners. But then, with not much else accomplished he died dramatically, by violence, on film.
Vietnam was entirely JFK’s war at the outset – by the time of his death there were 16 000 US troops there – but some of his former aides insist that he was on the brink of a wholesale re-examination of the whole US military involvement in Vietnam when he was killed. Others say that this is just an attempt to whitewash Kennedy and shift all the blame for the disaster onto Lyndon Johnson, the man who inherited the commitment.
Two things do argue strongly in favour of Kennedy taking a different tack, however.
One is that he had already accepted a non-military settlement in neighbouring Laos that effectively gave the Communists control but neutralised the country. The other is that he profoundly distrusted military advice.
“The first advice I’m going to give my successor,” he once told Ben Bradlee, the Washington correspondent for Newsweek, “is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.”
So Kennedy might have avoided the big American phase of the Vietnam war by negotiating an early Laos-style handover to the Communists – or he might have been defeated in the 1964 election and somebody else might have made the key decisions on Vietnam. But it doesn’t really matter all that much: the fall of Vietnam, when it finally came in 1975, changed very little in the rest of the world.
Kennedy’s youthful charisma made him the first (and last) rock-star president – though the public didn’t know about his affair with Marilyn Monroe until long afterwards – but the only indispensable thing he did was avoid a nuclear war over Cuba.
That claim to fame, moreover, depends on certain foolish Russian leaders deciding to launch the Cuban gamble in the first place, which was surely a decision that could just as easily have gone the other way. Once you start playing with alternate history – or “counter-factual history”, as the professional historians call it – then the field really is wide open.
JFK became the Kennedy clan’s candidate for president because his older brother Joseph Jnr was killed flying bombers in World War Two, and his father Joseph Snr, who bankrolled the whole operation, was too discredited by his pro-Nazi sympathies. But in Robert Harris’s remarkable novel Fatherland, a police story set in 1964 in a Berlin where the Nazis have won the war and an aging Hitler still rules, the US president is still a man named Kennedy. It’s only well into the book that you realise he is Joseph Kennedy Snr!