Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived: Virtual JFK

In This Review

Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived: Virtual JFK
By James G. Blight, Janet M. Lang, and David A. Welch
Rowman & Littlefield, 2009
456 pp. $34.95

For over two decades, Blight, Lang, and Welch have used oral history to illuminate the key decisions taken by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations on Cuba and Vietnam. Former policymakers, kept honest by packages of documents and by the prompts of academic historians, are urged to reminisce in one another's company. Alas, the passage of time means that fewer practitioners are left to contribute, and so this latest volume is more a contest of historians, supported by a few veterans, exploring the question of whether John F. Kennedy would have eventually been obliged, as his successor was, to send combat troops to Vietnam. Some are convinced that he was determined to avoid further entanglement; others say he would have been as reluctant as Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from Vietnam in the face of accusations of weakness and appeasement. The authors give the exchanges a sense of drama and profundity that they do not always deserve. They make a fair case that this "virtual history" is a much more serious exercise than counterfactual history, even though it is still basically speculative. The liveliness of the exchanges and the enthusiasm of the participants do illuminate this critical period in U.S. history. There are still no definitive answers: it is impossible to know how Kennedy would have responded to the evidence that his policies were failing. But he was highly unlikely to have followed the exact path that Johnson did, which not only raised the level of American commitment to the war but did so in a muddled way.