If you hadn’t noticed (and it would be hard not to), there’s an increasing number of books coming out on a topic Americans never seem to tire of — the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Although books about the assassination could fill a significant number of bookshelves, next month’s 50th anniversary of the event is adding reams of paper to those shelves.
With the amount of time that’s passed, it isn’t surprising people still wonder where the nation would be if Kennedy had not been assassinated. Political commentator Jeff Greenfield explores the “What if?” through the alternative history trope in If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History.
This isn’t Greenfield’s first venture into this genre. Last year, he released a Kindle single on Al Gore beating George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election and two years ago he looked more broadly at alternative political history in Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan.
As Greenfield points out in both the preface and afterword to If Kennedy Lived, he believes alternative history needs to be founded on plausibility. Greenfield uses existing historical materials to explore what realistically might have happened.
His works don’t proceed from speculations such as the time traveler who tries to prevent Kennedy’s assassination in Stephen King’s bestselling 11/22/63. Yet while plausibility is essential to believable alternative history, If Kennedy Lived also shows the limitations of strict adherence to this approach.
Greenfield explores a number of key issues that may have been affected by Kennedy’s death, such as whether he would have kept U.S. forces in Vietnam or the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He even considers the possibility of Kennedy’s philandering becoming public. Yet even the latter tends to have a wonkish feel.
The book tends to examine what might have happened more through policy debates that might have occurred than in terms of longer term social ramifications. This doesn’t mean Greenfield totally ignores those. For example, the book contemplates how different decisions about Vietnam might have affected the protest movements of the 1960s. It’s just that the focus seems more on policy than other matters.
Greenfield has a penchant for giving alternative history that reminds us of actual history. Thus, when the treasurer of a company founded by one of the Yippie leaders embezzles the money, he tells a judge, “I never should have trusted an accountant under thirty.” Similarly, here Richard Nixon does not David Frost in 1977 that “when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Instead, this timeline’s Nixon complains about the Kennedy Administration’s use of the IRS, saying, “Just because a president does it does not mean it’s legal.”
Certainly, given what those individuals actually said, it is plausible they might have said what Greenfield suggests. And perhaps it is because of this insistence on plausibility that the book concludes on the eve of the 1968 election, the end of the second term Kennedy wins in it. Thus, Greenfield does not extrapolate from the alternative scenarios he posits to look look at even longer term consequences.
Although unquestionably well researched and written, If Kennedy Lived has a bit too much of an “inside politics” feel.