The Sunday Question: Assassination Aftermaths

During the past several weeks people have been reflecting about the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As has always been the case, there is much speculation about “what might have been.” The same holds true for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, where people like to wonder what would have happened had Lincoln lived.

These counterfactual exercises have much in common. People assume that things might have been better (and certainly could not have been worse) had the president in question not been assassinated. In both instances there reflections tell us as much about how we view their successors (both southerners named Johnson, who had an impact on civil rights for African Americans). In both cases, there’s an assumption that two major events–Reconstruction and Vietnam–might well have turned out differently. In the case of Reconstruction, so the argument goes, Lincoln would have balanced reconciliation with justice and fairness for all; in the case of Vietnam, according to some people, American intervention in Vietnam would not have escalated under Kennedy.

Maybe.

Such speculation usually tells us more about us (or the person speculating) than it does about what might have happened. For today, I think we my want to consider something else. Which assassination had a greater impact on the course of American history? Why?

The floor is open.

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22 thoughts on “The Sunday Question: Assassination Aftermaths

  1. Lincoln… His assassination came on the heels of a bloody war, and a major cultural change with the abolition of slavery. Kennedy’s assassination came before Vietnam heated up, and at a point where the the activism of Civil Rights movement was just beginning to peak. Lincoln in his death has became much more iconic in American culture, history, and memory then Kennedy has or will become. As an example in the DC, we have a Lincoln Memorial, but not a Kennedy Memorial…

  2. I am not a Stephen King fan but I absorbed his _11/22/63_, a counterfactual tour-de-force.I also have wondered over the years about both Lincoln and Kennedy but not after reading King! He got the early 1960s just right, the social and political climate. You get a geat sense of what it was like to live in that far off time/ Then, after his time traveling Hero saves JFK — well, I won;t spoil it but if you haven’t read the book, do so — and ponder post-1963 with JFK still alive!

  3. The argument that Vietnam would have not escalated under Kennedy is delusional liberal crap. That whole line of thinking is based on the premise that JFK after the bay of pigs was finally waking up to the duplicitous nature of the CIA and the entire military industrial complex bs.

    JFK was elected as a cold warrior criticizing the Eisenhower for allowing the Russians to develop a fictitious missile gap. As somebody who grew up in a very liberal household with the latest addition of THE NATION and MOTHER JONES magazines on the family coffee table
    I knoW the story and spin. Its Mostly BS

    • In 1961, a year after the election, the missile gap between the USSR and the US was real–the Soviets’ rocket boosters had a clear advantage in heavy lifting capacity, demonstrated by Gagarin’s orbital flight, and later that of Titov. At that time, our Redstone booster only gave us the power to make suborbital flights. Once we were outspending the Soviets, however, that gap disappeared.

      I agree with you completely on Vietnam.

    • It is not liberals in general who make the argument about Kennedy and Vietnam, it is the worshipers and servants of the Kennedy myth. The tragedy is that the truly progressive Johnson followed Kennedy’s “Best and Brightest” into the morass.

  4. Lincoln’s had more impact, in my humble opinion. It’s difficult to imagine Reconstruction playing out as it did. Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, was able to implement much of the social legislation that Kennedy favored.

  5. Lincoln’s had more impact than JFK’s. I have always felt, moreover, that RFK’s assasination affected the country more tgan his brother’s. JFK’s death gave us Johnson, who used Kennedy’s death to carry out JFK’s agenda, and then some. RFK’s death robbed us of a still developing polical voice, and resulted in the election of Nixon.

    But Lincoln’s death was far more influential. I do think reconstruction would have been far more peaceful had Lincoln finished his term.

  6. Lincoln, because of reconstruction and the fact the country was emerging from a civil war. Moreover, Andrew Johnson was not marginally competent so Lincoln’s death was made all the worse because of that.

  7. >> The idea that Vietnam would have not escalated under Kennedy is delusional liberal crap.

    I agree with David. And Vietnam was thought to be a necessary war at the time. To refuse to fight that proxy war with the Soviets was unthinkable at the time, and would have been disheartening to our allies in the cold war to say the least. It would have had global implications no matter what the revisionists say. The only real question in my mind was who would be the better commander in chief. Johnson was a poor one. He hung onto a poor general for way too long for political reasons, and took poor and in some cases duplicitous advise of people he shouldn’t have trusted. We’ll never know if Kennedy would have been any better. It isn’t fair to extrapolate from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, but we don’t have to to say we simply can’t know if he’d have done any better in getting better military leadership in charge. Petraus had a model in Creighton Abrams, but the change in leadership from Westmoreland to Abrams was just way too late politically given the worldwide political upheavals at the time. The Vietam war, as with the Civil War, memory about it and what happened and why it was fought took on a life quite divorced from reality as it was understood at the time.

    • While no one can be certain as to what JFK would have done in regards to Vietnam had he lived, I think there are several key points that are usually overlooked in the wishful speculation offered by those who are sure that Kennedy would have withdrawn no later than 1965:

      1. Kennedy’s public rhetoric on Vietnam was consistently hawkish throughout his presidency and provided very little room to maneuver in the event he finally did chose to withdraw. For example, while everyone is aware how JFK raised expectations regarding Cold War policy with his tough “pay any price, bear any burden, etc.” inaugural address in 1961, very few people are aware of the comments regarding Vietnam that Kennedy intended to make in Dallas the day he was assassinated:

      “Our security and strength, in the last analysis, directly depend on the security and strength of others, and that is why our military and economic assistance plays such a key role in enabling those who live on the periphery of the Communist world to maintain their independence of choice. Our assistance to these nations can be painful, risky and costly, as is true in Southeast Asia today. But we dare not weary of the task .”

      2. Notwithstanding the accords reached in 1962 regarding the neutrality of Laos, President Kennedy directed the CIA to expand its secret war in that country against the pro-North Vietnamese Communists. Given the importance of Laos to the overall strategic position of all the players in Vietnam, his decision to escalate the covert war there would seem to suggest that on balance he was not seriously considering abandoning the American effort to defend South Vietnam in the foreseeable future.

      3. While it is true that Kennedy previously resisted his advisors’ call for the introduction of American ground troops into the conflict, the fact is that when he made these calls he had the luxury of putting off a decision that would inevitably have to made. By the time LBJ made the decision in 1965 to send thousands of U.S. soldiers into combat there, time had run out on all other options. The choice facing Johnson was either to go in big or get out and let South Vietnam fall to North Vietnam.

      4 Finally, in August 1963, JFK and his top advisors green-lighted the coup against Diem. By agreeing to support the generals in overthrowing Diem, Kennedy was throwing away the last real chance of the United States having a face-saving option regarding withdrawal. Diem, who was already fed up with ongoing American complaints and interference regarding his administration, might have instead been encouraged to “ask” the United States to leave in order to find a negotiated solution with North Vietnam based on a neutralization proposal that was being touted by De Gaulle at the time. Diem’s overthrow effectively Americanized the war effort and ended any possibility of neutralization. On August 29, 1963, Kennedy is on the same page as his top advisors in supporting a coup and tells them that “We are up to our hips in mud out there (Vietnam)” and then tells them the that while Congress might get “mad” at the U.S. encouraging the Vietnamese generals to depose Diem, “they’ll be madder if Vietnam goes down the drain” (Item 12). Three months before his death, these words seem to emphasis his determination to fight the war to a successful conclusion rather than withdraw from it.

  8. I agree with Brad. Lincoln’s death was so significant because of the incompetence of Andrew Johnson. If he hadn’t died Lincoln’s legacy would have been far more mixed because Reconstruction was bound to be problematic in all kinds of ways. Even so, the leadership change to an incompetent made Reconstruction worse than it would have been, though we can’t know how much better it would have been.

  9. Kennedy’s death had more impact as it led to the rapid passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Immigration Act all of which created a much more color blind society.

  10. Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln. There are, however, two aspects of the question. As has been suggested above, much of the “had JFK lived” speculation is a lot of revisionist feel good misunderstanding of who JFK was, what he was committed to, etc. The one area in which I believe that he may – key word – have accomplished something significant was in attempting rapprochement with the USSR, given his initial success with a limited test ban treaty. But even that is open to debate given what happened to Khruschev only one year later. The notion that escalation in Southeast Asia was an LBJ frolic is so much Camelot-driven smoke. With Lincoln we have a stronger track record regarding the major post-war issue which would have confronted him had he lived. The second aspect is the immediate effect of the assassination rather than “had he lived” speculation. The major civil rights legislation in 1964-65 was enacted because the new “southern” President was a master at the game of inside politics and knew how and where to squeeze the vitals of members of Congress – plus using the “legacy” of the just-slain President. Andy Johnson was something of a debacle.

    • I agree with John Foskett 100%. As he points out, while it’s possible that JFK might have reached a détente with the USSR several years before Nixon actually did so, he would have been dealing with a Krushchev who was politically very weak in 1963-64. Furthermore, his successor Brezhnev wouldn’t have had the same incentives in the mid-1960s to reach an accord with the United States that he would have had in 1972 (e.g. strategic nuclear parity, China striking it’s own deal with the US, etc.)

  11. I think Lincoln, too, for the same general reasons discussed above. Although the Radical Republicans were difficult to control, I believe Lincoln would have had the throw-weight to ensure Reconstruction developed in a much more competent and comprehensive manner, especially since it seems that he and Grant would have been largely of the same view on the issues (interestingly, if Lincoln lives, I suspect you don’t have a President Grant). If Kennedy was serious enough about Vietnam to encourage an internal coup that resulted in the death of the South Vietnamese prime minister, I think it unlikely that he would have pulled up short instead of escalating the issues in the mid-1960s. I think the point about Kennedy’s possible rapprochement with the USSR is interesting, though I think the extent and nature of that is difficult to predict because I think Khrushchev and most likely any other Soviet leader viewed him as a lightweight in foreign policy and would have been extremely intransigent in most negotiations in order to gain the most advantages.

    • Good points but there is strong evidence that post-Cuba Khruschev saw JFK as a worthy and trustworthy opponent (as opposed to the neophyte he browbeat in Vienna). I think the bigger problem was Nikita’s loss of “street cred” at home, resulting in his October, 1964 ouster.

    • The Radical Republicans were not the problem. The Recalcitrant Rebels were the problem.

      Why no Grant? Lincoln would have finished his second term in 1868. Unless you assume that Lincoln would be the first to serve more than two terms, the Republicans would still be looking for a winner. Who better than the victorious general who worked so well with Lincoln?

  12. Lincoln’s assassination was far more important. One aspect of the outcome seems to me to be overlooked, however. What if Lincoln had not permitted (or possibly conspired in)the replacement of his first vice-president Hannibal Hamlin by Andrew Johnson? Hamlin is often dismissed with superficial contempt (like many historians did with Grant for so many years)without considering his strong affinity with the goals of Lincoln in abolishing slavery and ensuring the future of those freed.

    • Although I certainly think that Lincoln would have sought requirements that the Rebels would have found tough to swallow, I think that he also would have navigated a course between the extremely harsh policies sought by the Radicals and Johnson early on and the extremely lax ones sought by others and by Johnson later, policies that possibly avoid some of the harsh reactions. And I think that Grant would not have had as much interest in running if there was no Johnson to oppose and if the circumstances that Johnson allowed to arise don’t exist–which is likely if Lincoln is president until 1868.

  13. Both were tragedies for the nation; I’ll be contrarian and suggest that since Lincoln’s war was already won when he was murdered (although Reconstruction was lost) the impact on the country in terms of “what might have been” with Kennedy’s murder was greater. Granted, he was a cold warrior, but there is this:

    http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsam-jfk/nsam263.jpg

    I also think that since JFK was a combat veteran, unlike LBJ, he may have been able to do less in SEA then Johnson could…

    Anyway, my .2 cents.

    Best,

  14. Lincoln. In terms of his own personal legacy, I think it would have been destroyed by having to lead the nation through the “there-can-be-no-winners” scenario of Reconstruction. Having Lincoln in charge would not have prevented the terrorist Ku Klux Klan uprising during re-construction. Blacks and loyal Republicans in the south would still have been kidnapped, mutilated and massacred. And whites still would have hated the man in charge.

    But, the biggest plus to Lincoln’s not being assassinated would be no President (Andy) Johnson. “I felt that Reconstruction had been set back, no telling how far,” said Grant.

    It would have given Grant and his generals the chance to work in concert with the Commander in Chief, instead of having to run interference between Johnson and Congress.

    The best thing about not having Andy Johnson as president, was that Johnson threw away so many great possibilities, which Lincoln would have applied to good effect. The major one was that Lincoln might have been much more favorable to the Thaddeus Stevens/W.T. Tecumseh promises of land parcels for the freedmen who wanted to become farmers.

    Grant might still have become president — or maybe not. Possibly he would have followed his life-long dream of being a farmer — and let John Sherman become president — if he felt that his legacy of the Civil War was not threatened.

    Possibly Grant would never have written his famous note to W.T. Sherman, saying, “I could not back down.”

    *********************

    As for the Kennedy assassination, I agree with most of the others who have posted. Allowing LBJ to take over was absolutely the best thing for Kennedy’s legacy. If he had lived, Kennedy would still have tangled us in a war in Viet Nam — but he never would have been able to spearhead Civil Rights legislation the way that the actual “Master” did.

    • I agree 100% with Noma. A lot of otherwise discerning people are channeling DW Griffith in “Birth of a Nation” where he presents Lincoln as the forgiving, unifying “great heart,” and depicts the assassination as allowing vindictiveThaddeus Stevens/Stoneman to ruin all the fun of reunion. If you believe that Lincoln would have tolerated the 1865 “black codes,” retreated on black voting rights and full citizenship – and would not have required Southern state to pass the XIV amendment as a condition to readmission – then Reconstruction would have been much more palatable and peaceful for Southern whites leaders, while enshrining blacks as sub-citizens and ushering in Jim Crow a couple of decades earlier. How exactly was Congressional Reconstruction too harsh and divisive, or even radical so that Lincoln would have done things differently? Was it all that land redistribution and punishment of former Confederates pushed through by the rads? Um… maybe not.

      I agree with Pat Young too: Taylor Branch certainly makes JFK appear too beholden and deferential to white Southern Democrats to be assertive about passing significant voting and civil rights. Bransh implies that Civil Rights leaders at the time did not see the assassination as setting back the cause (to put it tactfully).

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