JFK Assassination and Respecting the Randomness of History

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“Many Americans are now certain that had JFK lived to win a second term, he would have spared the nation its tragic adventure in Southeast Asia.”

American Historian Michael Beschloss, 11/22/1993 Newsweek, PG 62

As Michael Beschloss noted, the tragic loss was only the beginning, as the assassination of JFK seemingly darkened the nation's future for a generation as the Vietnam War, the upheaval of the 1960s, the Watergate scandal, and malaise were to follow. The orderly passing of the torch to a new generation and the promise of a New Frontier ended with the shots from a single gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald – that silly little communist. Because rationality was supplanted by randomness, the nation has never returned to the idyllic state the JFK era represented – at least for some. As counterfactuals go, JFK as thwarted peacemaker can be cruel, but such propositions test a consensus understanding of past events. The examination of “what if” inevitably provokes, but, invariably, whatever conclusion is reached, if ever, the exercise underscores the random nature of history and the peril of dogmatically believing otherwise.

President Kennedy Concludes Successful Pre-Election Swing Through South
According to the central myth of JFK, if the tragedy does not occur, then the nation is sparred the agony of the Vietnam War. This conjecture is the most emotionally appealing, but it is premised on speculation as to JFK's truest intentions, despite the rhetoric and actions observed from his candidacy to the very day of his death. A straightforward extrapolation of JFK completing his visit to Texas – without an attempt on his life – acknowledges JFK campaigned and postured as a Cold Warrior and the Vietnam War occurs anyway.

As candidate, Kennedy alleged war hero Dwight Eisenhower presided over a “missile gap” and out-hawked anti-communist Richard Nixon of Alger Hiss fame. As president, he increased the defense budget, encouraged the examination of counterinsurgency doctrine, and initiated American deployments to Vietnam. During his speech to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce the morning of November 22nd, he stated, “we put ourselves, by our own will and by necessity, into defense of alliances with countries all around the globe. Without the United States, South Viet-Nam would collapse overnight.” Depicting the nation as the “keystone in the arch of freedom,” JFK stated the nation will “continue as we have done in the past” in order to preserve American interests around the world, echoing his call for the nation to “bear any burden” as he famously first proclaimed during his 1961 Inaugural Address. The intervening Cuban Missile Crisis may have tempered such stridency, but the president remained committed to waging the Cold War and recognized the political perils of “losing Vietnam.”

In short, the Kennedy Administration, permitted to serve two full terms, would have prosecuted the Cold War vigorously. Hypothesizing President Kennedy escalating American involvement in Vietnam is reasonable. The circumstances and degree is certainly debatable. Would Kennedy have allowed Vietnam to drift after tacitly endorsing the overthrow of the puppet Diem regime in South Vietnam? Would Kennedy have capitalized on the Gulf of Tonkin incident in the same fashion as LBJ did? Would the Gulf of Tonkin incident have happened? Is the Gulf of Tonkin incident necessary for American involvement in Vietnam to increase? All unknowable, but John F. Kennedy was a committed anti-communist and adhered to the doctrine of containment – if Kennedy returns from Texas, then America has a rendezvous with Southeast Asia one way or another.

President Kennedy Says Visit to South Confirms “Nation is Ready for Civil Rights”
According to the secondary myth of JFK, if the tragedy does not occur, then he will capably and peacefully lead to the nation to a new era of race relations.

In June 1963, Kennedy introduced and sent a civil rights bill to Congress. The legislation succeeded President Eisenhower's 1957 act which aimed to protect African-American voting rights. Eisenhower's bill been the first such legislation since Reconstruction, but anti-civil rights members of Congress diluted its provisions.

Kennedy's bill was immediately stymied in Congress – again by segregationist diehards, this time in the House. In the aftermath of his assassination, LBJ attached new urgency to the bill, in part by successfully suppressing Oswald's Marxist background so Kennedy could instead be declared a martyr for civil rights.

Depicting JFK as a civil rights crusade prompts another corollary if JFK completes his visit to Texas, again without an attempt on his life: the reduced likelihood civil rights legislation would have passed.

As a presidential candidate, Kennedy did not identify himself as a advocate of civil rights. Ever the pragmatic politician, Kennedy knew if he was to ever be a viable national candidate, advocacy of civil rights, in combination with his Catholicism, which had already made him deeply suspect among needed Southern voters, would further complicate his bid for the presidency.

However, the Republican Party had begun chipping away the Democratic Party's hold on African-American voters during the Eisenhower Administration (winning 39 percent in the 1956 re-election) and Nixon had already come out in support of civil rights. Kennedy needed and angled for their votes by instead positioning himself as a foreign policy expert on African affairs. During the 1960 election, Kennedy famously won Martin Luther King Sr.'s endorsement by helping secure his son's release from jail – and substantial majorities of the African-American vote – but still his overall margin of victory was one-tenth of one percent. (Nixon won 32 percent of the African-American vote in 1960.)

Kennedy embarked on the trip to Texas to begin shoring up support in the South. If faced with the choice between civil rights and re-election, assuming Kennedy would have yielded on the former to secure the latter is fair – indeed, as a U.S. senator, Kennedy voted against the 1957 act.

Recalling Kennedy's expediency is important. Kennedy secured the nomination in part because he was as an “electable” alternative to two-time loser Adlai Stevenson, who signaled he'd be available for a third bid. Stevenson was a reluctant candidate in 1952, but a determined one in 1956, despite the longer odds, because the campaign afforded him the chance to espouse his vision of a “New America” achieved via long-sought liberal reforms, including civil rights. If equally disposed in 1960, Stevenson may have received the nomination again. Stevenson may have lost again, but, for some liberals, the subsequent dearth of progress would have been due to a Republican administration, not the electoral calculations of a patrician politician.

When Kennedy announced his bill in 1963, frustration was evident within the civil rights movement as well as their allies in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, especially the young and idealistic. In 1962, the student activist movement issued the Port Huron Statement, a manifesto repudiating the cautious centrism of the Kennedy Administration and calling for the reordering of American society. In 1964, LBJ had to contend with an ascendant George Wallace during the primaries. Had he lived, Kennedy may have forestalled this challenge from the right by accommodating civil rights opponents, but a challenge from the left, specifically the emergent New Left, may have emerged. Kennedy would have survived a primary challenge, but then he might have then been weakened for the general election.

If Kennedy enters the 1964 election with uncertain prospects, then Republican Barry Goldwater also emerges as a more viable candidate.

In 1964, LBJ trounced Republican candidate Barry Goldwater in a historic landslide. Goldwater privately contended a presidential run after JFK's death was futile because he felt the American people were not prepared to elect their third president in less than two years. Moreover, Goldwater wanted to run against Kennedy, his friend from shared time in the Senate, and not LBJ, whose ruthlessness he witnessed up close. According to Goldwater, he and JFK even discussed traveling the country together to hold debates. Even if it never occurred, the prospect of a more high-minded campaign would have undoubtedly served the country.

Would JFK have won? Possibly, but if he does win, would he have won by the same margin as LBJ? Possibly, but not likely. Goldwater considered himself a drafted candidate and undertook the campaign out of commitment to his conservative supporters. The Republican establishment had abandoned him and Goldwater's campaign committed numerous blunders, which left him without allies or even sympathy in the face of LBJ's more underhanded campaign tactics, like the infamous “Daisy commercial.”

A Kennedy-Goldwater race may or may not have been more substantive, but it certainly would have been more competitive.

If Goldwater loses by less, the conservative movement would have attained greater and earlier influence in the Republican Party, meaning Richard Nixon does not necessarily stage a comeback in 1968. If Goldwater wins, America proceeds on a different course in Southeast Asia and civil rights. Goldwater would have committed U.S. forces to Vietnam, but not without purpose as LBJ seemingly did. Moreover, Goldwater even may have achieved civil rights form in some form; the senator was hardly the racist his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act permitted critics to levy against him. Interestingly, if Kennedy leaves Dallas without an attempt on his life, the 1964 Civil Rights Act might not have occurred and Goldwater may have received the thirty-something percent of the African-American vote Eisenhower and Nixon had won in the preceding elections.

Of course, if an attempt on Kennedy's life does occur in Dallas but he survives, then perhaps subsequent public sympathy provides JFK with the political momentum he needs to secure its passage.

President Kennedy Wounded By Sniper in Dallas

If Kennedy survives Lee Harvey Oswald's attempt on his life, the above hypotheses remain somewhat valid. However, the brush with mortality, in combination with the nation's existential brush with nuclear annihilation the previous year during the Cuban Missile Crisis, might have persuaded the young Cold Warrior to exercise more caution abroad and more daring at home.

JFK seemingly signaled his appreciation for his nation's second chance during his famous June 1963 address at American University, commenting “[t]his generation of Americans has already had enough -- more than enough -- of war and hate and oppression.” More famously, JFK declared the need to “reexamine our attitude towards the cold war” and reminded the country “our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.” The speech came eight months after JFK had estimated the odds of a nuclear exchange was between one in three and even. To face his own mortality a year later, it is possible to imagine JFK re-examining his political priorities.

Instead of accommodating civil rights opposition, JFK may have waged an all-out campaign to ensure its passage. Instead of fearing a collapse of dominoes in Southeast Asia, JFK may have sided with non-interventionists who saw Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist first and communist second. The early achievement of civil rights – without the distraction of a quagmire thousands of miles away – may have spared the country protests across college campuses and riots in the cities.

The New Left might have applauded JFK's conversion to social reform and detente with the Soviet Union. The most radical elements may have remained in opposition, but very much on the fringe and not the idealistic rebels with a cause as depicted by subsequent hagiography.

Then again, most people thought Oswald was a right-wing pawn of the military-industrial complex, and not the prototype radical poised to wreak havoc on the country throughout the Sixties.

Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald Begins in Dallas

Virtually every American of age that day remembers where he or she was when JFK was shot. Moreover, nearly every American knew by the end of the day that Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested for the murder of Dallas police office J.D. Tippitt and was the lead suspect in the murder of JFK. On November 24, two days after the assassination, Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby made his own foray into the American consciousness by shooting Oswald, in the first murder captured on live television. Ruby claimed he murdered Oswald to spare First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy the trauma of a trial, but if Kennedy survives the attempt on his life, then Jack Ruby has no motivation to do so and Lee Harvey Oswald will live to stand trial for attempting to assassinate the president.

While controversy will continue to swirl as to Oswald's background and motivations, the preponderance of evidence indicates a guilty verdict would have been a foregone conclusion. So any drama would have been the result of Oswald's determination to use the courtroom as a platform for his critique of America.

Oswald's original fascination with Marxism arose from what he considered the persecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 but discovered his fealty for communism would not be reciprocated by Soviet authorities. Upon his disillusionment, he returned to the United States and he shifted his affections to the Cuban revolution under Fidel Castro.

By the time of the assassination, Oswald was a committed Castroite and probably would have capitalized on any opportunity the trial offered to denounce American policy against Cuba. Oswald's demagoguery would have provided compelling television coverage, but it's unlikely the public would have been receptive to his anti-American message.

However, if Oswald was sufficiently articulate or compelling in his testimony, he might have spurred ambitious investigative reporters to track down any allegations of covert activities against Cuba.

As revealed by the Church Commission publications in 1975, US covert actions against Fidel Castro's regime did continue under President Kennedy in the form of Operation Mongoose, a secret plan aimed at inciting an anti-Castro rebellion in Cuba. Robert Kennedy, JFK's brother and Attorney General, represented the president on the coordinating group overseeing Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency activities. If information about the numerous assassination attempts and acts of sabotage committed against Cuba came to light as a result of Oswald's trial, the political consequences for the Kennedy Administration could have been extensive.

If the trial and revelations occurred before the election, then Kennedy may have lost. If the trial and revelations came after re-election, then Robert Kennedy might have been forced to resign, and possibly the president as well.

Moreover, public distrust of the government may have emerged earlier, as opposed to the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Liberals Vow Candidate With "Integrity" After Eight Years of JFK
Public skepticism toward the government has been a feature of American politics since the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. The betrayal of trust committed by the Johnson and Nixon administrations left many citizens convinced the US government -- and the country by extension -- was hopelessly corrupt.

In his absorbing history of the era, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, American scholar James Piereson dissected the circumstances surrounding the assassination, specifically the manner in which consensus opinion immediately depicted Kennedy as a martyr for civil rights and inexplicably ignored Oswald's radical links.

Moreover, Piereson describes how the incomprehensibility of the event left liberals grasping for explanations, with some crafting intricate and complex theories about wide-ranging and diabolical conspiracies including anyone and everyone, to some assigning blame to the entire nation, to a degree beyond the sentiment expressed by James Reston.

However these despondent liberals coped, the cumulative result was a doctrine of "Punitive Liberalism" whereby America was identified as the source of all misfortunes in the world.

Punitive liberalism held that racist misogynist America had enslaved Africans, persecuted Native Americans, oppressed its women, and marginalized minority groups. Greedy Americans had abandoned the poor and ruined the environment. Punitive liberalism held that a hypocritical and imperial America had installed dictatorships and overlooked human rights abuses around the world all in the name of the Cold War.

In politics and policy, punitive liberalism fostered "an impressive network of interest groups was developed to promote and take advantage of this sense of historical guilt." Signature punitive liberal policies include affirmative action, hiring and enrollment quotas, the expansion of welfare entitlements, environmental regulations, abandonment of longtime Cold War allies, and campaigns for unilateral disarmament. By 1976, American liberalism shifted from the triumphalism of JFK's call to "bear any burden" to the defeatism of Jimmy Carter's "crisis of confidence." The doctrinal shift upended the Democratic Party and sunk its future for a generation.

If an attempt on JFK's life fails or never even occurs, then American liberalism is spared the breakdown as chronicled by Piereson.

Instead, liberal components of the Democratic Party coalition would have had to endure the political pragmatism JFK personified. Aside from the aforementioned possibility that liberal dissatisfaction may have surfaced in 1964, an overall stronger prospect could have been that significant discontent among liberals would emerge in 1968.

Designated successors from within the administration would have been suspect. Robert Kennedy would not have been the favored candidate since he served as JFK's political enforcer during the Administration; he only became the darling of liberals after his brother's assassination left him a sympathetic figure and heir to the presidency. LBJ would have still been viable at sixty years of age, but eight years as a purposefully marginalized vice president under JFK may have reduced his influence and undermined his liberal bona fides.

In a foreshadowing of recent races, some contenders may have declared themselves representatives of the "liberal Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." JFK would have retained control of the party machinery, but notable liberals such as Edmund Muskie, William Fulbright, Eugene McCarthy, and Henry Jackson could have fared well. Such individuals were not representative of punitive liberalism and may have sustained the optimism and confidence attributed to liberalism prior to this period.

Humility Before The Randomness (and Chaos) That Is History

American historian William Manchester was the author of Portrait of a President, a profile of JFK, and later, the Kennedy-family authorized examination of the assassination, The Death of a President: November 20-November 25. In 1992, Manchester sent a letter to the New York Times discussing the readiness to consider conspiracy theories, which had been stoked by Hollywood director Oliver Stone's film, JFK. Manchester wrote:

Those who desperately want to believe that President Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy have my sympathy. I share their yearning. To employ what may seem an odd metaphor, there is an esthetic principle here. If you put six million dead Jews on one side of a scale and on the other side put the Nazi regime — the greatest gang of criminals ever to seize control of a modern state — you have a rough balance: greatest crime, greatest criminals. But if you put the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn't balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the President's death with meaning, endowing him with martyrdom. He would have died for something.
As Piereson and others have noted in response to recent shocks and tragedies, the expectation for the course of history to be endowed with meaning is futile. The failure to respect and be humble in the face of randomness, such as nineteen men determined to turn aircraft into missiles, is just that -- a failure and does not preclude the possibility of chaos to intrude on how one would wish the world to be. With three shots of a Manlicher Carcano, the bright promise of the New Frontier was extinguished in an instant and millions will ask and lament what if. Such yearning is understandable, but history will only continue to tempt. What if Nixon had won in 1960? What if Joseph Kennedy Jr. returned from World War II a war hero? What if...