John F. Kennedy: What if he had survived the attack in Dallas?

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked the world. But what if he had survived the attack to complete eight years in office? Theories on what he might have done vary widely.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Members of the Kennedy family, including former US Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith, fourth from left, pay their respects at the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy Friday at Arlington National Cemetery.

As the world took note of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy Friday, two big “what ifs” remained.

What if it had been officially established that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the lone assassin, as the Warren Commission concluded, but which many investigators and conpiratologists have said was not the case?

And what if Oswald’s rifle had jammed or he’d been a poor shot, missing or just wounding Mr. Kennedy, who might have survived this life-changing event to finish out his presidential term and perhaps win reelection to lead the nation through what became the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War, the fight for civil rights, and “women’s lib?”

The key words in the first “what if” posited here are “officially established.” Fifty years on, that seems unlikely absent some explosive beyond-a-doubt conclusive evidence. Meanwhile, various theories involving Cuba or Russia or the CIA or the Mafia, or some combination thereof, persist despite expert debunking. Most Americans (61 percent) don’t believe Oswald acted alone, according to Gallup.

One of those with serious doubts about the Warren Commission conclusion is former US Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado, who served on the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities – the “Church committee” chaired by the late Sen. Frank Church (D) of Idaho, which dug into such things as US attempts to assassinate foreign leaders.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Mr. Hart points out that while the Church committee was investigating the connection between the assassination, the Mafia, and plots against Cuban President Fidel Castro, two of the main figures involved were also killed – mobsters Momo Salvatore Giancana in 1975 and Johnny Roselli a year later.

"You don't have to be a genius to believe that they knew something about the coincidence of events – Cuba, Mafia, CIA and Kennedy – that somebody didn't want that out in the public 12 years later," Hart said.

"I was always amazed … that somebody didn't go after that story," he said. "New York Times, Washington Post; anybody. And they didn't. They reported the deaths and that was it, and the strange quirky coincidence, you know, but nothing more."

Meanwhile, the other debate – how would US history be different if Kennedy had survived that motorcade drive through Dealey Plaza in Dallas 50 years ago? – continues as well.

In his book “Unafraid: A Novel of the Possible,” author Jeff Golden muses about a Jack Kennedy who survives in life-altering fashion to realize new possibilities for acting boldly in the interests of peace and justice, and for whom “the moment those shots were fired everything went absolutely my way.”

The press “thought I was Moses revisited,” Kennedy found. “Everything we put in front of Congress was passing by 80 percent margins or more….Whatever I wanted was completely mine without even trying.”

He fires FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (who actually continued to lead the bureau until he died in 1972). He discusses with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev an early way out of the cold war. He tells startled oilmen the US will no longer support repressive regimes simply because it’s good for their business. He takes a very hard line against Israel when it moves to attack Egypt.

On Vietnam, he argues against Bobby Kennedy and their father Joe Kennedy, both of whom are far more hawkish. “We can’t win in Vietnam,” he says.

Oh, and Kennedy kicks Lyndon Johnson off the 1964 Democratic ticket in favor of his brother Bobby Kennedy, who becomes vice president.

It’s a liberal’s fantasy, one that many say would have become reality had Lee Harvey Oswald not been such a good shot (or had help, as many Americans believe).

But it must remain a dream, one that others say was unlikely to have become reality given Kennedy’s actions and pronouncements during his short time in the White House.

“In reality, JFK was a cautious, conservative chief executive, mindful of his 1964 reelection bid after the squeaker of 1960,” writes Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, in a Washington Post column. “He was fiscally conservative, careful about spending and deficits, and sponsored an across-the-board tax cut that became President Ronald Reagan’s model for his 1981 tax cut.”

“While he was more conciliatory after the Cuban missile crisis, JFK’s early Cold War rhetoric was so hawkish that Reagan and other Republicans later quoted him at every opportunity to buttress their fight against communism,” writes professor Sabato, whose latest book is “The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy.” “And Kennedy was so hesitant and timid about civil rights that he frustrated the movement’s leaders at virtually every turn until finally articulating a vision for equal rights in June 1963.”

On Vietnam, conservative columnist George Will notes Kennedy’s answer to a press conference question about the war there, made just two months before he was killed.

 “We are for those things and those policies which help win the war there,” Kennedy said. “That is why some 25,000 Americans have traveled 10,000 miles to participate in that struggle. What helps to win the war, we support; what interferes with the war effort, we oppose…. we are not there to see a war lost.”

Within five years, the number of American GI's fighting in Vietnam had topped half a million.

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