Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived
The film: produced and directed by Koji Masutani, Docudrama Films, 2009, available on DVD, www.virtualjfk.com The book: by James G. Blight, janet M. Lang, David A. Welch, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009
In November of 1963, the United States had 16,000 military advisers in South Vietnam. Five years later, more than half a million U.S. troops were on the ground there and nearly 20,000 had been killed. The unanswerable question long asked: What would have happened in Vietnam if President John F. Kennedy had lived?
That question has been the subject of an extensive project of Professor James Blight and Adjunct Associate Professor janet M. Lang, both at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, and David A. Welch, professor of political science at the University of Toronto. The project resulted in the film Virtual JFK, and its companion book of the same name.
Using declassified documents, tape recordings of presidential conversations and extensive interaction and testimony from a “critical oral history” conference in 2005 that included former Kennedy and Johnson administration officials and scholars, the authors assess the plausibility of the “what ifs” related to the presidents’ decisions on the war.
The book presents a wide range of views and interesting arguments among the participants, and a wealth of excerpts from declassified documents, memos and secret audiotapes. From this factual record, the authors make the argument that, yes, indeed there does exist compelling evidence that Kennedy was on his way to ending the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. While many will outright disagree with that assessment and scoff at the elevation of “counterfactual history,” the book does clearly present the facts alongside expert testimony and analysis such that readers can draw their own conclusions.
The movie Virtual JFK is artfully produced and essentially provides viewers the opportunity to attempt to divine what a post-Dallas Kennedy might have done in Vietnam by examining the actions taken by the young president during the multiple crises he faced in his first year in office.
As the film begins, with Professor Blight narrating between audio and video clips of Kennedy’s news conferences, viewers may find themselves thinking more of the present than the past. Christened by the Bay of Pigs, JFK faces in 1961 what Blight says might be “the worst year a president has ever had.” All the while, former Vice President Richard Nixon attacks him for his “lack of spine,” and the Republican Party questions his competence.
The film draws its conclusions by deconstructing the string of nerve-rattling Cold War confrontations in 1961 that took the United States just to the brink of military conflicts, despite the willingness of many to push JFK into taking us over the brink into a hot war, from Cuba to Berlin to Laos.
In Laos, for example, in the face of “falling domino” warnings and more Nixon catcalls (“Never in American history has a man talked so big and acted so little”), Kennedy insists, “All we want in Laos is peace, not war.” Through symbolic actions and diplomacy, the United States and the Soviet Union negotiate their way out of the Laotian crisis.
On the evolving Vietnam crisis, the film offers up thoughtful Kennedy press comments where he describes the ongoing guerrilla insurgency and says: “How we fight that kind of a problem, which is going to be with us all through this decade, seems to me to be one of the great problems before the United States….I don’t feel satisfied that we have an effective answer to it yet.”
In recorded October 1963 discussions with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Kennedy discusses how to get out of Vietnam and reduce the exposure of U.S. combat personnel to the guerrilla actions in South Vietnam. McNamara tells him: “We must have a means of disengaging from this area. We must show our country what that means.”
Days later, worried about public reaction and Republican criticism of a formal plan for disengagement, Kennedy tells McNamara, “Let’s just go ahead and do it without making a formal statement about it.” However, to reporters’ questions about any speed up of troop reductions in late 1963, JFK responds, “We would expect to withdraw 1,000 men from South Vietnam before the end of the year.”
The film then follows the transition of U.S. policy under President Lyndon B. Johnson, drawing a dramatic contrast to what it might have been under Kennedy.
Perhaps most unnerving is an extended account of an February 15, 1965, memo to LBJ from Vice President Hubert Humphrey noting that the overwhelming Democratic control of Congress undercuts sniping from the far right. He then warns Johnson that Vietnam will chew up American boys, and he won’t be able to tell Americans why; that the Viet Cong control most of the country and the situation is getting worse and we don’t know who we are supporting half the time and, if we chose to go to war, we have to consider we don’t know what we are doing. Johnson refused to meet further with Humphrey about his concerns.
Does Virtual JFK settle anything? Can we ever know the history that never happens? No. But the film and book are useful resources for anyone seeking to understand how the U.S. role in Vietnam unfolded.
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.