Of all “what if” scenarios in the history of US foreign policy, one is perhaps most debated: What would President John F. Kennedy have done in Vietnam if he had not been assassinated in 1963?
Watson Professor Jim Blight and Adjunct Associate Professor janet M. Lang have been focusing their research on this question and on the lessons that revisiting the Vietnam War could provide for contemporary US policy.
The project involves a documentary film, a book, and a teacher’s guide, as did their previous project, The Fog of War: Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. The Errol Morris documentary of The Fog of War won an Academy Award in 2004.
Virtual JFK, directed by Watson Visiting Fellow Koji Masutani ’05, was a finalist for both the Special Jury Prize and Best International Feature Film as it premiered in April 2008 at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. Following the film will be a book co-authored with David A. Welch, of the University of Toronto, and a teaching guide for high school students, co-authored with Watson’s Choices Program.
The project employs what Harvard historian Niall Ferguson calls “virtual history,” assessing the plausibility of counterfactuals – “what ifs” – and the outcomes they might have produced. It makes use of resources including newly declassified documents and tapes, and testimony from a 2005 critical oral history conference including Kennedy and Johnson administration officials.
In the book, Blight, Lang, and Welch make use of newly deciphered audio tapes made secretly by both Kennedy and his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in addition to other newly declassified documentary material and oral testimony from their April 2005 critical oral history conference, principally funded by the Arca Foundation of Washington, DC. Top scholars of the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, and of the war in Vietnam, participated in the conference, as well as former administration officials.
The participants set out first to determine what actually happened, before speculating on what might have happened, regarding such issues as: what Kennedy thought he had decided on Vietnam; what his senior advisors believed he had decided; what Johnson believed was his predecessor’s Vietnam policy; and what new dilemmas Johnson faced that Kennedy was spared, such as the turbulent aftermath of the US-endorsed November 1963 coup in Saigon. In a substantial coda to the conference, which Blight, Lang, and Welch will include in their book, the lessons learned from the disaster in Vietnam were applied to contemporary US foreign and defense policy, especially to the war in Iraq, which has been compared by many to the Vietnam experience.
Masutani’s Virtual JFK film will be complementary, rather than identical, to the book. The film will focus on a question of supreme importance in the contemporary world: “Does it matter who is president of the United States, in time of war?” The film is presented and narrated by Blight. The original score is by Joshua Kern. Masutani will focus heavily on John F. Kennedy’s thinking and decisionmaking with regard to war and peace during the thousand days of his abbreviated presidency (although he will also deal with Lyndon Johnson, for purposes of comparison). Drawing on unusual archival footage from presidential libraries and the National Archives, along with the newly deciphered audio tapes and other documentary evidence, his film will focus on a half dozen situations Kennedy faced in which many, or most, of his advisors were counseling war, yet Kennedy was willing and able, in each case, to resist escalating a confrontation or conflict into an American war. These events, which might have exploded into full-blown wars, but did not, include the Bay of Pigs fiasco of April 1961, the communist insurgency in Laos in the spring and summer of 1961, the Berlin Wall crisis in August-October of 1961, a bitterly contested showdown behind closed doors with his top advisers over Vietnam in November 1961, the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, and the crisis in Vietnam in October 1963, just weeks before Kennedy’s murder in Dallas.
The teacher’s guide to Virtual JFK: Vietnam, If Kennedy Had Lived will encourage instructors at all levels of secondary and university education to integrate the book and film into their teaching of US foreign policy, US history, decisionmaking, and other courses that typically cover the issues, events, and personalities dealt with in Virtual JFK.