Kennedy, compounded

A new film imagines Vietnam if Kennedy had lived

HYPOTHETICALLY SPEAKING It's chaos theory's maxim that the mere brush of a butterfly's wings might produce a ripple effect sufficient to changes history. But let's face it: it's more interesting to muse upon the big what-ifs, like assassination attempts. What if Lincoln or Archduke Ferdinand had survived? What if Reagan hadn't?

Are such speculations actually useful, or just a glorified party game? Clearly Koji Masutani thinks it's the former, since he's gone to the trouble of making Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived. As presented by the director and foreign policy historian James G. Blight, this new documentary makes the case that Kennedy's nonconfrontational tactics on the world stage during his presidency would surely have carried over to preventing that "quagmire" known here as the Vietnam War (and over there as "the American War"). Had he lived, of course.

Parallels to our moment are hard to resist. Like Obama, JFK's election was viewed as a landmark and greeted with messianic excitement unequalled by a Democrat until now. He arrived at a time of equally daunting if very different emergencies — the Cold War's peak boiling point, the civil rights movement heating up at home — and likewise faced hostile Republican lawmakers as well as skeptical press.

Masutani charts six occasions on which JFK dodged armed conflict that might have triggered (or so reasoning went) World War III. The Cuban Missile Crisis is the obvious one. Others, all four-alarm calls for anti-commie action, include resisting engagement in Laos and Vietnam, as well as over the Berlin Wall's construction. In archival footage Kennedy looks alternately uncomfortable and good-humored defending his policies, as he's accused of "appeasement toward communism," "utter incompetence," and "mismanaging the news" by rationing his statements to prevent hysteria outbreaks in an already paranoid nation. "This generation of Americans has already seen enough war and hate," he pronounced. Amen.

Alas, that fateful open-car ride in Dallas placed Lyndon B. Johnson in office. Though it evidently tormented him, LBJ saw no alternative to an ever-expanding Vietnam incursion. Some 58,000 U.S. lives and 2 million native ones later, it remains the quagmire by which all our blunders abroad are measured.

These days, not everyone thinks Kennedy was as golden as that Camelot glow suggested. But Virtual JFK does convince us that things would have turned out quite differently, at the very least, had he missed taking a premature powder. May history not repeat itself.


Fri/20-Tues/24, see Rep Clock for times, $6–$9

Red Vic, 1727 Haight, SF

(415) 668-3994

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