The JFK anniversary: What if Kennedy had lived?

From Vietnam to Cuba, two historians sketch out an alternate history of the twentieth century.

Fraud of Distance—Fraud of Danger,
Fraud of Death—to bear—
It is Bounty—to Suspense’s
Vague Calamity—
Staking our entire Possession
On a Hair’s result—
Then—Seesawing—coolly—on it—
Trying if it split—
Emily Dickinson
On 22 November 2013, America and the world will observe the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination. The media coverage of the anniversary will no doubt prove that, alas, people still find the circumstances of Kennedy’s death far more interesting than the achievements of his presidency. Dallas will become Graceland. JFK might just as well have been Elvis.
For the first quarter-century or so after JFK’s murder, insensitive cynics sometimes remarked that having been assassinated was a great posthumous career move for Kennedy. They were wrong. The bizarre, still incompletely solved assassination has focused succeeding generations on the Kennedy fluff factor – all the hearsay and gossip involved in establishing JFK and his relatives as the unofficial American “royal family”. To most, Dallas was tragic because he and his wife and children were beautiful, young and cool.
But to understand the significance of JFK’s assassination, we need to move beyond the fluff and into a deep analysis of what he actually did and did not do as president. Here’s the headline: his death was an Olympian tragedy because the United States and the world lost a leader whose number-one priority was to keep his nation out of war, including the possibility of a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union. Moreover, he proved during his 1,036 days in the White House that he had the backbone to face down his hawkish advisers who, on at least six occasions, recommended he take the nation to war.

The big what-if

It is the most tantalising what-if in the history of US foreign policy: if JFK had survived Dallas, if he had been re-elected in November 1964, if he had remained healthy enough to serve out the second term through 20 January 1969 – if these conditions had been met, what might JFK have decided in matters of war and peace? We believe a careful consideration of such a hypothetical scenario is important, but are also aware that the exploration involves both opportunities and risks.
On the one hand, something fundamental is missing from histories that lack reference to paths not taken, decisions not made, or histories that seem almost, but not quite, to have happened. Such histories seem to us sanitised, unreal, lacking in the contingency and uncertainty of historical moments as they pass by, one by one, full of anxiety and (sometimes) regret for those bearing the burden of responsibility.
History without an edgy contingency is bound to be uninteresting, and the drawing of lessons will make no sense, if it is assumed that what happened was bound to happen. Most of us believe intuitively that things could have been different and, in addition, we instinctively search for lessons we might draw from history.
On the other hand, there are risks in whatif history. As often practised, it is little more than a literary parlour game, in which the objective is principally to showcase the cleverness of whomever is spinning the counterfactual tale. The storyline is composed mostly of fictitious events, made seemingly out of thin air.
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.

Actual JFK

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.
Many of JFK’s advisers argued that the Soviets, woefully inferior to the US in deliverable nuclear weapons, would act “rationally” by not acting at all, rather than challenge the US with a counterattack. But JFK’s advisers who counselled war were clearly wrong. Aggressive US military action over Berlin or Cuba would have led to war between US and Soviet forces, perhaps initially limited, but carrying a very high risk of escalation to a nuclear catastrophe.
Regarding Vietnam, we know for certain that JFK’s refusal to Americanise the war was wise. His successor, Lyndon B Johnson, retained virtually the entire team of national security advisers assembled by Kennedy, who gave Johnson the same hawkish advice they had given Kennedy. They urged him to intervene, to save the Saigon government from collapse and maintain America’s credibility with its allies, no matter how corrupt or incompetent the South Vietnamese government had become. America, they told LBJ (as they had told JFK), can save the day at little cost and risk. Unlike JFK, LBJ caved in to his inherited hawks again and again as he Americanised the conflict in Vietnam. The result was a costly and humiliating defeat for the US, and a foreshortened career for a president who lacked JFK’s cautionary impulse and steely determination to stand up to misplaced hawkish advice.

Sceptical JFK

In a revelatory paper published in Foreign Policy in 2006, “Why Hawks Win”, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman and the Harvard political psychologist Jonathan Renshon documented a number of biases, or “heuristics”, in political decision-making that raise the odds of hawks triumphing over doves – of going to war rather than keeping the peace. These findings, according to Kahneman and Renshon, are consistent across the more than 40 studies they reviewed. We are, in short, hard-wired to be hawkish. When threatened, decision-makers would rather fight than take flight. Hawkishness is our default in matters of war and peace.
But we now know that JFK’s decisionmaking profile on matters of war and peace deviates spectacularly from this rule – it is the inverse of what is to be expected, based on the research of Kahneman, Renshon and their associates. JFK repeatedly resisted his hawks, often at considerable political risk and cost. He was no pacifist, having fought and nearly died in the Second World War, and he is well known as the president who vowed in his inaugural address to “pay any price, bear any burden” to fight for liberty around the world. But the gap between some of his anticommunist rhetoric and his behind-the-scenes decision-making is immense.
As president, JFK refused to believe the rosy estimates and predictions of his hawkish advisers, and the hawks came to regard him as basically irrational – as a leader who refused to give the go-ahead to their carefully constructed scenarios, which they believed were based on good data and their own vast experience. In dozens, perhaps hundreds, of such conversations (some of which were recorded by Kennedy and are available online), JFK drove his hawkish advisers crazy. But in every major crisis of his presidency involving national security, he refused to abandon his scepticism. JFK knew in his viscera and from wartime experience that the essence of war is chaos, anarchy and loss of human control over events, that human understanding is fallible and thin, and that what human beings believe is true is often delusional – self-serving, short-sighted and plain wrong.

Virtual reality

So what would JFK have done, had he lived? Two virtual variants suggest themselves for each of the four principal foreign policy challenges he would have faced in his second term, presuming he had won the election in 1964. One variant presents a series of no-brainers, given his pattern of successful resistance to his hawks. No surprise, he continues successfully to resist his hawks in a second term. In a second variant, one more open to debate, he not only resists the hawks, but also shifts fundamentally out of the cold war paradigm. Here are the highlights:
Vietnam: JFK would have continued to resist a US war in Vietnam. Even though the Saigon government, weak and corrupt, was destined for the dustbin of history, he would have resisted those calling on him to send US combat troops to Vietnam. He might have ended all military involvement. We believe that would have been his ultimate objective.
Cold war: He would have resisted calls for confrontation with the Soviet Union. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis had made both JFK and Nikita Khrushchev intensely aware of the danger of such confrontations and they were determined to prevent them. Both leaders might have begun to wind down the cold war itself. They emerged from the missile crisis with a determination to do so.
Nuclear weapons: JFK would have resisted those calling for the continued build-up of US nuclear arsenals, and worked with Khrushchev to reverse the nuclear arms race, limiting and eliminating redundant warheads and delivery vehicles. He and Khrushchev might have succeeded in achieving very low numbers of weapons, although the time available to them for such a monumental task would have been limited.
Cuba: The president would have resisted sustained and urgent calls for the US to liquidate the Cuban Revolution by means of military force and to instal a more Washingtonfriendly regime in Havana. He might have succeeded in working with Fidel Castro’s government to normalise relations between Washington and Havana. We believe that would have been his objective.
How, one might ask, would JFK have gotten away with taking US foreign policy in such a different direction from the one followed after his death in Dallas? This is a good and necessary question.
Our answer has four parts: (1) Kennedy was determined, as was Nikita Khrushchev, to avoid (in Emily Dickinson’s memorable phrase) “Staking our entire Possession/On a Hair’s result”, as both had done inadvertently in the Cuban missile crisis; (2) the defence secretary, Robert McNamara, would have made it happen in the Pentagon over the objections of the military brass; (3) his gifted speechwriter and amanuensis Ted Sorensen would have helped him refine and articulate his vision; and (4) he had already proved, following the Bay of Pigs debacle in April 1961, that he was capable of using the bully pulpit of the presidency to transform failure into a political victory through a combination of honesty (taking personal responsibility for it), political hardball (firing the two top officials at the CIA) and gallows humour (asking Sorensen rhetorically, “How could I have been so stupid, to let them go ahead?”).
If JFK had survived Dallas and served as US president until January 1969, the world would probably have become a safer, more peaceful place. It is even possible that the cold war would have been rolled back and headed for an amicable end by 1969. This conclusion has nothing to do with the myth of a Kennedy Camelot and everything to do with respect for the historical facts, as they have become available over the past quarter-century.
James G Blight and janet M Lang are on the faculty of the Balsillie School of International Affairs, and the department of history, at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. They are the authors of a half-dozen books on the Kennedy administration’s foreign policy, most recently “The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy/Khrushchev/Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis” (Rowman & Littlefield, £24.95)
Prism of violence: Kennedy's experience repeatedly prompted him to spurn the lethal option. Photograph: Camera Press/Illustration Dan Murrell

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Cute or creepy? How romcoms romanticise stalker-like and controlling behaviour

I present to you: a history of Hollywood romance, unromanticised.

This week, a new study was published with findings that suggest romcoms can encourage women to be more tolerant of stalker-like behaviour. I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You, a report Julia R Lippman, a professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan specialising in gender and media, studied women’s responses to “stalking myths” after watching a series of films of different genres.

Women who watched There’s Something About Mary and Management were more likely to be accepting aggressive romantic pursuit than those who watched films featuring “a scary depiction of persistent pursuit” like Sleeping With the Enemy and Enough – or benign nature documentaries such as March of the Penguins and Winged Migration.

Are we really that surprised? The male-dominated film industry has a long tradition of neutralising and romanticising controlling or harassing behaviour from men, from its beginnings to today. I present to you: a history of Hollywood romance, unromanticised.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Often credited with the birth of the romcom, the story is as follows: a newspaper reporter blackmails a celebrity on the run from her family into speaking to him for a story, threatening to turn her in to her father for reward money if she doesn’t comply with his wishes. After dangling this threat over her head over days, he hunts her down on her wedding day, and accepts slightly less than the agreed reward money from her father, arguing that he did what he did for love, not money. On hearing of this noble deed, our heroine swoons, cancels her wedding, and runs off with the reporter instead.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

A group of brothers kidnap six attractive women by causing a life-threatening avalanche that keeps them imprisoned all winter. The women play pranks on the men in revenge, and, in a shocking case of Stockholm syndrome, everyone has an all-round jolly time. They pair off and are all married by summer.  

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Two men disguise themselves as women to trick a young woman into trusting them. One continues his attempts to seduce her by disguising himself as a billionaire and faking severe psychological traumas to gain her sympathy. They eventually sail into the sunset together.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

A man becomes enamoured by a pretty young woman, but is angered by her repeated attempts to marry richer men. He investigates her past relationships, without her permission. When she is abandoned by her fiancé, the man follows the pretty young woman to a New York library, insisting she confess her love for him, telling her, “I love you. You belong to me.” When she tells him “people don’t belong to people” he becomes enraged, lecturing and patronising her. They kiss in the rain.

My Fair Lady (1964)

Two men attempt to assert their control over a pretty young woman: one by promising her the career of her dreams if she promises to change her entire personality according to his strict preferences, one by stalking her, lurking constantly on the street where she lives. She almost marries one, and falls for the other.

The Graduate (1967)

A young man intentionally upsets his ex’s daughter by taking her on a date, where he is horrible to her, and forces her to go to a strip club. He hides his affair with her mother from her, and, when she discovers it and rejects him, follows her across America, spends days on end harassing her, and ruins her wedding. They elope, via the world’s most awkward bus journey.

Back to the Future (1985)

A teenager goes back in time to aid his creepy, peeping Tom father achieve his dream of marrying the woman he watches undress from a tree outside her house.

Say Anything (1989)

A young man wins back the heart of his ex-girlfriend by turning up uninvited at her family’s home and intentionally disturbing them all by holding a boombox aloft, humiliating her by blasting out the song she lost her virginity to.

Pretty Woman (1990)

A man manipulates a sex worker to overhaul her entire personality in order to conform to his idea of womanhood.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

An outcast becomes obsessed with a popular young woman after staring at her childhood pictures in her family home, watches her from a distance, carves an enormous, angelic statue of her, then murders her boyfriend. They kiss, feet from the boyfriend’s lifeless corpse.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

A man who knows a young woman is not attracted to him kidnaps her father as a way to lure her into his home. He imprisons her and uses his legion of servants and magical home to manipulate her into falling for her captor, all so he can get a sexy makeover. In a shocking case of Stockholm syndrome, she falls for him.

Something About Mary (1998)

Thirteen years after his advances were first rejected, a man travels all the way from Rhode Island to Florida and pays a private investigator to stalk his childhood crush. He lies to her and everyone who knows her in order to win her affections. When she becomes aware of his deceit, she shrugs it off, as everyone else she knows has been stalking her, too. His excuse? “I did it because I never stopped thinking about you. And if I didn’t find you, I knew that my life would never ever be good again.”

American Beauty (1999)

A young man follows an attractive young woman to her house and videos her getting undressed. She gives in to his advances.

High Fidelity (2000)

A man tracks down every one of his ex-girlfriends to harass them over why they left him. He stalks his most recent ex’s boyfriend, standing outside his house in the pouring rain. She goes back to him.

50 First Dates (2004)

A man discovers an attractive woman’s amnesia leaves her vulnerable, so spends every day trying to manipulate her condition to his advantage. After studying her every move, he engineers “chance meetings”, essentially kidnapping her without her consent by the film’s end.

The Notebook (2004)

A woman falls for a man after he writes several hundred letters to her without receiving any replies, stalks her hometown, and restores an entire house based on the fact they had sex there once.

Love Actually (2004)

A man of enormous privilege and power falls for his secretary, comments on her physical appearance to colleagues, has her fired, turns up on her family doorstep on Christmas Eve, and bundles her into his car. She kisses him.

Also, a sullen young man resents his best friend’s wife for being good-looking, is horrible to her, films her obsessively on her wedding day, then arrives on her doorstep on Christmas eve, threateningly brandishing a picture of what he imagines her decaying corpse will one day look like. She kisses him.

Time Traveller’s Wife (2009)

A man uses his time-travelling powers to groom a pre-teen version of the adult woman he loves into falling for him.

Twilight (2008)

A centuries-old man disguised as a teenager infiltrates a school and becomes obsessed with a teenager, stalking her and watching her sleep, all the while making clear to her that he is “dangerous”. She gives in to his advances.

Also, a violent man pursues a teenage woman long after she has rejected him, usually in a state of semi-nudity.

Management (2008)

A man develops an obsession with a married woman when she checks into the motel where he works. She does not return his affections, so he follows her around the country: first to Maryland, then to Washington State, where she is engaged to a man whose baby she is carrying; then back to Maryland. She eventually gives in to his advances.

Crazy Stupid Love (2011)

A teenage boy stalks his female classmate, sneaking into her room at night to watch her sleep.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

A billionaire uses his money and power to hunt down a student journalist who interviewed him at her place of work. He kidnaps her when she is drunk, and blames her for drinking. He manipulates her with gifts and encourages her to sign away her independence. When she tries to leave him, he follows her 3,000 miles to her mother’s home. She gives in to his advances and he assaults her. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.