Most historians avoid the what if question. It draws attention from what actually happened and focuses instead on pure speculation.
Yet events such as John F. Kennedys assassination 50 years ago in Dallas have consequences, and if those consequences shape the future of the country, it is worth exploring what might have been, if for no other reason than to better understand why what did occur actually transpired.
In many ways, JFKs presidency had changed significantly during his last year in office. Kennedy had triumphed during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Standing in opposition to virtually his entire leadership staff, he refused to bomb or invade Cuba, seeking a diplomatic solution instead. We now know that a military attack would have led to a nuclear war. The missiles in Cuba were already operational, and local commanders had the authority to respond to an attack by firing them at Miami, Washington and New York. No approval from Moscow was required. In retrospect, Kennedys decision to stand against an attack was pivotal.
With that victory behind him, Kennedy assumed a new leadership role. Although he was forced into action on civil rights by the unrelenting demand of black Americans for racial equality, once he decided to move forward he was forceful. Acting again in opposition to the advice of his Cabinet, he went on national television in June 1963 to introduce legislation to desegregate public accommodations in America. Who among us, he asked, would choose to be born a Negro in a Jim Crow America?
Soon, he ordered planning for a war on poverty.
And even before his civil rights speech, Kennedy had rejected the Cold War rhetoric of his own inaugural address. He declared that no nation was without virtue and that viewing the world in moralistic terms of good and evil made no sense. Within four months, America had reached agreement with the Soviets on a nuclear test ban treaty. Indeed, Kennedy spent much of his last three months lobbying across the country on behalf of peace.
The key question is what Kennedy would have done on Vietnam. He had sent 15,000 troops to Vietnam compared with 800 under Eisenhower. Although he made the decision to send those troops at least in part as a gesture of strength against communism, what do we know about his long-range plans?
Unfortunately, nothing definitive. We know he was deeply concerned about the winnability of the war, sending repeated fact-finding missions to Saigon. He also rejected a request from the Pentagon for a massive increase in American forces, instead ordering that troop levels on the ground be reduced by 1,000. He was deeply troubled by the assassination of President Ngo Diem in the fall of 1963 and by his own administrations role in that coup detat. And, supposedly, he had told some advisers, including Kenneth ODonnell, that after defeating Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, he would negotiate a peace agreement with North Vietnam. But theres nothing definitive to that effect. All we have is Kennedys observations as a senator that no amount of American military assistance (in Indochina) can conquer an enemy which is everywhere.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that Kennedy would have ordered an escalation of American troops in Vietnam from 15,000 to 540,000. Those who contend otherwise point to how virtually all of Kennedys advisers, from McGeorge Bundy to Dean Rusk to Robert McNamara, were in the forefront of those urging escalation. But that argument ignores three things: 1) Kennedys understanding of Third World independence movements, reflected in his policies toward Latin America and Africa; 2) the fact that he stood in opposition to the nearly unanimous advice of his Executive Committee in refusing to attack Cuba; and 3) the new sense of confidence he had after the Missile Crisis, reflected in his peace initiative.
If Kennedy had lived, there is a decent chance America might have averted the greatest disaster in the second half of the 20th century a war that cost the lives of more than 50,000 American and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, undercut the most ambitious programs of the Great Society and divided American society in two. It would be hard to overstate the consequences. Thats why its important to ask, What if?
William H. Chafe is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History at Duke University, emeritus, and the former president of the Organization of American Historians.