I strongly recommend seeing the movie Virtual JFK. The book is even better. They are not just about history, they are about our present. And our future.
Among the wealth of insights this provides, I draw your attention to two points.
- The press conferences. By comparison with Kennedy and the journalists, today’s conference looking like kindergarten children playing at being adults.
- The mind-bending aggressiveness of the generals, whose advice history shows to have been largely wrong.
Synopsis of the movie
Virtual JFK investigates one of the most debated “what if” scenarios in the history of US foreign policy” What would President John F. Kennedy have done in Vietnam if he had not been assassinated in 1964?
The resulting firm employs what Harvard historian Niall Ferguson calls “virtual history”, assessing the plausibility of counterfactuals – “what ifs” — and the outcomes they might have produced. The firm makes use of an array of resources including recently declassified and never-before-seen archival footage, documents, and audio tapes, and testimony from a critical oral history conference including Kennedy and Johnson administration officials. The heart of the film deals with the question” Does it matter who is president on issues of war and peace?
The book is even better
The movie is the hors d’oeuvre, the book is the entrée: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived : Virtual JFK by James Blight , Janet M. Lang , David A. Welch (published March 2009).
Excerpt from the Prologue.
The American war in Vietnam was among the bloodiest conflicts of the last half of the twentieth century. Over 2,000,000 Vietnamese and more than 58,000 Americans were killed, and many times these numbers were wounded, displaced, and imprisoned. In the course of the war, North and South Vietnam were nearly destroyed as functioning societies, while American society was torn apart over issues related to the war.
It is ironic that both the U.S. and Vietnam achieved their principal goals: communism did not spread in Southeast Asia, and the Vietnamese unified their country under the leadership of the communist government in Hanoi. In light of this outcome, the question inevitably arises: Was this catastrophic war necessary? Was so much death and destruction required between two countries that have subsequently established full normal political relations (in July 1995) and trade relations (in July 2000), even though both adversaries retain their individual systems of governance that seemed so important and antithetical during the war? The U.S. two-party system of democracy, with its capitalist underpinning, still contrasts starkly with the stronghold the Communist Party retains throughout Vietnam, yet relations between the two countries are “normal.”
Might the U.S. and Vietnam have achieved their goals at far less cost in blood and treasure? If so, how? Which aspects of this tragic history would have to have been different for the war to have been avoided?’ In this book, we examine the most famous variant of this question-a variant with obvious and powerful resonance to the situation in which the U.S. finds itself now in Iraq. The question is this: if John F. Kennedy had lived and been reelected in November 1964, would he and his administration have initiated, escalated, and prosecuted the war in Vietnam more or less as did his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, or would JFK have withdrawn U.S. forces from Vietnam, effectively ending direct U.S. involvement there and thus avoiding the Vietnam War?
This is the most debated and controversial what if in the history of American foreign policy. We tackle the question in a way that maximizes the dependence of our answer on empirical evidence-on declassified documents, oral testimony of former officials, and the analysis of top scholars of the war in Vietnam. Our research is based on a new approach to historical what if questions called virtual history, an approach that avoids the fictional excesses of so-called counterfactual history-fantasies about the “history” of what did not happen.
An excerpt giving the core of their argument
Their sophisticated 400+ page analysis cannot put in a nutshell, but the following shows the skeleton of their thesis.
Here, in outline, are some of the principal lessons we now believe “actual JFK” learned from Cold War crises we investigated before deciding to tackle the issue addressed in this book.
April 1961, the Bay of Pigs debacle.
Just before taking office, JFK is told that he has inherited from Eisenhower, his predecessor, a CIA scheme for regime change in Cuba, using 1,200 Cuban exiles as an invasion force that, according to the CIA, will incite a popular uprising against the Castro government. JFK is told before the invasion that the operation will almost certainly succeed. Then, as it is failing miserably, he is told that it can still succeed if he agrees to use U.S. air power and to send in U.S. Marines, who are positioned on U.S. ships almost within site of the Bay of Pigs. His advisers at the CIA and at the joint Chiefs of Staff are almost apoplectic with disbelief when he refuses their request to bomb Cuba and invade the island. …
Winter/Spring 1961, the Laos crisis.
JFK is told that the Soviet resupply of communist insurgents in Laos must forcibly be stopped using U.S. regular forces, but possibly also by using tactical nuclear weapons. He is told that if he fails to Americanize the conflict, the communists will overrun Laos and threaten all of Southeast Asia. Kennedy neither orders U.S. troops into Laos nor does he authorize the use of U.S. air power against Soviet assets in Laos. He is appalled at the thought of using nuclear weapons in Laos or anywhere. Instead, he works with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to resolve the crisis via a political compromise: a neutralist government for Laos. …
August-October 1961, the Berlin Wall crisis.
JFK is told, as the Wall goes up in Berlin, that he must threaten the Soviets with both conventional and nuclear weapons until they capitulate, tear down the Wall, and refrain from harassing U.S. personnel in East Germany en route to and from Berlin. Kennedy refuses to intervene or risk a military engagement between U.S. and Soviet forces in Berlin. As a result, he encounters stiff public criticism and bitter internal dissension from his hawkish advisers. Nevertheless, Kennedy tells his representative in Berlin, former General Lucius Clay, to back off, and Khrushchev reciprocates. The Wall goes up and stays up, tragically closing off the principal route for East Germans to escape to the West, but a war in the heart of Europe is avoided. …
October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis.
JFK is told point-blank by most of his civilian and military advisers that the U.S. must bomb Soviet missile sites in Cuba and invade the island as soon as possible in order to ensure that Soviet military capability on the island is destroyed and the Castro government removed. Kennedy personally restrains his U.S. military advisers, who are aghast at what they take to be his timidity and cowardly reluctance to use the deployment of Soviet missiles as a pretext to destroy the Cuban Revolution. But JFK works out a compromise with Khrushchev and, we now know, is ready to absorb enormous political heat rather than risk war with the Soviet Union. …
… If we had to choose a single word to characterize the actual JFK who has emerged over the twenty years during which we have become retrospectively acquainted with him, it would be skeptical. JFK arrived at the White House mistrusting slogans and easy answers as well as servile and self-serving advisers. He was bored and irritated by yes-men. He seems to have been almost instinctually skeptical of immediate, emotional responses to crisis situations. But after the humiliation he brought on himself and his administration by allowing the Bay of Pigs invasion to go forward, he seems to have become an even more skeptical exemplar of a principle of leadership attributed to one of his historical heroes, the French diplomat Maurice Talleyrand: “Above all,” Talleyrand proclaimed, “no zeal.”
Over the past 20 years, as we have listened to the Kennedy tapes, read the written record of decision making during the Kennedy administration, and cross-examined those who served in it, we have become struck by how clearly Kennedy the skeptic appears over and over again. He is a president who often asks the toughest questions and whose skeptical proclivities often stand out in sharp relief from the Cold War boilerplate often served up to him by his advisers.
In claiming that JFK was a war-averse decision maker, a skeptic on the overt use of military force, we are not endeavoring to recruit Kennedy retrospectively into the ranks of pacifism. That would be silly. He had been a patrol boat commander fighting the Japanese in World War II. Kennedy was no pacifist, but he was a serious student of history, especially diplomatic history.