American troops are amassed at the border of a Central Asian republic. The U.S. is on the brink of war -- not with with Muslim extremists, but with the Soviet Union. It's November 22, 2013.
This week, we are all looking back at the terrible events that happened fifty years ago in Dallas. But what about looking back at what didn't happen? What if JFK had survived that fateful day and went on to serve two terms as president? How might the 60s have been different, and how might it all have lead to a parallel universe present day in which the U.S. is about to go to war with a still-kicking Soviet Union? JFK WTF? you say. Well, it's not as crazy as it sounds. Join me in the way-back machine for a thought experiment in JFK alternate history:
November 22, 1963
When President Kennedy arrives in Texas, he is three years into a tumultuous first term. He has weathered six international crises, including a bungled invasion of Cuba, the erection of the Berlin Wall and a standoff with the Soviets over missiles that brought the human race to the brink of oblivion. Republican opponents are calling him an appeaser, his approval numbers are stagnating, new international crises are looming and chronic health problems are making getting through the day a struggle.
As the motorcade makes its way through Dallas, adoring crowds line the route. The president's limo rounds the corner in Dealey Plaza and shots ring out. The first bullet misses. The second slices through his neck. As he slumps down in his seat a third whizzes by his head, missing by inches. The president is gravely wounded. The First Lady desperately applies pressure to the wound as the limo speeds off. He is clinically dead for several minutes before dramatically being revived as live TV cameras report from outside the hospital.
The blood-soaked First Lady emerges as a hero. But there's another reason why JFK survived that day. His closest advisors would later reveal if he had been wearing the brace he normally wore to aid with his ailing back, he wouldn't have slumped down after being hit, and the third shot would have taken half his head off.*
A wave of shock and relief sweeps the nation. The American public rallies behind the president with bipartisan zeal.
Surviving the assassination has a powerful psychological effect on him. He begins speaking in stark terms about the need for world peace and a move away from violence as an instrument of foreign policy. Pressure from his hawkish advisors to send ground troops to Vietnam is ignored. He is still the Cold Warrior he ever was, in that he believes American values will triumph over communism, but he is now committed to finding a peaceful way to achieve those ends.
Commentators call it the "Martyr's Mandate" as he pushes forward a new foreign policy agenda that calls for the launch of disarmament talks with the Soviets and an increase in official communication and cultural exchanges.
Psychologists would later note the president had been dodging death his whole life, from childhood health problems that forced him to spend two months in the Mayo Clinic to a World War II naval battle that nearly killed him. Now he feels as if he is on a spiritual mission to end the threat of global thermonuclear war.
But everything JFK would try to do would almost be derailed by a scandal that nearly destroys the Kennedy legacy.
A Different 60s
Without the Vietnam War, the landscape of America in the 1960s is radically different. There is no draft. No body bags coming back. No White House sending its young men to fight someone else's war.
The battle over Civil Rights becomes the central domestic issue. When Kennedy is reelected by a landslide in 1964, he pledges to support the black cause. But behind the scenes, storm clouds are gathering. Kennedy doesn't have the skills of his Vice President when it comes to pushing legislation through Congress. Aides warn he's moving too fast -- that the south will buck at being forced to integrate by an elitist Catholic chief executive.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover increasingly views JFK's near-religious adoration among the public, his embrace of civil rights and push for rapprochement with the Soviets as a nothing less than a threat to the republic. He expands his already extensive spying operation on the White House. He reaches out to southern racists and mob associates in secret meetings to plot against Kennedy and leaders such as MLK Jr. The FBI begins an aggressive program to infiltrate and disrupt the civil rights movement with the aid of organized crime, who offer their aid in an effort to weaken their mutual arch-enemy, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
Hoover begins leaking wiretaps of MLK Jr. to the press, urging them to take him down. He even hints that he has damaging evidence on the Kennedy brothers. At first there are no takers. But the country is in flames. When a march on Jackson, Mississippi is met with extreme violence from local police and KKK members, riots engulf southern cities. There's a tense stand off between U.S. army troops and local police. A constitutional crisis erupts. Our allies begin talking of boycotts of American goods, reminiscent of the global movement against Apartheid in South Africa.
A Second Civil War?
The president is able to avert a more serious conflict as Vice President Johnson brokers a deal in 1968 that brings civil rights legislation to pass while placating the southern states. Hoover sees his chance, and is finally able to find a journalist willing to publish the revelations of his surveillance on the president.
A respected columnist reports the true extent of JFK's chronic health problems, which first surfaced in the wake of the assassination attempt. Dramatic headlines reveal he is wracked by chronic pain, and regularly takes amphetamines to stay alert, and has, in times of extreme stress, taken mood-altering antidepressants.
The scandal widens when the White House attempts a coverup. JFK's numerous extramarital affairs are revealed when the Washington press corps turns on the administration. Like Watergate, the coverup proves worse than the original crime. A large portion of the public is appalled, and dramatic hearings begin. But many Americans still love the "martyr president" despite his transgressions, taking into account all he has endured for the nation. He doesn't resign, and gives one of the most emotional speeches in American history as he asks for forgiveness and urges Americans to look to the future.
In November 1968, RFK is elected president in a tight race against Richard Nixon. Nixon who had pledged an end to the racial turmoil, a law-and-order approach that respected southern traditions. But JFK's scandals ironically help RFK. The younger brother is viewed as the straight-laced sibling with all of his brother's idealism but without the personal faults.
The late 60s are a time of earnestness. Without the war, there is no Woodstock and the counterculture gets subsumed by the Kennedys' New Frontier ethos. Rock & roll becomes boring and American popular culture stagnates.
When RFK announces he has invited a Soviet astronaut to the join an Apollo mission to the moon as a symbol of peace it's the last straw for the FBI Director and other conservative plotters. Hoover leaks audiotapes of RFK's own sexual dalliances in a desperate attempt to bring him down. But RFK preempts Hoover's move. He had been keeping his own file on Hoover. And he releases information exposing the FBI director's longtime gambling habit, ties to organized crime, and even drops hints of his homosexuality. Hoover is forced to resign. It's checkmate for the Kennedys.
It's the final act in a battle of political titans that would define the 60s.
July 19, 1969, Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts: A sports car barrels down a dark road. A handsome young man is sharing a flask with a pretty young woman. As he goes to kiss her, the car careens off a bridge and smashes into the dark water. The girl is trapped. The driver tries to free her, but can't. He swims to the surface and scrambles ashore, where our host stands silently, watching the car sink. Suddenly, a black car screeches to a halt. Two men in black suits jump out and dive into the water, rescuing the young woman. As the brother of a sitting president, Edward Kennedy has a mandatory 24-hour security detail. When his car careened off the bridge, there were agents on the scene to save Mary Jo Kopechne, avoiding the tragedy that might have doomed Edward's presidential hopes.**
A Re-imagined 70s
RFK's victory over Hoover is short-lived. A war in the Middle East disrupts the economy, and the U.S. is plunged into recession. And in 1972, a tough talking young Republican star named Richard Cheney is elected president, pledging fiscal conservatism and a strong global military presence. Cheney sends troops to Egypt when Muslim extremists assassinate our ally Anwar Sadat and U.S. troops get bogged down in a guerrilla war while trying to secure the Suez Canal and help protect Israel. Meanwhile, reformers in the Soviet Union stay out of the fray, liberalizing their economy and expanding their oil infrastructure throughout Soviet Central Asia, bringing in much needed hard currency.
When Afghanistan falls to indigenous rebels, the Soviets, seeing America's problems in Egypt, decide not to invade, instead preferring to focus on solidifying control of the existing satellite republics. There is no proxy war in Afghanistan, and an international mujahadeen, and its consequent group Al Qaeda, never take shape.
In 1980, Edward Kennedy is elected president, bringing the Kennedy legacy full circle. But the coming two decades prove difficult for the country. Relations between the Soviet Union and the U.S. begin to fray. The economy stalls, and innovation, once the hallmark of the Kennedy legacy, proves illusive.
The New Cold War
December 31, 1999. Red Square, Moscow, USSR. It's the turn of the century. The Reagan Revolution never happened. The Berlin Wall stands. And a reinvigorated Soviet Union is on the cusp of something big.
Hardliners have seized power in the Soviet Union. They establish radical anti-capitalist training camps in the USSR's Central Asian Republics. The U.S. Secretary of Defense refuses to deny that the Pentagon is increasing the flow of covert arms to insurgents in the Soviet Union. The "Cold War," dormant since the 60s, heats up again.
The Soviet Union is a powerhouse. America's most popular touch-screen gadget, the iBerry, is produced by cheap Soviet labor. The unmistakable white glass sheen of an iBerry store looms over Moscow's Red Square, with a hammer and sickle on top. A poster in a New York subway station reads: "If you see something, say something," above a picture of a sneaky Trotsky-esque character wearing a Soviet beret and a backpack.
The New Terror
November 22, 2013: Terrorists have hijacked a passenger plane and have flown them into an American military base in Europe. Hundreds are killed. The terrorists are communists, trained in the USSR. The U.S. deploys 180,000 troops to allied nations bordering the Soviet Union. The Soviets warn that if the U.S. does not withdraw, they will consider it an act of war. The U.S. and the USSR are once again at a nuclear standoff. Troops mobilize on both sides. The world holds its breath.
Of course, this is all one man's fever dream. Is it plausible? That's for you to decide. But the truth is that history is a dialectic. What may seem like a miracle in the present might have long term consequences no one can predict. Just as one butterfly flapping its proverbial wings might trigger a hurricane thousands of miles away, we never know what tiny decision in the moment might radically alter the course of history.
* The idea that JFK's back brace enabled the kill shot was first proposed by one of the residents who treated JFK's wounds, and was recounted by presidential historian Robert Dallek in his book An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963.
** Jeff Greenfield first posited a similar twist on Ted Kennedy's fate in his book If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History.
Anthony Lappé is a NY-based author, television producer and media commentator. He wrote the graphic novel "Shooting War," and produced the award-winning Showtime Iraq war documentary, "BattleGround." He has appeared on numerous media outlets, including the BBC, NPR, CBC and Radio Havana. He is currently a consultant for the National Geographic Channel and a freelance producer for Radical Media.