After writing up the news of Jeff Greenfield’s forthcoming book, “What If JFK Had Lived?” I contacted him to see if he would answer some questions about the book’s scope and purpose. He responded right away by email.
Q. What is the value of counterfactual history?
A. For me, the value of counter-factual history is two-fold. First, it’s cautionary evidence of the need for humility. It suggests that the “deterministic” view of history is in fact myopic; that small twists of fate can have huge consequences (the “butterfly effect”). Yes, forces like geography, resources, ideology, migrations matter — but a change in who’s in charge, often the result of the smallest random events, can matter a great deal (imagine FDR killed in Miami in ’33, or Churchill dead after being hit by a taxi in NY in ’31).
Second, properly done, counter-factual history informs. NIall Ferguson, who prefers the term “virtual history”, says it involves creating a “model” out of what we know, and in effect running “simulations” that do NOT permit wild speculation, but stem from what Rumsfeld would call “known knowns.” So in my earlier effort, “Then Everything Changed,” I imagined LBJ in ’68 where RFK survives and is running — what might he have done? And I learned that in reality, he may well have preferred Nixon to Humphrey, as a protector of his Vietnam legacy, and that in reality, he DID want the nomination even after his renunciation.
Q. The AP story about your book cited Doris Kearns Goodwin and Robert Dallek as your sources. Any there any other books that you relied on or found especially compelling?
A. I’m drawing on many other sources: Richard Reeves’ “President Kennedy,” “The Patriarch,” Richard Goodwin’s “Remembering America” among others, and lots of interviews. Also “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution” by James Piereson.
Q. Will your book deal more with the effect of the assassination on policy? Or on culture?
A. I’m dealing with policy and culture — the latter is harder, but in many ways more intriguing. I’m agnostic on which area was more affected by the assassination, but I lean a bit toward culture.
Q. Has your thinking about JFK’s legacy evolved over the years?
4. I guess like others, I have revisited my revisionism … reading about the way JFK resisted the endless demands for military escalation — from Laos to Cuba to Vietnam … makes me think that his sometimes bellicose rhetoric may have been a price he had to pay. But I’m still wrestling with this.
Q. Are the causes of the assassination important to your book’s thesis? What do you make of David Talbot’s book “Brothers,” which shows (in convincing detail in my view) that Bobby Kennedy privately believed his brother’s enemies on the right were behind his death?
A. I’m going to handle that issue agnostically.