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Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan

by Jeff Greenfield

Pub Date: March 8th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-399-15706-6
Publisher: Putnam

For want of iron will on the part of an assassin, John F. Kennedy lived a few years longer than he might have.

Such is the stuff of counterfactual history, which scholars are not supposed to engage in—but in which Greenfield (Oh, Waiter, One Order of Crow! Inside the Strangest Presidential Election Finish in American History, 2001, etc.), a longtime TV journalist, revels. But this is not the “what if Custer had a helicopter” flavor of counterfactuality. Instead, the author offers three extensive and conjoined thought experiments centered on three turning points. In 1960, a suicide bomber failed to detonate his charge at president-elect Kennedy’s front door, deterred by the sight of his wife, Jacqueline. But what if he had carried out his mission? Lyndon Johnson would have become president, and the tenor of modern history might have changed with that mere shift of chronology. And who might he have chosen for vice president? After surviving a constitutional crisis mounted by a young William F. Buckley, Johnson might have named Bobby Kennedy, of course—though he might also have reached across the aisle to draft Nelson Rockefeller, “like Johnson…a Cold War internationalist” who relished any opportunity to face down the Russians. And then what? The Cuban Missile Crisis would have developed into an actual shooting war, including, for the first time since World War II, “nuclear weapons…employed in a military conflict.” And what would that have done to LBJ’s chances of being reelected? Greenfield unfolds scenario after scenario to show that history can turn on the smallest of moments, and then he examines the real historical record to ponder some of the attendant ironies.

Politics wonks will find much to chew on here, and sci-fi writers might find a few what-if moments to play with as well.