In an alternate world where Kennedy survived being shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963, what would we see? Greenfield suggests we’d see a nation that chose not to engage in a war in Vietnam, but also a nation that did not pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What would be the benefits and drawbacks of this outcome?
The book starts off slowly and only really gets interesting once Greenfield starts discussing the run-up to the 1964 election. Kennedy is portrayed as over-confident and a bit of a snob (as Kennedys were often portrayed), but also as self-conscious and intently focused on his public image. The main obstacles to his second election were civil rights and the threat of nuclear war. He was able to overcome both and defeat his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, by a landslide. In reality, Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson in 1964, also by a huge surplus. In this story, however, poor Lyndon Johnson is ignored and eventually cast off by everyone, doomed to become a passing reference in the textbook of American history.
There are those who talk about Kennedy as if he were god-like, and there are those who denigrate everything he did. Honestly, I haven’t read enough about his presidency to make a judgement about his politics and I don’t give a damn about what he did in his private life. Greenfield suggests that Kennedy would have focused on peace in Vietnam, and although this would be greatly beneficial to the American economy and morale, the focus on foreign policy would overshadow issues of race and equality within the nation, causing a different set of problems.
The lesson to take away from reading this book is that America will have problems no matter who is president. Some things may work out better, but may be to the detriment of other causes. I’m not one to dwell on what could have been, and so this will probably be the only alternate history I read in the course of my life. This one gets just a “meh” from me.
If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History by Jeff Greenfield will be available through Putnam Publishing on October 22nd, 2013.
The book can also be found on Amazon.