What if JFK had lived?

How would events have differed if John F Kennedy had not been assassinated in 1963? Here four historians offer their views on what might have come next.

John F. Kennedy

This article was first published in the December 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Hugh Brogan says: “Kennedy wouldn’t have matched Johnson’s domestic reforms, but he would have escaped the Vietnam quagmire”

Had he lived, Kennedy would surely not have sacrificed his ambitions, achievements and popularity for the sake of the war in Vietnam. He had been so shocked by the assassination of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem that he decided the time had come to reduce America’s commitment. In fact, he had already started to withdraw troops. He knew that this would be a difficult process, but was determined to do it because he was disgusted by the whole business.

After Kennedy’s death, Johnson allowed himself to be swayed by the generals, so that instead of withdrawing troops, he started to pour more in. He didn’t believe in the crusade in Vietnam any more than Kennedy had done, but he didn’t want to be the first US president to preside over a military defeat.

At home, while Kennedy was strongly committed to the cause of civil rights and the civil rights bill, and would have introduced reform proposals similar to Johnson’s Great Society [a collection of measures addressing health, education, poverty and other issues] he might not have been as effective as his successor. Johnson entered the White House like a force of nature and he was very good at Congress. He knew how to bully, bribe, charm, twist, argue and persuade. I can’t think of anyone else as energetic and far-sighted. Johnson was also a creature of the New Deal in a way that Kennedy wasn’t. He came from a very poor background in Texas and had been deeply influenced by Roosevelt, so he was viscerally committed to getting the Great Society through.

The Democrats gained a huge majority in the 1964 elections, largely because of Kennedy’s assassination. Had Kennedy not been killed, the party might not have had such a large majority and been as well-placed to push through the radical programme that Johnson presided over.

Hugh Brogan is the author of The Penguin History of the United States of America (Penguin, 2001) 

John F. Kennedy
381091 27: President John F. Kennedy speaks at a press conference August 1, 1963. (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)

Dominic Sandbrook says: “Kennedy’s later years would have lacked the momentum of his first term”

My take on JFK is that he was a perfectly good, effective, cool, cautious politician who had a decent but not outstanding record in his first term. From the point of view of his reputation, the assassination came at a very good time, because the later 1960s were tougher for the United States, particularly with the situation in Vietnam.

There is the question of whether Kennedy would have committed as many troops as Johnson into Vietnam, or alternatively whether he would have pulled out. The way I look at it is that Kennedy’s whole political persona was based on being tough in the Cold War. He had won the 1960 presidential election largely on the back of saying the Republicans had been weak in the fight against communism and so I think it’s quite unlikely that Kennedy would have withdrawn from Vietnam. The historians who say he would have done so are asking us to believe that he would have changed after 1963, in ways he hadn’t done before. An analogy would be that if Tony Blair had been shot in 2001, after what was a cautious first term in office, would people now be saying that he would have gone on to achieve tremendous things? There’s little reason to believe that people fundamentally change in office.

You’ve got to remember that Kennedy only had one more term to go (had he won re-election) and generally when you have two-term presidents, if they want to get things done it has to be in their first term. Once they’ve been re-elected, they are a lame duck pretty much straight away and don’t have the momentum in Congress to get things going. Reagan, Clinton, George W Bush and (now) Obama all ran out of steam a little bit. On that basis, it is hard to imagine that Kennedy would have miraculously done all these things that he’d not been able to do in his first term.

Now when Johnson came in, he did have a lot of momentum and contacts in Congress and therefore had the traction to carry out his Great Society reforms. I don’t think Kennedy would have been able to achieve similar things.

Dominic Sandbrook is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine.

Sylvia Ellis says: “Kennedy shared Johnson’s ideals, but would have struggled to make the same progress on civil rights”

Kennedy and Johnson had similar visions for America. They were both liberal Democrats who believed that the national well-being was reliant on a vibrant economy, a strong national defence, racial progress and greater social justice. The key differences between the two men were in style, character and method. Johnson was less well-educated, less sophisticated and more folksy than his Harvard-educated, urbane and polished predecessor. Thus Johnson struggled to come across well in the new television age. But when it came to getting things done, he had the edge.

On civil rights, Kennedy would have attempted to go in the same direction, but may not have gone as far as Johnson. By the time of his death, the civil rights movement had persuaded JFK of the morality of the African-American cause, after he’d hesitated to act for the first two years of his presidency.

But the civil rights bill that he introduced was languishing at the congressional committee stage in November of 1963. Even with a more favourable situation in Congress – one that shifted the log-jam on civil rights – it is unlikely that JFK would have been able to pass the civil rights bill as quickly as Johnson did, or pass it with so few compromises.

Johnson’s lengthy career in the House and the Senate, and his successful spell as House Majority leader in the 1950s, meant that he was a master tactician when it came to securing legislation. His negotiating ability was essential in securing passage of the Civil Rights Act in July 1964 without weakening its provisions. Certainly Kennedy had a degree of vision on civil rights once he was president, but Johnson was the president who was able to deliver much of it.

Sylvia Ellis is the author of Freedom’s Pragmatist: Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights (University Press of Florida, 2013)

David Reynolds says: “Some things might have been different under Kennedy, but many events are beyond a leader’s control”

Kennedy’s death was a devastating moment. People of that era still remember where they were when they heard the news, including myself. Although I was only 11 at the time, I can still remember coming out of a piano lesson when I saw on the television that he had been shot. It was the start of a series of assassinations (including JFK’s brother Bobby and Martin Luther King Jr) that profoundly unsettled America’s sense of domestic security.

As to what might have happened had Kennedy lived, that is one of the great ‘what-ifs’ in history. There’s a lot of debate as to what he would have achieved in a second term. Supporters say he wouldn’t have got America into the quagmire of Vietnam and might have forged a rapprochement with ‘Red China’ a decade earlier than actually happened. Detractors argue that he had achieved little in Congress during his presidency and cite Johnson as the skilled political operator who got legislation passed on issues such as poverty and civil rights.

This argument partly depends on your readiness to go along with a Great Man theory of history. Leaders do have the capacity to shape events, but they are also constrained by forces far beyond their control. Ending the Cold War, for instance, depended on generational change in the USSR – Gorbachev was of a different era and outlook from Khrushchev, let alone Stalin – and also in America.

In Kennedy’s generation, most Americans had come of age during the Second World War and had a can-do-anything sense of American power. Vietnam was the expression of that viewpoint – and also its nemesis.

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David Reynolds is the author of America, Empire of Liberty: A New History (Allen Lane, 2009)