Jeff Greenfield, the five-time Emmy-Award winning analyst and author, isn’t ashamed of writing alternate histories. A lot of historians, he confesses, view this genre as a “parlor game.” But Greenfield believes that pondering the what-ifs “throws light on history.”
“It’s not a game,” he averred during a recent conversation about his new book, If Kennedy Lived. “It teaches you something about how history develops.” This rings true to me. As an intellectual exercise, it’s probably productive to consider how luck (or providence) changed the course of 20th century history.
And there are plenty of examples.
“[In] 1931 a back-bench British politician comes to New York,” Greenfield recalls. “He’s looking the wrong way because the traffic moves differently in Britain. [He] goes to a hospital, develops pleurisy, and comes fairly close to dying. That was Winston Churchill. Try to picture Britain during 1940 without Churchill at the helm.”
Two years later, “[i]f Giuseppe Zangara, in 1933, had gotten to a park in Miami five minutes earlier, he would have had a clear shot at the man he intended to kill, who was president-elect Franklin Roosevelt,” Greenfield adds. (One can’t help speculating how different the Great Depression and World War II might have turned out.)
Fast forward to the 1980s. “If the bullet had hit two inches closer to [Ronald Reagan's] heart, he would have bled to death, and he’d have been president for eight weeks and not eight years,” he continues (making me wonder about the end of the Cold War, and even the survival of the nation.)
If Kennedy Lived, of course, is about the charismatic American politician who came between FDR and Reagan. Except, instead of being the victim of a near miss, Kennedy didn’t live.
Once again, small variables made all the difference. For example, he ponders an alternate hypothetical: “Does the rain stop in Dallas so the bubble top is off John Kennedy’s car, or…if the rain had stayed falling, and the bubble stayed on, would Kennedy have survived Dallas and gone on to be president for another five years.”
This moment, Greenfield argues, is a hinge of history. And it’s hard to argue with him. If Kennedy had lived, Greenfield believes that Vietnam turns out different. And if Vietnam turns out different, maybe Richard Nixon is never elected president.
Imagine a world where the Kennedy assassination, the war in Vietnam, and Watergate never happened, and it’s pretty clear that one little change — if it had just rained hard on that fateful day in Dallas — would have had serious consequences on the future.
Listen to streaming audio of my full conversation with Jeff Greenfield here. Or download the podcast on iTunes.