The nation this month is preoccupied with memory: The shots in Dallas. The frantic drive to Parkland Hospital. The agonizing moments of uncertainty, followed by the lingering feeling of incredulity. The scene on Air Force One. The arrest and then the slaying of the accused killer. The coffin in the Capitol.
But it isn’t only memory that haunts us in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. We are haunted almost as much by what might have been as by what happened. What would have occurred in the remainder of the president’s term? In the 1964 election? In a second term, presuming Kennedy was re-elected?
This is more than a parlor game, though it has dominated more than one dinner from Georgetown to Moscow. It prompts us to examine how our history unfolded, whether there was an alternative course, whether the upheaval of the 1960s, the eventual election of Richard Nixon, even Watergate, might have been avoided had the bullets missed their mark, had the president survived, had the day in Dallas dawned rainy and not brilliantly bright, prompting the president to ride in a covered 1961 Presidential Lincoln rather than the open vehicle that is seared into our historical memory.
By definition there is no such thing as alternative history. We can no more turn around the car at Dallas in 1963 than we could at Sarajevo, where a mere diversion in the route of the Austrian archduke in 1914 might have prevented the waste of 9 million lives and, it is possible, avoided the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust and the Cold War. But an examination of this question helps us understand history and underlines how helpless we sometimes are in its march.
There are myriad elements to the intersection of historical forces that collided as President Kennedy’s motorcade approached the intersection of Houston and Elm Streets a half-century ago. These are three of the most intriguing, troubling — and illuminating: