What if JFK had lived?

There are plenty of alternate histories about JFK surviving an assassination attempt in Dallas. Examples include:

  • Simon Burns, "What if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed?" published in Prime Minister Portillo… and other things that never happened: A Collection of Political Counterfactuals (2003)
  • Robert Dallek, "JFK Lives," published in What Ifs? of American History: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Might Have Been (2013)
  • Jeff Greenfield, If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History (2013)
  • Robert Rienzi, It Rained in Dallas (2002)

They tend to have in common:

  • Kennedy withdrawing from Vietnam early.
  • Civil rights being delayed or enacted less comprehensively without Lyndon Johnson as president.

An exception is Chris Bunch's "Murdering Uncle Ho," published in Alternate Generals III (2005), in which Kennedy commits to defending South Vietnam. The war goes as poorly as it did in the real world and by 1970, a President Nelson Rockefeller (who in reality failed to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 and 1968) orders the assassination of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.

Then there's the crazy:

  • National Lampoon devoted its February 1977 issue to an imaginary fifth Kennedy term. America has withdrawn from Vietnam and normalized relations with China. Cardinal Richard Cushing is elected as the first American pope. A Summer Vatican is established in Coral Gables, Florida. When riots break out in Northern Ireland in 1969, Kennedy orders a military intervention. He stacks the Supreme Court with members of his family. Year after year, Kennedy forces Khrushchev to back down in missile crises in the Aleutian Islands, Virgin Islands, Bermuda… Richard Nixon runs against Kennedy in '64, '68, '72, '76, and loses every time.
  • In Camelot Revisited: The Alternate History of America Since November 22, 1963 (1996), Alex Jack imagines a war in Central America, the Soviets reaching the Moon first and America creating a fifty-first state, Camelot, in the middle of the country, devoted to progressive ideals.

What are some other (realistic) consequences of Kennedy surviving?

Are there any alternate histories I've missed?


  • Of course there are. Here's one: Bryce Zabel, Surrounded by Enemies: What If Kennedy Survived Dallas? (2014), much recommended.

    We can add Stephen King's 11/22/63 (2012) to the list, with an AH timeline in the last part.

  • Would JFK had had the political capital to leave early? It would have been seen as conceding another anti-Communist state to the Communists. Domestic opinion, particularly Catholic domestic opinion at the time, woukd pressure him to stay.

  • I like the idea that if JFK had lived the space program would have been mothballed even sooner. Kennedy unlike LBJ was much more concerned with the polls. Hence why he was more conservative on civil rights than Johnson was among other things. Kennedy made his famous Moon speech and then tried to talk the Soviets into doing a joint lunar mission after the missile crisis, primarily because of the enormous cost. The Soviets weren't really interested (there were still internal debates on the Soviet side about just what exactly Soviet space policy should be; a lunar landing program wasn't even solidified as a firm goal until 1964 and infighting between the Korolov and Chelomei design bureaus would continue until 1966.) and I could see JFK walking back the Moon goals by doing what US presidents since have done, make a big proclamation about space, put it to congress and let them lower the space program's funding. Maybe an earth orbiting space station by the late 60's flies; like the USAF manned orbital laboratory.

    As for Vietnam, I can see JFK keeping the conflict bubbling on the back burner for a long time. Unlike Johnson who favored old romantic notions of war, JFK was an advocate for small scale special forces and covert operations driven wars. Very much like Obama in that regard. I suspect a Vietnam war fought that way would be about as successful as the similar approach in Afghanistan 40 years later, but by not calling up the draft and keeping committed forces smaller, like Afghanistan, the American public wouldn't have gotten as heated about it. College kids protested involvement in Vietnam because they didn't want to get drafted; In real history once that policy was ended, the protest movement quieted down. In this timeline, the draft never gets called up at all, so the protests never really materialize on a large scale.

    Maybe with the money freed up from Vietnam NASA still gets to go to the Moon by 1969.

  • Fascinating! I don't know much about the Soviet space program. What do you think is the likeliest scenarios to get the Soviets to the Moon first?

    About Vietnam, I don't know if Kennedy would have resisted pressure from the generals to escalate, like he resisted them on Cuba. We can probably safely say he would have been less likely to escalate than Johnson, and indeed that's the reason conspiracy theories must commonly give for a military/CIA plot to kill JFK.

    If JFK lives, he makes no progress on civil rights, and the Vietnam War just sort of continues in the background, do we think he would have won reelection in 1964? Against Goldwater, almost certainly, but what if the Republicans had nominated Nelson Rockefeller?

  • Oh the Soviet space program was structured very differently from the US one. Ironically the US effort was more effectively 'centrally planned' than the Soviet. NASA would come up with a list of design directives and then put bids out to contractors to build various systems and components. The best (accounting for congressional pressure for pork spending) submission would be chosen and then built to NASA specification.

    The Soviets by contrast had a design bureau system wherein these engineering agencies would submit designs and the Soviet leadership would approve them for production. On the surface it seems similar to the US approach but with one key difference, there was no coordinating agency. Individual design bureaus would submit proposals for various things they thought were interesting. For example, the massive N-1 rocket, the ill-fated 'Soviet Moon rocket' was originally designed and proposed as a heavy lift vehicle to loft components for a Mars mission into Earth orbit and it was eventually recast as a Moon rocket. Different bureaus had different patrons, Chelomi for example employed Khrushchev's son. This is why despite Korolev's successes with Vostok/Voshkod his bureau wasn't given the full go-ahead on a Moon program until Khrushchev was ousted by Brezhnev and Kosygin. Even then however, the Brezhnev administration demanded political stunts like the botched Soyuz 1 flight in 1967. After Korolev's death in 1966, his design team struggled as well, and there was the ever-present issue of a lack of funds when compared to NASA at the time. The long and short of it is that a lack of coherence and a lack of funds doomed the Soviet Moon effort.

    As to how the Soviets get there first I'm not sure, maybe the US puts the first satellite up in 1957 and /or puts the first person in space in 1961 and therefore feels more confident going into the 60's and isn't as bothered by Soviet space efforts. All throughout the 60's a majority of Americans didn't approve of the money being spent on the space program so I don't think it would take much to make it even less appealing. So, the Soviets get their first by default. Alternatively, you could do something more radical, like have Beria win the post Stalin power struggle and then somehow form a more coherent space policy earlier.

    A big factor in NASA's 1960's successes were due to LBJ. He was a huge fan and advocate of the space program, both because he had a firm belief in science funding but also because he hoped to use it in part to change the culture of the deep south. And like I said, he didn't really care about polls (A brave practice in some contexts, terrible in others). If he's not president I think that would have a huge impact too.

    As for JFK and Vietnam, Kennedy could have tried to outmaneuver the old bomber generals by promoting special forces commanders and USAF missile and space advocates which he started doing after the Missile Crisis as I recall. Guys like LeMay hated space and ICBMs. After Vietnam in our timeline the fighter officers became ascendant in the USAF and the space guys were relegated to second tier status. Here though I could see JFK using space as a way to both look tough on defense and promote officers who would be more in line with his military vision. Maybe you'd see things like the Manned Orbital Laboratory or the Dynasoar fly, assuming Kennedy gets a second term.

    As for the 64' election, I don't think JFK would do nothing on civil rights, but he would not have been nearly as bold as LBJ. Against Goldwater I think he'd still win. As for Rockefeller, I'm not sure. I'll have to think more about it. In either case though the GOP would be vastly different if either of them won. Goldwater is often rightly considered the sort of forefather of neoliberal policy in the GOP; he was Reagan's mentor after all. But he differed in one very key way in that he was a staunch environmentalist. Back then environmentalism and conservation were still considered conservative positions, but Goldwater was a standout. I'm not really sure what this means but it's worth noting I think. If Rockefeller wins perhaps Detente starts sooner.

    Anyway, sorry for the blog post.

  • Don't apologize! I'm learning a lot. It sounds like the failure of the Soviet space program was emblematic of the failure of the Soviet economy: too much politics and patronage and too little competition.

    Although I suppose you could call the jockeying for patronage and political favors a form of competition, but clearly it's not a type of competition that's very productive.

    Assuming Kennedy goes into the '64 election fairly popular, Republicans might be less inclined to nominate the radical Goldwater and go with the safer Rockefeller? I'm not sure what Rockefeller's policy would be on Vietnam, but assuming he pursues a relatively "soft" Cold War policy (I agree with you, détente could happen sooner) that might provoke a conservative backlash and see Reagan becoming president in '72.

  • Oh yeah, over centralized systems never work out, communism is a bad idea after all. Not that the US hasn't adopted its share of self defeating policies, but that's just the life cycle of great powers I suppose.

    I think you're right about Rockefeller winning the 64' nomination. I'm not sure if he would win; If Rockefeller was smart (and he was) he'd try to win back the black voters Nixon lost in 1960. If Kennedy drags his feet too much I think that might be a possibility. If Rockefeller wins though I'm not sure you'd have the 'Reagan Revolution' at all; the transformation to neoliberal orthodoxy would still happen I think, but it would be slower, and quite possibly might develop in the Democrats first. Without the convulsions of the late 60's civil rights riots or the reaction to the anti-Vietnam lefty college kids the sullen 70's don't happen. Reagan can't ride the southern angst or the Catholic and emerging Protestant Christian right anti-abortion (without the radical student left you don't get second wave feminism, even with the pill) sentiment into the White House. I could see the 'Atari Democrats' and guys like Clinton being the torch bearers for the 'freer the markets, the freer the people' stuff first sometime in the mid 70's as a reaction to stagflation, beating the GOP to the punch while Reagan remains an influential if not dominant figure in the GOP.

    The question is how does Vietnam turn out? I can see Rockefeller getting away with some kind of North-South Vietnam settlement given his capitalist and conservative credentials. Of course this is assuming he inherits a hypothetical JFK 'low level' Vietnam War. The other big question for the late 60's and early 70's is how is the Sino-Soviet split handled? Nixon decided to head to China, and Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai where more than willing to make that happen but in this context with Detente happening sooner, the US might be more neutral on the issue. That has some pretty profound implications for Bangladesh and Pakistan, but that's a whole other can of worms.

    Nixon and later Reagan's big change to the right was turning 'Anti-Communism' into 'Anti-Sovietism' since they were totally fine with the CPC. I wonder though, if without Nixon and Kissinger the opposite thing happens. With an earlier Detente, the US capitalizes on Kosygin's attempts at modest market reforms in the late 1960's and essentially nudges the USSR down a path analogous to the one China followed in our timeline, creating special economic zones for western investment and so on. Guys like Gorbachev would have thrived in a 1970's where that was the case. China meanwhile would still be roiled by the cultural revolution and its aftershocks, and without the legitimacy the US arrival gave them, reformers like Deng and Zhou would be further marginalized. Of course this might blow up in the US' face, like with China right now, but in the 70's nobody would know that.

  • "Atari Democrats" leading the neoliberal revolution! Now that's an alternate history I'd read.

    I don't agree completely, though. I think you're correct that without Vietnam, the (student) left would be less radical, but I'm not sure progress would be slower per se on issues like abortion and civil rights. They might be less controversial, hence produce less of a backlash that Reagan (or someone like him) could ride. But if you also factor in the oil crises of the early 1970s, stagflation, and right-wing opposition to a Rockefeller policy of detente, I'd imagine there would still be enough of a groundswell for a conservative reaction.

    (Interesting aside: Reagan was the leading conservative opponent of the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy, but when he pursued his own version of detente with Gorbachev in the 1980s, many of the conservatives who had backed him in the 1970s turned against him. Unlike Reagan himself, many of his erstwhile supporters didn't recognize that working with Gorbachev was the way to end communism in Eastern Europe, which after all had been the reason they opposed the Nixon-Kissinger "realist" foreign policy in the first place: because it accepted communism as a given.)

    China is an interesting issue I hadn't thought of! Indeed, if we have American-Soviet detente starting in the mid-60s, whether under a reelected Kennedy or a President Rockefeller, there's probably not going to be a President Nixon at all, nor would Kissinger end up in government, and without them and without a good reason for it, there probably wouldn't be the opening to China.

    I like your scenario, although my hunch is this might be expecting the Soviets to open up too much, too fast. In the late 60s, early 70s, memories of the Berlin Crisis, Hungarian Uprising and Cuban Missile Crisis would still be fresh. If the Soviets still crush the Prague Spring in '68, that could also discredit detente in America.

    Perhaps push it back a little and have the Soviets put Gorbachev in charge immediate after Brezhnev's death in '82? That would also align nicely with Deng in the real world and you can really swap the China and Russia stories.

  • Your mention of the OPEC crisis made me think of something. If LBJ is never president, than the US relationship with Israel is still one at arm's length. Johnson really changed that relationship profoundly, but if JFK is still in office then the US-Israel relationship remains the awkward one it was from the 50's on, with tacit friendliness towards the Non-Aligned Movement and Israel as long as those states don't get too chummy with Moscow or Beijing. If Rockefeller is president though, then the US becomes much more pro-Arab, given Saudi Aramco's ties to the Rockefeller family, though it would complicate things with Egypt. In that situation, the OPEC crisis might not even happen, even in a reduced form.

    That being said, I think socially progressive policies would be adopted, but it's important to recall that tone is important. Radical kids equating the pill with Marxist revolution as they did creates a stronger backlash than some moderates taking about safe sex. In addition, the marriage between American Conservatives and the pro neoliberal/globalization business community was always a somewhat awkward relationship. They tolerated the real social and fiscal conservative hardliners, and the hardliners in tern put up with their open border policies and footsie with China (until 2016 anyway) but in this world a socially liberal/fiscally (neo)liberal Democratic Party might become the darlings of the business community instead of the GOP. The New Democrats come to power in the 1970's instead of the mid 80's as a reaction to stagflation while the GOP finds itself without a clear direction; Maybe it takes a more reactionary turn earlier that 2016? I admit this will take some more thought though. It would be fun to have a Gary Hart presidency somewhere in there!

    I like your Gorbachev in 82 idea. I think the wall still would have come down, but the USSR itself might exist in a form sort of like modern Russia with a nominal multi-party system but with the (more market oriented) CPSU still having the majority of power. Maybe the Baltics leave and Mongolia is asked to join the Union sometime in the late 80's? I imagine the economic transition isn't anywhere nearly as disastrous as the real life Yeltsin years were. Maybe we get the proposed Soviet Union pavilion at EPCOT!

  • Interesting point on Rockefeller and the Arabs! If I were writing this as an alternate history, I'd avoid the oil crisis altogether. Without America backing off the Soviets from interfering in the 1973 war, though, could Israel lose?

    On the domestic front - keep in mind the origins of the conservative movement are in the immediate post-WW2 Red Scare. That could come back to the forefront if the US administration is perceived by the right as too soft on the Soviets. The conservative reaction may be driven more by foreign than social policy, but I think it would happen one way or another.

    Similarly, in a quieter social climate, the Democratic Party may not be pulled so far to the left, but I still find it hard to imagine a neoliberal shift in the 70s. The Clinton Third Way was a reaction to Reagan, and Clinton convinced Democrats of it by arguing it was the only way to get back into power. Without a Reagan Revolution, and long stretch of Republican rule, what's the incentive for Democrats to move to the right?

  • Thinking about the (neo)conservative movement in the US is interesting. We talked about Goldwater before, and despite his 1964 Civil Rights Act vote (which he admitted was misguided; he felt he got too worked up about federal hiring mandates and missed the bigger picture) he was very much a progressive on social issues, to the point that he objected to Reagan's embrace of the Christian Right and other social conservatives.

    In addition, on the foreign policy front it's worth noting that a lot of the neoconservative foreign policy types were ex Democrats (or even ex anti Soviet communists) who felt that the Democrats had gotten too soft on communism (particularly the Soviet Union) in the 70's. If Rockefeller is doing an early Detente, their ire would be aimed at the GOP and they wouldn't leave the Democratic fold. If the Democrats stick with the moderate socially progressive stuff, and advocate a more hawkish foreign policy to oppose the Rockefeller Republicans then people like Goldwater find themselves in a funny position wherein they have a lot of common ground with the Democrats.

    The big question I'm not sure about is what happens with the social conservatives?

  • I think the better description for Goldwater would be libertarian rather than progressive on social issues.

    Good point on the neoconservatives. Many indeed were former liberals. I'm also reminded that Kennedy criticized the Republicans in the 1960 election for allowing a "missile gap" to develop between the US and Russia (which was a lie) and for being soft on Cuba. So a "tough on communism" Democratic Party vs a pro-detente Republican Party is not incredible.

    I also struggle to see what happens to the Christian right. Maybe their attempt to take over the Republican Party simply fails? And it remains a more business-oriented, low-tax party with stronger support in Northern cities and suburbs than it did in the real world. Democrats would remain more focused on the South, which, with slower progress on civil rights under Kennedy, is possible to imagine.

  • Yeah the idea of the democrats being hawks isn't that much of an out there idea, until 68' they were openly hawkish. As I heard it put somewhere a long time ago, 'LBJ may not have fought smart in Vietnam, but he went in with both fists flying.' It's why I've always had a hard time with the idea that 'Kennedy would never have gone into Vietnam', he may not have gone in as hard as Johnson did, but he would have done something. Your idea of the GOP becoming a more openly 'War is bad for business' party, vs the Democrats remaining and expanding on the 'freedom isn't free' identity is an interesting yet plausible one. I suspect the Democrats would still have their uncomfortable northern FDR working class/southern base factionalism, with anti communism being part of the glue that holds them together.

    The idea of the Christian Right being out in the cold as a result of this is an interesting one. Maybe they would have a life cycle similar to the real world left counterculture. Make a lot of noise for a time, but just never really get anywhere with libertarians, liberals and old school Rockefeller business types alike viewing them as an oddity. Basically, nobody caters to them, so they never get that big.

    Huh this is interesting! Thanks for the enjoyable back and forth!

  • It's an interesting time period to explore! I think because it was an era of such social and political upheaval that you can take into many different directions as an alternate history.

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