What Might Have Been

Over at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, there is a special exhibit, “To the Brink,” all about the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

Among the featured documents on display, perhaps the most arresting is the original typed draft of a speech that President Kennedy never delivered—that is, the announcement that the United States was about to launch an all-out assault on Cuba to destroy the missiles secretly installed there by the Soviet Union.

“I, as president, had the greatest reluctance to order the action that is now being carried out,” Kennedy was to have said.  “I made every effort to clarify my position.  But the Cuban authorities would not listen.  In the face of their open defiance action became inevitable.”

“There should be no doubt on the part of anyone,” he was to add, “that, in carrying out this commitment, the U.S. will be prepared to use all the forces at its disposal including nuclear.”

The American people never heard such an address because such a decision was never made (the president opted for a blockade instead).  But it jolly well could have been:  Several key members of the secret White House EXCOMM meetings recommended such a move, and Kennedy considered it seriously enough to prepare a speech just in case.

In this week of reminiscences of the Kennedy administration—Friday is the 50th anniversary of the assassination in Dallas—the question has predictably resurfaced, “What if Kennedy had lived?”

Minus those three shots fired from the Texas School Book Depository in Dealey Plaza, how might the arc of history differed from the one we have?

Would the United States have doubled down in Vietnam?  Would the Civil Rights Movement have progressed faster (or slower)?  Would the American public have been spared its disillusionment with government spurred by the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon?

The counterfactual history industry has long flourished in America, and it’s easy to understand why.  After all, the creative possibilities are endless and, by their nature, cannot be positively disproved.

In the case of Kennedy, the allure of crafting “what if” scenarios is especially potent, given the presidency’s oversized promise and undersized length.  It ended on a series of cliffhangers, and it has been left to survivors to second-guess how it might have played out.

What events like the missile standoff bring so sharply into focus, however, is the fact that the world does not require such horror shows as assassinations for the thrust of human events to change course.

As we know but sometimes forget, our leaders are all the time faced with decisions that could (and often do) prove enormously consequential in the longer term—decisions that were all but arbitrary at the time but are seen as inevitable in retrospect.

Such is one of the central insights of history and of life itself:  Nothing is inevitable.  Events unfold in only one way, but there are a billion other ways they could unfold, with only the mildest shuffling of the cards.

Never mind the decisions Kennedy might have made had he not died.  We cannot possibly sort through all the decisions he could have made while he lived.

Further, by no means is this principle of unknowable-ness exclusive to government and politics.  It also applies to each and every one of us.

Back to the Future was all about how Marty McFly’s parents, George and Lorraine, met and fell in love because George unwittingly stepped into the path of Lorraine’s father’s green Chevy.  As the movie makes plain, had George simply watched where he was going, the marriage would never have occurred and Marty would never have been born.

How many of us owe our own place in the universe to events that could very easily have gone the other way?  Is the alternative even possible?

And so when we talk about how different the world might have been if President Kennedy survived, let us acknowledge the limits of such theorizing by recognizing that the future is far more unpredictable than we give it credit for, that nothing is “destined” to happen until it does, and that we are all the time hostage to the playful randomness of the universe in ways that even a president cannot fully control.