Jeff Greenfield’s counterfactual JFK book

There’s no let up in demand for narratives about the meaning of JFK’s death.

Pundit Jeff Greenfield will answer try to answer the intriguing question What if JFK had lived? in a forthcoming book, according to an Associated Press brief published in today’s Washington Post. Greenfield seems qualified for the task as he was a speechwriter for Sen. Robert Kennedy in the 1960s. He has also served as an on-air analyst for PBS, CNN and ABC.

Narratives about the meaning of JFK’s death come in different forms: Lone gunman narratives that stick to the story few believe — that Kennedy was killed by a nobody for no reason — and conspiracy narratives, in which Kennedy was killed by his enemies for political reasons, with blame most often attributed to opponents of his foreign policy in the national security agencies.

The counterfactual narrative is slightly different in that it focuses on the effects of JFK’s assassination, not its causes.

Based on Greenfield’s previous excursion into counterfactual history, “Then Everything Changed,” I expect him to emphasize the discontinuity between the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, which would be a welcome corrective to the Halberstam-Dallek historiography which tends to portray the 35th and 36th presidents as like-minded hawks. But I also expect Greenfield will hew to the Official Story narrative of the causes of the assassination. If so, the book could be read as another exercise in journalistic avoidance. 

But let’s not prejudge a book by its cover.






24 thoughts on “Jeff Greenfield’s counterfactual JFK book”

  1. Worth repeating: “It must have been the same way for intellectuals in the Soviet Union. Hew to the party line or else.”

    The differences being that our media enjoy the trappings of capitalism and celebrity.

  2. ref: the Lumumba assassination. I have read that Frank Carlucci was involved as well, a fact he vigorously denied. Carlucci, board director of Wackenhut before G4 merger, and being a close colleague of George HW as recently as their Carlyle involvement.

  3. Nathaniel Heidenheimer

    RFK’s top aids were blown far from the tree, into some curious offices. Maybe it was the Southwest wind? These new jobs may have proven useful in constructing narratives that emphasize continuity rather than disjunction… I mean within the Democratic Party as a whole, especially between the critical period of disjunction, 1968-72, when the Democratic Party elites were complicit in the amputation of their own left, and also complicit in the subsequent electoral massacre of George McGovern.

    Your description of “Then Everything Changed” reminds me of another book that offered rare, and potentially incendiary insight into a Kennedy’s policies and new, evolving politics at the expense of not even hinting at the trap door of conspiracy in his assassination. I’m talking about The Last Campaign, Thurston Clarke’s NYT bestseller on the 1968 RFK presidential campaign.

    Clarke’s book showed RFK struggling to a combine a response to the Southern Strategy that Nixon had thunder- clamped from George Wallace. And, the most interesting aspect is that The Last Campaign shows that RFK’s counterpunching against the Southern Strategy was clearly working! Witness, most emphatically, the Hoosier State and how Clarke counter’s glancing implications by the Foundation Funded quote leftist unquote writers such as Cockburn and Chomsky that RFK was pandering to racism. Clarke’s narrative of RFK’s evolving counterpunch disproves later, more conservative, Democrats’ argument that the party moved right to adapt to a growing rightward sway of the body politic. It implies, though sometimes too subtly, that the change may have been more top-down.

    Then it completely ignores the clear conspiracy involved in the RFK assassination.

    Now I learn that Clarke is also coming out with a new JFK book. It will likewise get widely reviewed in the press, and thus sell ten thousand times more copies than better books, such as the too dangerous In His Own Right, a braver book about RFK’s campaign that is simply too dangerous for wider consumption because of what it shows about the complicity between elites at the top of both parties. [ IMO, In His Own Right, is the most important book in America, if you want to understand “how we got here” in todays political nihilism. ]

    The new Clarke book on JFK will apparently argue that JFK was making a very late “hundred days” break in a new direction immediately prior to the assassination. While there is certainly some truth to this in terms of new clarities in JFK’s speeches of June 1963, it is IMO, vastly misleading to suggest that these were radically new. Perhaps newly visible to more people, but the historian of today has much more access to JFK’s battles with the CIA from Congo to Vietnam and almost everything in between, including between Miami and Cuba. It would seem that Clarke’s X-ray vision into the National Security State is purblind, perhaps for marketing reasons. I hope I am wrong. I am basing my comments on the book description on Amazon.

    Again, there is not even a hint of motive for conspiracy involved in Clarke’s book, or so it seems from the overview.

    Clarke’s book might split critics by offering some truths, but segmenting from wider narratives of elected officials v. permanent military and intelligence bureaucracies a slightly longer-term focus best seen in Gareth Porter’s necessary book Perils of Dominance. That sacrifice will not be worth it, because it will only obscure the structural importance of the JFK assassination in post WWII US history.

    1. NH: I ordered “The Last Campaign” and “In His Own Time” from the local library. Your piece is over my head but I hope to get up to speed soon. What I take away before then is that we were losing any vestiges of democracy by the melding of the two party system from the top? Growing up as a ‘yellow dog Democrat in Texas,’ I remember when things were not that way.

      (in the event you don’t peruse the Mafia thread preceding this one)


      If you see fit, would a general discussion regarding other assassinations of the period contribute? I would NOT propose that the finer details be argued, but that they be viewed through a wide lens.

      If you choose to read the Lumumba story and follow with the briefest inquiry, you’ll see that Baroness Park worked with William Colby, Lucein Conein, and John Singlaub among others during Operation Jedburgh in a US/British operation during WWII designed to support the Resistance – which for the purpose of this thread, is in direct relation to Henry Luce and CD Jackson. The Mafia did not kill Lumumba, agreed?

      The Lumumba assassination involved Congolese natural resources, including vast deposits of tin. This story and the tin industry relate directly to tin mining in Bolivia where Che Guevara was active and later assassinated. (and no, I’m not suggesting that George Bush killed Kennedy over tin.)

    2. “RFK’s top aides were blown far from the tree, into some curious offices. Maybe it was the Southwest wind?”

      I missed that! And speaking of aids, James Wadsworth Symington has an interesting lineage.

  4. Brian LeCloux

    Here’s some questions for all those who view JFK as a liberal/dove: Did JFK mean to get out of Vietnam even if it meant total defeat of U.S. objectives? Was he just going to leave the South Vietnamese government to fend for itself?

    Or, is it more likely that he had in mind “winning” before leaving, and expecting to “win”?

    1. I think it’s pretty clear that JFK meant to leave Vietnam regardless (look at his track record with respect to Laos), though there is definitely disagreement among historians on that point (this is discussed in Virtual JFK, among other sources).

      I think this issue opens up a lot of philosophical problems with the way historians actually do history. A lot of people that view JFK as some kind of hawk take a lot of his public utterances at face value, and discount things he said and did privately. This seems fairly stupid to me, and just flat out ignores the basic power realities of the time period.

      1. JFK made a deal to make neutral Laos. Laos was the big deal 1960-62.

        Vietnam was off JFK’s radar screen. Mostly.

        During JFK’s presidency, Laos was the focus of attention. Special Forces troops were being trained to serve in Laos.

        1. These decisions were confronting Kennedy very early in his administration so he would have been relying heavily on his advisors, for instance Adolf Berle, his expert on Latin American affairs who in fact was taking counsel from J.C. King of CIA’s Western Hemisphere.

          Who was Kennedy’s Adolf Berle of Southeast Asia? Of equal importance, who was informing that expert?

          Later, when America’s policy in Laos collapsed, Hmong tribesmen were airlifted out of their country and resettled in Bolivia, Adolf Berle’s area of expertise. (“Thy Will Be Done (Colby/Dennett”)

          We sometimes ascribe superhuman abilities to our presidents, and to think that Kennedy should have been aware of hidden agendae within his State Department, Military, CIA is unrealistic.

    2. Noam Chomsky insists that Kennedy was not intending an exit from Viet Name.

      A valid consideration, but it begs the question as to who saddled his administration with Viet Nam in the first place. He had not had time to fire everyone, but he was beginning. And had he been a hawk, military men like Lyman Lemnitzer would not have been an anathema to him. Was he somewhere in between, similar to Obama?

      1. Nathaniel Heidenheimer

        Noam has lost the argument. Especially since our new view of “the Kennedy White House” has been enhanced by the newly declassified ARRB document. The best book, IMO, and also the first book to be REALLY post ARRB (i.e. after enough time for historians [Chomsky ain’t one] to actually digest the more than 6 million new documents, perhaps with a glass of milk, is David Kaiser’s American Tragedy. Jones 2003 book is also very good, and is especially intriguing for the glimpses of David Halberstam, always David on the spot with tripod ready before every zippoed buddhist or thatched pagoda. Of course Newman’s JFK and Vietnam is indispensable for its argument that LBJ was getting totally different intelligence reports on Vietnam as early as 1961. Never has any so-called “leftist” been so wrong about anything so important as Chomsky is on each JFK policy. Its enough to remind some people of the Encounter Magazine described in Frances Saunders essential book Who Paid the Piper.

        1. NH: Saunders’ work is excellent. Did I already mention that many of the records of key figures within the Congress for Cultural Freedom ended up with Harry Huntt Ransom at University of Texas? (Mentioned in line with a discussion about Walt Rostow.)

          I always thought that Chomsky was handed his credibility on a platter by a celebrity-starved liberal/progressive movement, and that he was never fully comfortable with the role.

          Not to go off topic, or detract from your wealth of knowledge regarding deep machinations, but PBS’s Frontline series on the banking debacle covers Obama, pre-election 2008. I don’t think it was all that common knowledge that he was being advised, behind the scenes, by an insider – a UBS official – who was providing him conflicting information with the status quo. This enabled him to waltz into one of the late night emergency sessions (the day after McCain declared a moratorium on his campaign) and literally take over the meeting. In fact, there is an image of George W. walking out of the meeting muttering “I’ve lost complete control.” (paraphrasing) I ‘m struck that LBJ had used similar power as VP.

    3. Nathaniel Heidenheimer

      Yes. He simply did not believe that Vietnam was central to “US objectives.” He was consistent on this point from at least 1951 until the day he was murdered by the CIA.

      1. I have a long, admittedly convoluted theory about Viet Nam that involves the state of the region in present day. It’s worthwhile following the various private foundations at work there. How did they get there, was it part of a long term plan just as we have in Iraq? Did Kennedy question the significance of the country for the simple reason that it wasn’t …. significant? … except as an entirely new marketplace, and a wedge into an even wider one?

  5. Personally, I don’t understand the exercise . . . unless it is to extract from our collective psyche what we hope Kennedy would have manifested for our country. Our destiny was altered by his and other assassinations of the period.

  6. The What if JFK had lived counterfactual has already been thoroughly explored in Virtual JFK. James K. Galbraith has been instrumental in getting the idea that JFK was getting out of Vietnam into the mainstream in History departments.

  7. Well, not to jump the gun here, but I remember clearly the moment my regard for Greenfield took a dive. He was hosting I believe a “Nightline” episode that included discussion of the JFK assassination. He signed off with the now familiar trope (paraphrasing): “What it comes down to is that many just can’t accept the fact that one deranged man with a rifle could change the world…” It was the first time I’d heard anyone in the media attempt to explain away continued interest in the assassination with that armchair psychology. It immediately struck me as highly patronizing, if not downright condescending.

    1. William Manchester is the one who advanced that argument which is often repeated by lone nutters. The counter argument to that is the lone nutters just can’t accept the ugly reality of the JFK assassination because the the truth of it is do discrediting to our national narrative, the bipartisan establishment, the media and academia.

      Then I add just feel free to ignore 49 years of very fine JFK research who cumulatively points to a high level domestic conspiracy that murdered John Kennedy and covered it up.

      1. Sorry for all the typos above …

        William Manchester:

        In a 1999 New York Times interview, he said he thought so many people believed Kennedy was killed in a conspiracy because of “that dreadful Oliver Stone movie” (“JFK”) and because people felt someone as insignificant as Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t have done such a momentous thing.

        “If you put the murder of the president of the United States at one end of the scale, and you put that waif Oswald on the other end, it just doesn’t balance,” he said. “And you want to put something on Oswald’s side to make it balance. A conspiracy would do that beautifully. Unfortunately, there is no evidence whatever of that.”

        Having said that, Arthur Schlesinger once told Manchester that the subliminal message of his book “The Death of a President” was that Lyndon Johnson murdered JFK.

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