What if JFK had lived?


I was sitting in a fifth grade classroom when the principal’s voice came over the loudspeaker.  President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. He was dead.

Like almost everyone else on Nov. 22, 1963, I was stunned and saddened. I was a particularly political kid; my family and I all worshipped JFK in a way that only Italian Catholic Democrats could appreciate.

Not everyone was upset. One kid, John, expressed happiness with the result, so while walking home from school I pushed him into a ditch.  I still don’t regret doing that.

November 2013 is upon us, and that means the 50th anniversary of that terrible day in Dallas. We are soon to be deluged with articles and TV shows on the assassination; the bookstores are already filling up with tomes about Kennedy’s life, legacy and death.

For people of my generation, few topics hold such a strong grip as the idea of “what if Kennedy had not been killed?” What if Oswald had missed by just an inch on the second shot, or if the Secret Service had used some of the security techniques which are considered no-brainers today?

There’s a fair amount of literature devoted to this subject. In the Sixties and Seventies, old New Frontiersmen devised a tale of a New Camelot. If Kennedy had not been shot, he would have pulled American troops out of Vietnam, crushed Goldwater at the polls and ushered in a new era of liberal ascendency. FDR with better hair.

Today’s writers aren’t so sure. In Stephen Kings’s novel “11/22/63” an attempt to travel back in time to save “Jack” takes a strange turn.

(Spoiler alert!)

The time traveler, after encountering many strange obstacles, does save Kennedy, but the outcome is horrific. Kennedy is unable to force the passage of the Civil Rights Act that – in real life – Lyndon Johnson was able to push through. The result is heart-breaking.

Of course, King introduces a creepy element. Maybe history doesn’t want to be changed.  Our chronal paladin has messed with the space-time continuum and reality itself goes into revolt.

Jeff Greenfield in “Then Everything Changed,” writes about an earlier assassination attempt in 1960 that succeeds. Johnson becomes president and …

(Spoiler alert!)

LBJ, under the stress of the Cuban missile crisis, suffers a heart attack. In the confusion that follows, the Russians launch a nuclear strike and millions die in what’s termed the “Sixty-Minute War.”

Greenfield has another book out on this theme. “If Kennedy Had Lived,” which draws some similar conclusions about the limits of Kennedy’s accomplishments.

Other authors have been similarly grim. One version of events has Kennedy’s personal scandals exposed in his second term; another has his well-hidden physical ailments flaring up.

It almost seems that the further we get from the event, the fewer reasons we find to regret it.

Of course, such speculation, interesting as it is, is just guesswork.  Small events can lead to big events. Butterflies have weight.

To me, none of those might-have-beens matter much. Whatever his failings and triumphs, John Kennedy was a man who was loved, admired and inspiring.  He fought through crises with at least as much skill as we can imagine employed by any recent president, and with a far-more unified nation.

If his life was not pure, his intentions were good, which is the best you can say about anyone.  All the matters, in the end, is that Nov. 22, 1963 happened as it did, and we learned how to go on.

Maybe King was right. History doesn’t want to be changed and we don’t really want to change it.

– Jim Tortolano


Jim Tortolano is managing editor of E Pluribus Unum and had a picture of John Kennedy on his wall as a kid.


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  1. Doug Nulle says:

    Great article, Jim! The ‘what-if’s’ are intriguing, but unfortunately, we have to play the hand we’re dealt.

  2. Wayne Sherwood says:

    It was my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, that told us Kennedy had been shot. She told us all to bow our heads and pray for him. I remember looking around the class baffled because we were not suppose to pray in school. After school a classmate was laughing because there would be no school for several days. I yelled at him and called him mean because our President was dying, and all he was thinking about was not having to go to school.

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