Although John F. Kennedy served just two years in the White House, the young President had come at a pivotal time in American politics. During his short term in office, his administration touched on some of the biggest political and cultural events of the 20th century – Civil Rights, Vietnam and the Cold War.
Extra-marital affairs and declining health aside, we ponder what might have happened to these significant events had JFK’s motorcade not turned down Elm Street in Dallas on that fateful day in November 1963. What if he’d not fallen foul of Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun and Lyndon B. Johnson had never ascended to the presidency?
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark act signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964. The law prohibited discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex and national origin and it brought about the end of segregation in public places in America. It is considered one of the great legislative achievements of the civil rights movement and according to most historians would not have come into law in 1964 had JFK not been assassinated.
Although Kennedy was committed to the cause of civil rights, his civil rights bill was languishing in Congress at the time of his death. With an election year on the horizon, he admitted to his advisors in taped recordings that he expected a tough re-election campaign due to his support of civil rights. That’s led some historians to speculate whether the president would have parked the issue until after his election, at which point he might have hoped for more leverage in Congress. Even with more clout in Congress, it’s generally accepted that a Kennedy-led administration would have had to make a lot more concessions to get the bill through that Johnson had to.
Johnson came to power like a force of nature. The southern Democrat knew how to work Congress and although he lacked the charisma of Kennedy in front of the TV cameras, his political influence was second to none. The Democrats also gained a huge majority in the 1964 elections, something that might not have happened had Kennedy not been assassinated.
Declaring the civil rights bill should be passed to honour Kennedy’s memory, Johnson’s forceful negotiation skills, along with the Democratic majority, saw the new president push the bill through to law without much compromise. Without Johnson in power, without the Democratic majority and therefore without Kennedy’s death, it’s unlikely the Civil Rights Act would have come to pass when it did, which would have led to many more years of civil unrest in America during the 60s and 70s.
The Vietnam War claimed over 58,000 American lives as well as millions of Vietnamese civilians and soldiers. It left America divided, caused deep social unrest and left an ingrained distrust for government, the scars from which can still be seen today.
Although not its architect, Johnson escalated the war to new heights, committed American troops to a land battle in Asia, conducted devastating bombing campaigns and used body counts as a way of monitoring progress.
Hotly debated amongst historians is whether JFK would have done things any differently. There are two main camps; those that believe Kennedy would still have gone to war and those that don’t.
The pro-war historians argue that Kennedy was a staunch anti-communist who’d won his election in 1960 in part due to his claims that Republicans had been weak against the spread of Communism. It was unlikely he was then going to follow suit, especially since he was a believer of the ‘domino theory’ that if one country in a region fell to Communism then surrounding countries would follow soon after. To protect Southeast Asia turning red, Kennedy knew Vietnam couldn’t fall; he was once recorded on tape declaring how mad Congress would be if ‘Vietnam goes down the drain.’
A 1964 interview given by Kennedy’s Attorney General brother Robert, also seems to back up the pro-war argument. ‘…he had a strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam and that we should win the war in Vietnam’, Robert spoke of his brother. He would go on to emphatically state that there had never been any intention on his brother’s behalf to pull out of Vietnam.
Those in the anti-war camp highlight that Kennedy never wanted to be in Vietnam in the first place and was even beginning to withdraw troops before his death. They argue Kennedy saw the political quagmire that an escalated conflict could become. He also had a deep distrust of his over-confident military advisors and more often in the past had chosen his own path, as demonstrated during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy liked to seek the diplomatic solution and if given the opportunity and time, Vietnam could have played out in the same way.
Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle with an argument that straddles both camps. Unwilling to seem weak on Communism, it’s likely Kennedy would have kept up the US presence in Vietnam but would not have escalated it to the lengths that Johnson did. He would also have wanted a quicker timeframe to get out, leading to a phased withdrawal strategy. Ultimately, this would still have left the South to fall to the North as in our timeline just at an earlier date.
This approach would have saved countless lives and prevented the explosion of counterculture back in America. U.S. citizens wouldn’t have been subjected to the first televised war and saw the horrors of battle beamed back to their living rooms. The 1960s without the anti-war movement would have been a very different place.
From 1947 to 1991, the world was gripped by the dangerously icy tensions of the Cold War. It would take until the 1970s for the world to witness the first period of détente (the relaxation of relations by more open verbal communications). Could everyone have breathed a slight sigh of relief a decade earlier had Kennedy remained in charge?
As already touched on, Kennedy was a staunch anti-communist who had already taken the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust during his face-off against Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. At first glance, it might be easier to believe that had Kennedy not been shot he might have escalated the Cold War further, especially with the tensions over Vietnam getting worse around that time.
However, most historians believe the opposite is true. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, they argue there was a shift in Kennedy’s attitude. Having come so close to obliterating the world at the push of a button, Kennedy looked to work with the Soviets more than ever before.
At a speech in 1963 delivered in Washington, Kennedy spoke of peace between the two nations and pushed for a limited ban on nuclear weapons. At another speech later in the year to the United Nations General Assembly, Kennedy proposed a joint manned lunar program with the Soviet Union. ‘Why, therefore, should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition?” Kennedy said. ‘The Soviet Union and the United States, together with their allies, can achieve further agreements—agreements which spring from our mutual interest in avoiding mutual destruction.’
It’s not beyond the realms of possibility then that Cold War tensions could well have de-escalated a long time before they did had Kennedy been in charge. Relations with Cuba would also have thawed, cancelling the long period of alienation we witness in our own timeline. Perhaps even the world would have witnessed a Soviet and an American walking on the moon for the first time in 1969.