Of all the great historical "what ifs" of the 20th century, "What if President John F. Kennedy had lived to serve out his presidency?" is among the most provocative. Under Kennedy's stewardship, would the United States have sunk deeper into the war in Vietnam? Would he have said no to the massive escalation of U.S. troops and vetoed the devastating air campaign against North Vietnam? Would 58,000 U.S. soldiers and some 2 million Vietnamese gone on to live their lives? Or would JFK have made no difference whatsoever?
Such thinking isn't mere idle speculation or Monday morning quarterbacking on an epochal scale. It is rather a trend in historiography (albeit a controversial one) known as "counterfactual" or "virtual history": an historical accounting in which the facts as they might have been are examined in order to determine the relative importance of a particular occurrence or individual. Critics like to cite the example of Cleopatra's nose to mock the counterfactual approach, but it does provide a vivid, if reductive, example: Had the Egyptian queen's nose been just the slightest bit longer, Marc Antony wouldn't have been so entranced, Rome wouldn't have fallen and Western history would have been completely different. This interesting but ultimately unsatisfying documentary from the young Japanese-born, U.S.-based filmmaker Koji Matsutani and international-relations expert James G. Blight (who closely advised Errol Morris on THE FOG OF WAR) looks closely at six key moments of Kennedy's thousand-day presidency -- crises over the Bay of Pigs, Laos, and the Berlin wall 1961; Vietnam and Cuba in 1962; and Vietnam once again on the eve of his assassination in 1963 -- all moments when the Cold War could very easily have turned red hot -- in hopes of determining how he would have acted in Vietnam had he lived.
Throughout each test of Kennedy's nerve and will -- and often in opposition to his closest advisors -- Matsutani and Blight discern Kennedy the peacemaker, and go on to speculate that had he not died in Dallas, Kennedy would once again have said no to war. But rather than go any further into the fascinating what-might-have-beens, the film in its final moments turns to the grim realities of the Johnson presidency. It becomes clear that Matsutani and Blight have simply used Kennedy as an example to prove that an individual as powerful as a U.S. president -- George W. Bush, say -- can make a difference when it comes to matters of war and peace. But it's a foregone conclusion and a basic flaw in the counterfactual argument: By choosing to examine Kennedy in the first place, it already presupposes his crucial importance. The film does, however, assemble an amazing array of recorded conversations and vintage newsreel, and offers up enough press conference footage to make one nostalgic for the days when an uncowed, penetrating press really did serve the public interest, and the president was a smart, inspirational and often very funny figure who could think on his feet and fearlessly take on all comers.
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