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JFK gravesite, May 29, 2013
Wreath at the JFK gravesite, May 2013.
Unsurprisingly, the past month has been saturated with JFK memorials and memories, as well as histories revised and re-revised on the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas in 1963 when he himself was not yet 50 years old.

For those of us old enough to remember the actual event, or at least the actual event as shown to us on (mostly) black-and-white network television and in the newspapers at the time (of which there were twice as many as now), what may be most remarkable is how etched in our minds are those four days between the bullets finding their mark and President Kennedy's burial. Some will argue that the '60s began that dreadful weekend. Certainly the hagiography did. But nearly 70 percent of Americans alive now weren't yet born when the events took place.

What if they hadn't taken place? What if the Zapruder film had long ago been discarded because it contained nothing more notable than smiling Jack and Jackie waving to the Dallas crowd of well-wishers on a cool, forgotten day. What if there had been no swearing in of LBJ? No John-John saluting the funeral cortege in Dan Farrell's iconic photo? What if Kennedy had continued as president, not leaving office until January 1969, living to see Neil Armstrong on the moon and daughter Caroline as ambassador to Japan? How different would things have been, would be today, if butterfly wings had changed some small event that led to those shots never having been fired in Dealey Plaza?

There's been a gigaton of speculation about that for the past half-century. Here's a bit more from James G. Blight at Britain's New Statesman:

A previous project of ours, Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived (released as a film in 2008, published as a book in 2009), examined in some detail the distinction between counterfactual history, whose purpose, with few exceptions, is purely to entertain, and virtual history, which can yield important insights into history as it happened, and can lead to lessons applicable to the present and future. Virtual history requires the historian to move more deeply into the experience of a historical character (or characters) and/or events of interest. The focus is on what happened, how what happened forms a recognisable pattern, and why it makes sense to project that pattern cautiously into an account of the subsequent history that did not happen, but perhaps could have happened.

JFK’s well-documented record of his decisions on matters of war and peace is as astonishing as it is unambiguous. We now know that no American president was ever pressured more intensely or more often to take the US to war. His advisers lobbied him, attempted to intimidate him and schemed throughout his presidency to force him to authorise direct US military interventions.

The pressure was most intense over Cuba (twice, in April 1961 and October 1962), Laos (spring 1961), the Berlin Wall (summer and fall 1961) and in South Vietnam (twice, November 1961 and October 1963). In each case, Kennedy successfully resisted their pressure to intervene militarily even though, on each occasion, intervening would have been politically popular, at least initially. The declassified documents and oral testimony that have become available over the past quartercentury (much of it produced by our own research projects on the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Vietnam war) are unequivocal – JFK was regularly out in front of his advisers in articulating what might go wrong if military force was used as an early option rather than, as he believed, an option of last resort, and how such action, if taken, could escalate into a disaster.

A half-century after JFK’s assassination in Dallas, we know that he was right, and that those counselling the use of force were wrong. This is because, during the past 25 years, we have gained access to a trove of important documents and oral testimony from former cold war adversaries: from Russia, Cuba, Vietnam and elsewhere. We now have the data necessary to calculate with confidence the probable result if JFK had ordered, for example, the demolition of the Berlin Wall after 13 August 1961, when its construction by the East Germans and Soviets began; or the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam in November 1961 to an American war by despatching US combat personnel to South Vietnam; or an invasion of Cuba during the October 1962 missile crisis.

Had Kennedy caved in to his hawkish advisers on any of these occasions, the probable result would have been a disastrous war that would have been much bloodier and more costly than his hawkish advisers estimated. Today, we know what Soviet leaders were thinking during the Berlin Wall and Cuban missile crises, and what they were prepared to do in the event of a US military intervention.

As Blight notes, it's all speculative. But it's more than mere entertainment. In that history, and that alternate history, are lessons for the present and the future.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Fri Nov 22, 2013 at 12:03 PM PST.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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