Review

If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History

by Jeff Greenfield

It was raining in Dallas on the morning of November 22, 1963. What if it kept raining that day and the Secret Service had to put the Plexiglas bubble top over President Kennedy’s car? How much of history hung on a simple meteorological fact?

These are the questions that Jeff Greenfield, an award-winning network news commentator and author of 13 books, asks in IF KENNEDY LIVED. And indeed, millions of Americans have been asking the same question since approximately 12:30pm Central Standard Time on 11/22/63, when the bullets fired on the streets of Dallas found their target: the president of the United States.

What Greenfield creates here is an “alternative history” basically from November 1963 to November 1968. Due to the rain, he postulates, JFK will only be wounded in Dallas. He will be reelected president in 1964 and serve out his second term.

Greenfield correctly points out than an alternative history has to be based on plausibility. So besides consulting biographies, memoirs and interviewing those who were part of the 1960s, he uses actual words and speeches said in real life, but often has them being delivered in different times and places, sometimes by different people. “Most of the fictional facts presented have their origins in reality: the ‘facts on the ground,’ as they existed in November 1963,” Greenfield writes.

Once healed from the chest wound he suffered in Dallas and reelected after easily beating Barry Goldwater in 1964, Greenfield’s Kennedy emerges here as sort of a liberal/left god, a cross between Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. He pulls all US troops out of Vietnam, thus avoiding the disastrous, divisive Vietnam War. He makes peace with the Soviet Union, opens relations with Communist China, winds down the Cold War, and even ends the embargo against Castro’s Cuba by 1967.

"Politics and history can be endlessly debated, which makes IF KENNEDY LIVED a fascinating read this month of the 50th anniversary. Greenfield writes about politics not only with skill but with a novelist’s flare for storytelling."

Indeed, liberals and Kennedy partisans have been making a similar case for what would have happened had Kennedy lived since almost the moment it was clear he was dead. And it all centers on Vietnam and Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson.

“For instance, John Kennedy tended towards a dispassionate, detached, analytical approach to issues; he was, in this sense, the polar opposite of Lyndon Johnson, who saw political threats and opportunities through an intensely personal prism,” Greenfield writes. “But that same detached, dispassionate approach might have prevented a president from escalating a war out of a refusal to be ‘the first president to lose a war’ (as LBJ once famously put it).”

Maybe. Speculating about “alternative histories” can be a fun exercise. But the fact is that JFK did put 16,000 American “advisors” into South Vietnam by the time of his death, and 100 had been killed already. And he was a committed Cold Warrior, the father Special Op forces (the Green Berets), and a fierce proponent of counterinsurgency doctrine around the world --- the very doctrine that failed so miserably in South Vietnam.

Then there is the little matter of Cuba and the Kennedy administration’s illegal and just about constant efforts to kill Fidel Castro and overthrow his government. Indeed, at the very time JFK was making his rendezvous with destiny in Dallas, an agent of his CIA was meeting with a Cuban dissident in Paris to give him a poison pen with which to kill Castro.

But the Kennedy men, especially his brother, Robert Kennedy, saw President Johnson as a disaster waiting to happen. And, sure enough, it happened in the jungles of Southeast Asia. And for many Americans, The Restoration would happen when Bobby beat LBJ in 1968 and took his rightful place in the Oval Office. (And it should be noted that Greenfield started his career as a speechwriter for RFK.) Of course, in real history, Bobby did enter that race, forcing LBJ to drop out. And the possibility of The Restoration ended forever on a kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles amid more gunfire.

Politics and history can be endlessly debated, which makes IF KENNEDY LIVED a fascinating read this month of the 50th anniversary. Greenfield writes about politics not only with skill but with a novelist’s flare for storytelling. This serious treatise is filled with wit and humor as Greenfield delights in turning real history on its head --- Richard Nixon attacks the JFK administration for abusing power, Hubert Humphrey is the anti-war candidate in 1968.

Greenfield stays away from the entire question of Oswald. Here, Oswald is the “lone nut” who wounds the president. He speculates that the laundry list of usual suspects might have been involved in a conspiracy: the mafia, the CIA, pro-Fidel Cubans, anti-Fidel Cubans, the FBI, you name it. But there is no proof of conspiracy, he claims, adhering to the conventional, if highly flawed, Warren Commission wisdom.

For those who lived through it, even as a small child, few events in our lives were as wrenching as that dark day in Dallas. What followed in the years after was even worse: Vietnam, race riots burning American cities, the assassination of Dr. King, the rage and upheaval of what we now call the 1960s. And all the negative stuff seemed to happen after Dallas.

So it is most natural to ask what would have happened if it kept raining that late November day. How much better would our country and world have been if the Cold War had ended a quarter-century earlier? How many lives would have been saved? How much money could have been spent on jobs and education and people instead of endless war?

But one can’t help but also speculate that if Oswald was not a “lone nut,” what chance would JFK have had after Dallas to create the peaceful world Greenfield sketches in this book? One recalls that his predecessor, President Eisenhower, warned about the danger of the “military industrial complex” just three days before leaving office. There was a lot of money to be made from perpetual war. There still is.

We will never know for sure. But Greenfield should be congratulated for writing a timely and enjoyable alternative history here.

Reviewed by Tom Callahan on November 22, 2013

If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History
by Jeff Greenfield