November 22, 2013

JFK + 50: Alternative Scenarios

Patrick Marren
Partner

A few thoughts on this anniversary...

If JFK had lived:

1. He had started back-channel communications with Castro a few weeks before his death, so our relations with Cuba might have been very different.

2. He had also begun discussions with his advisors about an exit strategy from Vietnam. Some experts think he would have stayed in Vietnam; others, including some of his closest advisors, think he would have gotten out in a second term. It seems unlikely that he would have escalated as aggressively as LBJ.

3. If JFK had lived, it is extremely doubtful that either the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would have been passed when they were. The sympathy for all his initiatives after his death made passage of each of these possible. The civil rights movement would likely have been more protracted and ugly and violent if not for Dallas.

4. If JFK had lived, his pathological relationships with women would ultimately have emerged, and these would have tarnished every cause with which he was identified (and would have tarnished his entire family). He would now be seen as a sort of early, perhaps more polished Bill Clinton, except far more extreme.

5. If JFK had lived, his and his brother's cloak-and-dagger assassination plots against Castro, and the 163 covert actions undertaken by the CIA and others on his watch, would ultimately have come out (as they did with the Church Committee in 1976), tarnishing some of his lofty rhetoric about democracy, perhaps.

6. In retrospect, his inaugural speech was the most extreme of all time. "Pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty" was more than any country was ever going to deliver. If JFK had lived, either he would have abandoned Vietnam, and be open to a charge of overpromising, or he would have stayed and shown how impossible it actually was to deliver on it.

7. If JFK had lived, J. Edgar Hoover might have exercised a far greater sway over the White House due to JFK's indiscretions and his taping of them. (But maybe not - his attempts to feed newspapers tapes of Martin Luther King were universally rebuffed.)

8. If JFK had lived, he probably - but not certainly - would have been re-elected in 1964; his approval rating in November 1963 was over 60%, though declining gradually, and the economy was growing nicely. But perhaps not: Kennedy's health was terrible, he was on increasing amounts of painkillers, his spine was gradually dissolving, and his Addison's Disease was incurable. Assuming he were re-elected, however, second terms are notoriously problematic, and scandal would have been an obvious danger for JFK. So after two terms, his brother Bobby might not have won the nomination, even assuming he was not himself killed; and even if he had won the nomination, without the searing experience of losing his brother, RFK might not have undergone the change in character that made him into a more appealing candidate; and it seems plausible that Richard Nixon would have been able to defeat him or any other Democrat in 1968, especially if JFK's indiscretions were revealed.

9. If JFK had lived, there would be no LBJ: with no LBJ, there would be no Great Society, and perhaps no backlash against the expansion of the welfare state. The underpinnings of the modern conservative movement might have been far less secure, because there might have been less to rebel against. And without either Vietnam War or Great Society to pay for, the inflation that took root in the late 1960s into the early 1970s would presumably never have happened.

10. The great question is, would "The Sixties" as we know them today rolled out in substantially the same way without the Kennedy assassination? We'll never know. My sense is that some sort of counterculture movement was going to happen anyway, simply due to the rise of the Baby Boom. But without a big Vietnam war to protest, and without the LBJ Great Society adding to the welfare state, and with no big civil rights legislation, the Sixties might have been quite different. Then again, with a civil rights movement dragging out and a youth wave hitting, and the Beatles scheduled to land in New York in February 1964 either way, hair was going to get longer and drugs were going to be ingested and parents were going to be rebelled against.

So maybe history would not have changed completely, with a President Nixon, rock and roll, long hair, and civil rights discord still probable.

Some things may simply be overdetermined.

Comments  | 

The "Great Society" per se wouldn't have happened if JFK had survived, but Kennedy's New Frontier might plausibly have included programs like Medicare, for one, had he lived. Poverty among the elderly was widespread in the increasingly affluent society of the mid-1960s. Health security for aging Americans would have been low-hanging political fruit in a 1964 Kennedy re-election bid. But as you say, we'll never know this...or how the rest of the 1960s would have unfolded.
Mark Safford
I wonder also if the US would have grown closer to Europe in cultural and economic matters without the Vietnam War, under a second Kennedy administration. And how would Khrushchev have dealt with such a trend? Might there still be a Berlin Wall, and a Cold War, and a divided world in 2013?

Thoughts?