Film Review: Virtual Jfk: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived

History 101: The Alternate Version

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived
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Joining, if not flat-out founding, the underpopulated genre of “speculative documentary,” Koji Masutani’s Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived takes us on a “What if?” tour of one of the mid-20 th century’s greatest historical junctures. Using copious amounts of archival footage and a lot of intellectual assist from Brown University Professor James G. Blight, the film rewrites history to show us how different things might have been had John F. Kennedy not been killed on that fateful November morning in 1963.

The film’s narrative line is taken largely from an oft-repeated lecture by Blight, putting it in much the same realm as Al Gore’s
An Inconvenient Truth and Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia . Blight appears in the opening moments, silhouetted against a stark, white backdrop, asking us if “a president can make a decisive difference in matters of war and peace … or, are the forces that drive nations into war far more impersonal, out of the control of any single human being?” It’s almost a moot question, as Blight’s–and by extension, Masutani’s–conclusion is clearly of the foregone variety.

Still, this historical game of “What if?” is an intriguing one–one that most people have entertained at one time or another. Blight, who works for Brown’s prestigious Watson Institute for International Studies, knows this “virtual history” or “counterfactual history” is mostly an intellectual game. Early on, he relates an amusing theory about how the whole of Western civilization could have been irrevocably altered by the length of Cleopatra’s nose. But the conclusions Blight reaches in the case of Kennedy are of devastating import. Would the Vietnam War have even happened had Kennedy survived his assassination? Blight’s answer is a resounding “No way.”

As evidence, the film offers up several major crises faced by JFK’s administration during the early ’60s. They were biggies: the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Wall. Blight conjectures that Kennedy was pressured more often by more people than any other president. In each case, though, he chose the path of negotiation rather than warfare. The natural extension of this, then, is that Kennedy would never have authorized an all-out “police action” in Southeast Asia. It was only the sudden, tragedy-driven promotion of Lyndon Johnson (who soon shipped half a million troops to Vietnam) that escalated us to the level of open, armed conflict.

Can one man effectively dictate national policy, or do world events push a leader to perform the inevitable?
Virtual JFK argues rather convincingly for the former. Yes, says the film, it really does matter who’s in the White House. The natural extension of this argument is–unspoken though it may be in the film–that the reason we’re at war in Iraq is because George W. Bush wanted it that way.

Ultimately, it’s not all that shocking an argument to say the president of the United States is an important person. Or that America would be a different place had Kennedy lived. Given the lack of dissenting opinion, Blight and Masutani’s collaboration borders on hero worship. As a straightforward examination of a crucial turning point in American history, however,
Virtual JFK seems indispensable. Along the way, the film provides a treasure trove of history-as-it-happens: the Russians, Khrushchev, bomb shelters, Adlai Stevenson, the crisis in Laos. As just your basic primer on the Cold War, Virtual JFK is rewarding enough. Most enlightening, though, are archival images from JFK’s press conferences, which highlight the man’s propensity for intelligent discourse, good humor and tactful diplomacy. Now’s probably a good time to look back at the life and work of John F. Kennedy, and Virtual JFK serves as a sobering reminder that diplomacy and discourse are sometimes the best weapons a president can deploy.
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