Q & A with Jeff Greenfield: ‘I have revisited my revisionism’

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.


17 thoughts on “Q & A with Jeff Greenfield: ‘I have revisited my revisionism’”

  1. Nathaniel Heidenheimer

    “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.”

    A. (translation) I frequently appear on national TV.

  2. Greenfield reveals he’s a lightweight, no surprise. I’ve had enough of journalists who willfully ignore or fail to dig for the truth about the assassination.

    My recommendation to Jeff: ignore him. His opinions re JFK are of no interest to this writer.

    It does not matter that he’s well known. Lots of well-known people are or have been fools.

  3. Mark Groubert

    This may be of interest to you and your readers, Jeff. It’s for “Killing Kennedy” the O’Reilly book/movie to be directed by Ridley Scott – the casting call preview.


    A breakdown should be coming out this week, but we are wanting to start accepting submissions for JFK, Lee Oswald, Jackie O, Kenneth O’Donnell, and Marina Prusakova.
    Production Company – Scott Free
    Network – National Geographic
    Location – TBD (possibly Richmond, VA)

    Principal photography – June & July
    No script available.

    1. Mark,

      I don’t know who you are. Perhaps you’re well-known.

      In any case, your recommendation of a book or movie about JFK by Bill O’Reilly is a turnoff.

      Are you dangling 40 pieces of silver?

  4. Mark Groubert

    Reelz Channel has taken the U.S. on documentary JFK: The Smoking Gun. The investigative film is based on police detective Colin McLaren’s years examining the forensic cold case into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; McLaren believes he has found the smoking gun that killed JFK. The special is produced by Muse Entertainment (The Kennedys) and Cordell/Jigsaw/Zapruder; written by Steve Lucas and directed by Malcolm McDonald. Producers are Jesse Prupas and Michael Cordell. Muse Distribution will be selling internationally at Mip-TV.

  5. “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.”

    JFK was a dove in reality and a hawk sometimes in rhetoric and I think his rhetoric really came to bite him in the ass. JFK ran for president on a phantom “missile gap” – whipping up those fears. JFK ran for president as a hawk on Cuba, pounding the Eisenhower Administration for not doing anything on Cuba even though Gov. John Patterson of Alabama told him what was going on behind the scenes. JFK knew their were covert ops in the works against Cuba & he knew Nixon could not talk about it publicly.

    I suggest for folks to read Jim DiEugenio on JFK’s foreign policy. Over and over again Kennedy was dove in reality clashing with the hawks in his own administration and especially military & intelligence agencies. Despite Kennedy’s sometimes tough words, in the end he was unwilling to do a lot of the things presented to him by national security state hawks: namely sending the military in at the Bay of Pigs, signing off on Operation Northwoods, agreeing to nuclear first strike against Russia (!!), fighting a war in Laos, dramatically escalating the Vietnam War, bombing Cuba during the fall, 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

    That is where the rubber hit the road with the US military/CIA murderers of JFK (LBJ had personal reasons); they considered JFK much in the same way as Dallas Morning News publisher Ted Dealey – some guy riding Caroline’s tricycle when what was needed was a man on a horse.

    Ted Dealey told that to JFK’s face. Gen. Curtis LeMay told Kennedy that the settlement of the Cuban Missile Crisis was the greatest defeat ever in American history. As William Atwood has said, if CIA/military or the anti-Castro Cubans had ever found out JFK was secretly negotiating with Castro for normalization in fall, 1963 … Well, they would have killed him. And they did!

    When it comes to JFK’s foreign policy, I would read Jim DiEugenio or Nathaniel Heidenheimer. Even Jim Douglass does not understand the full extant of JFK’s departure from the bipartisan foreign policy concensus. It is not merely a matter of JFK evolving over time to become more “pro peace.” John Kennedy at the very moment of taking office had a much different, less confrontational, less imperialist world view than Eisenhower, Nixon, & Lyndon Johnson.

    JFK was a different breed & the other side (in his government) knew it. One good example would be JFK wanted Sen. William Fulbright (later a huge Vietnam War dove) as his Sec. of State. But Fulbright could not have been confirmed by the Senate (too much a dove) so Kennedy pretty much had hawk & Rockefeller man Dean Rusk foisted upon himself.

    1. Re JFK as dove and hawk: Kennedy ran to the right of Nixon to get elected. Kennedy chose to avoid war: Cuba, Laos, Viet Nam. Kennedy chose to reach out to Khruschev via the back channel.

      Kennedy had big flaws, but he knew to avoid war. He hated war.

      Dove-hawk terminology limits one’s thinking. Kennedy fits neatly neither cubby hole. But he acted to avoid war.

      1. Nathaniel Heidenheimer

        “Dove-hawk terminology limits one’s thinking. Kennedy fits neatly neither cubby hole. But he acted to avoid war.”

        Yes it really does limit one’s terminology because of how it exterminates context. One can be a “dove” in a Che t shirt and say things that will have limited effect.

        Said in different rooms, and in different jobs like president, is very different. Same person saying it and its still different when he was Senator. Moreover how much lee way did the President have over the permanent bureaucracy we call the National Security State, say in 1952, 63, or 2014.

        How much access did a president have to the media, if he disagreed with the National Security State? His ability to say something in say, 1963 v 1965 may have been very different in terms of the political discourse mediate in one year v. another.

        To what extent were a presidents directives being violated by the CIA? Later, would the president EVEN DREAM of challenging the permanent national military and intel bureaucracy? Was there a time when he could? When did it end?

        Does this mean that this stuff cannot be known. No , not at all. It means that in discussing a president you are also discussing a system, a system we call Then national Security State.

    2. Robert: I agree about JFK. But the philosophy among America’s power structure equates consensus and continuity with legitimacy. So, with respect to Vietnam, JFK can’t be off the reservation. The policy of accommodation (or disengagement) undermines the foreign policy consensus and calls into question the legality of the war and the motives of the ‘serious’ people who wanted it.

      JFK’s tentative embrace of detente seems to acknowledge Eisenhower’s MIC speech. Truman had his own problems and concerns with the military and CIA. It is inconceivable (to me) that the three presidents would have picked on the military/CIA without being backed by very powerful individuals and industries. I suspect there were lots of jealousies regarding the enormous amount of money being needlessly committed to the war machine . . . coupled with the MIC’s unquestioned propaganda made possible by gutless politicians.

      With respect to Greenfield’s book, establishment historians (and journalists) are in the ‘business’ of selling the American myth, not the reality. America’s permanent power structure allows only superficial examination of the darker corners of Empire. Hence, it’s okay to chitchat about military overreach, enhanced interrogation, who owns the government . . . or JFK conspiracy theories. You gotta be sure to stay on the periphery and go easy with the uncomfortable issues. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself teaching at Floydada Junior College rather than Harvard.

  6. What “butterfly effects” might have impacted the Kennedy presidency? Wouldn’t they also need to be considered in this exercise, e.g., what if the Yom Kippur War occurred earlier, what if The Troubles in Northern Ireland ignited earlier, what if Khrushchev died of a heart attack? How long is a piece of string?

    If the exercise is to demystify Kennedy the man, and speculate on his presidency, it is relatively worthwhile, but it is little more than an exercise – in psychology and speculation however well it meets some academic criteria. If it directs the nation toward understanding the motive behind Kennedy’s assassination, then it will be invaluable – what was he likely to do, and who did that threaten?

    Otherwise it is fraught with potential for disinformation and distraction, and it smacks somewhat of profiteering in this year of the 50th.

    1. Greenfield’s reference to butterfly effects is shallow, diversionary thinking. Greenfield grabs our attention because he is a media person. Articulate.

      Who-the-F-cares? Greenfield thrives in the NYC scum.

  7. So he’s writing a book on John F. Kennedy and will be an agnostic regarding his death. . . Sorta like being a Hematologist who’s an agnostic about blood.

    Greenfield is the “journalistic” equivalent of room tone.

  8. What does that mean: “I’m going to handle that issue agnostically.”? If it’s what I think he means, it’s to turn away from the varied evidence of more than one shooter and pretend it doesn’t exist. Maybe like if somebody asked about Darwin’s theory of evolution, if somebody were writing for a mixed audience of Bible Belt Christians and those who support Darwin’s main idea, to avoid controversy and upsetting the apple cart, you say something like: “I’m not going to go into the theory of evolution.”

    As for JFK and the effect on culture, I think he was a beacon for the youth, even when he wasn’t viewed as being active enough on civil rights earlier in his term. So if JFK had managed to live and get re-elected in 1964, I think the US involvement in Vietnam would have ended, or at the very least, no combat troops would have been put on the ground there. This would have meant no draft, and less fuel to feed the whole ‘hippie movement’ of that decade. Probably there would have been a bit less resistance on the part of teenaged baby boomers toward ‘adult’ policies, and maybe more active positive political participation. Timothy Leary would have had less influence on the young, because there would have been political heroes like the Kennedys to follow as real leaders. Robert Kennedy would not have run in 1968 in my opinion, because that would have been seen as too dynastic, but I think he would have run in the 1970s. This would have meant no Jimmy Carter. We would have had more political capital and money saved (by not spending on Vietnam) to really do more social improvements at home. Maybe more on hand to re-tool to face the energy challenges of the seventies.

    As a cultural side note, I think JFK would have not fully understood the Beatles, but he would have got a kick out of their visit to America I think. Based on his mild interest in Chubby Checker records and other early sixties pop culture, I think he would have been mildly amused by the ‘Fab Four.’

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