The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22nd 1963 created perhaps the most intriguing “what-if” in 20th century political history. What if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated? What if he had been re-elected for a second term in 1964 and completed eight years instead of just less than three in The White House? How would he stand in history had he had the time to be judged on performance as well as promise? The fundamental problem in making any judgment on Kennedy’s performance was an unfinished life and a barely begun presidency. Much of what Kennedy tried to do hinged on a longer time-span than he was ultimately given. Would the course of the war in Vietnam have been different had he had a second term? There is some evidence, albeit anecdotal, to suggest that his intention was to get out of Vietnam after the 1964 election. Would he have been able to move his civil rights legislation through Congress in the way that President Johnson did within a year of Kennedy’s death? Well, after more than two years of caution, pragmatism, and compromise, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee did pass a civil rights bill just two days before the assassination, but that was just a first step. The entrenched power of the conservative southern Democratic opposition in the Senate was another problem, especially on civil rights. Would Kennedy have been able to overcome that major roadblock to his legislative plans with more time at his disposal? And what would have happened to other major domestic policy initiatives affecting the state of the American economy, the problem of poverty in America, and the desperate need for medicare, which Kennedy failed to get through Congress, but eventually became law in 1965. There are reasons to think Kennedy would have done much better on the performance side of the equation had he survived for two full terms, but, of course, we shall never know for certain.
Then again, there are aspects of Kennedy’s life that might have altered at least the popular view of his presidency had he lived. He was a notorious philanderer during his years in The White House but those who knew about his sexual promiscuity kept it out of the public view at the time. Could they have continued to do so for eight years instead of two? Also hidden from public knowledge at the time were Kennedy’s medical condition and the consequent concoction of drugs that he was taking to deal with Addison’s disease, syphilis, and a chronic back pain caused by his wartime experience in PT-109. Little or nothing was known about all that in 1963. There is no evidence to demonstrate that Kennedy’s philandering and drug-taking affected his ability to make decisions and lead the nation, but, then again, there isn’t evidence that it didn’t.
The approaching anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination heralds a publication boom in books on the Kennedy presidency. Most of those on Amazon’s current list are just more speculation and more conspiracy theories on who killed the President, but some are engaging with the enigma of the Kennedy presidency and speculating on this historically significant “what-if”. There’s certainly room for that in the scholarship of those important one thousand days.
John Hart recently retired as Reader in Political Science at the ANU and is currently a Visitor in the School of History. He is author of The Presidential Branch: From Washington to Clinton and of numerous articles and book chapters on the American presidency. He is currently completing a book entitled The Greening of the White House: The Presidency and Environmental Policy-Making.