Virtual JFK: Vietnam (and us) if Kennedy had lived

Find a way to see Virtual JFK — a documentary film chasing a what-if riddle — and have your own presidential debate before choosing between John McCain and Barack Obama.

The question in Virtual JFK is whether President Kennedy, had he lived, would have withdrawn from war in Vietnam in 1965. It is at least arguable that what hangs on the answer is nothing less than the fighting (mostly losing) “counter-insurgency” doctrine that has fired up American foreign policy for nearly half a century, and that accounts for the “permanent war” dread through the Bush years and beyond.

Presidents matter, and presidential temperament is decisive: these are the fundamental premises of the film, and the moral for voters this year. Koji Masutani, 27, made Virtual JFK with his Brown University professor of history and international relations, James Blight. Together they have chosen six “crises” from the early Sixties in which restraint prevailed: the Bay of Pigs fiasco in which Kennedy blocked US Marines from saving the misbegotten mission; the flare-up and ceasefire in Laos in Spring, 1961; the Berlin crisis over the Soviets’ wall in August, 1961, when JFK pulled US tanks out of sight; Kennedy’s early rejection in 1961 of his generals’ plea (including his favorite, Max Taylor) for military intervention in Vietnam; the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, talked down by a “cautious, skeptical” president; and the secret staff planning in October, 1963 to start drawing down the American advisers in Vietnam.

It is clear to Jim Blight, anyway, that JFK’s instinct and persistent pattern were to avoid the war option, to say “no” to his generals, to engage his own restless, combative mind in peaceful, face-saving alternatives. Kennedy was a multilateralist, a man with a delicately balanced reading of an interconnected world. He did not hesitate to speak of his and our responsibility to “mankind” and “the human race.” He would have welcomed “the global test” of American policies. He spoke of “adversaries,” not “enemies.” He dealt with interests, not “evil.” He said: “I hope I am a responsible president. That is my intention.”

Koji Masutani

What the contrarian viewer sees as well is that JFK was up to his neck, at least, in Cold War reflexes. Those wacko nuclear bomb shelters were “useful… important,” he says in a press conference. Kennedy bought the domino doctrine that the fate of Southeast Asia was all or nothing, and he sold the silly simplistic line that nasty “guerrilas” were disrupting a peaceful democracy in South Vietnam. In his lesser moments Kennedy can sound shockingly close to George W. Bush, needling up fear and hostility around catch-phrases like “the most dangerous time in the history of the human race.” But then, what if it really was?

The seductive beauty of Virtual JFK is watching the play of doubt and responsibility, learning and wit on the weathered face of a 45-year-old war hero who is, unbelievably, the president of the United States.

KM: Imagine sitting in an editing studio in the dark for three years, hours and hours a day, having grown up with parents who are not American… I am listening to Kennedy, a president who is articulate, essentially disarming. I found this very surprising, as if he was an alien. I am just surprised that we have been here before: muddled in a war that can’t fully be explained. In the second part, we get in to Lyndon Johnson, someone who uses the kind of rhetoric that George Bush uses today, in absolutes.

JB:It’s so interesting because Johnson’s tapes are phone tapes and it feels like you’re sitting right there with the man himself. For the first three or four months, the phone tapes with McNamara show that McNamara, in a sense unconsciously still thinks he’s talking to Kennedy because he keeps interrupting him, and that is not something that is done with Johnson. He also keeps bringing data to bear on the situation, and Johnson doesn’t want to hear that either… until about March when…we did a rough calculation: about 50% of McNamara’s interventions after that are “yes, sir.” There is no known instance of a conversation with Kennedy that we have on tape where Kennedy talks and McNamara says “yes, sir.” It’s McNamara talks and Kennedy asks questions and then thinks about it…

KM:Kennedy required competitive information. At every meeting Kennedy wanted to hear from people who disagreed with him, and then under Johnson there was evidence that he wanted a consensus to take place before the meeting occurred…

Koji Masutani and James Blight of Virtual JFK in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 29, 2008

Koji Masutani conceived his movie before the shape of the 2008 race was remotely clear. The movie never mentions Barack Obama, but one feels that Obama has been growing into the Kennedy role. Ted Sorensen, who wrote many of Kennedy’s best lines, isn’t mentioned in the movie either. But Sorensen figures largely in our conversation here:

James G. Blight

So [we asked] Ted [Sorensen, Kennedy’s former speechwriter] what is it about Barack Obama that reminds you of your former friend and boss. He said, “it’s this: his first reaction will be to think, to consider. It will not be to strike out to strike out at the first opportunity, it seems to Ted, and it seems to me, frankly. That doesn’t make him a ditherer, not a person who is incapable of making a decision, but a person who wants to hear as many points of view as are relevant to the situation as possible and then to move forward and to try to do the least harm. Not an ideologue, not going to try to democratize the world and the moon and Mars and everything with it.” The point of leadership, he said, according to Kennedy, was to do as little harm as possible. And he thinks that Obama has kind of internalized that.

James Blight of the Watson Institute at Brown University and Virtual JFK in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 29, 2008

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  • Both as a Canadian and a person who consciously avoids newspapers and everyday politics I am a foreigner in this conversation. However, what strikes me is the excerpt from Kennedy’s “American University” speech. As Chris puts it, today peace is a hard sell; or as Kennedy states, “too many of us think that [peace] is impossible” which is a “dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable…” Prior to this Koji Masutani was talking about the cynical reactions to Obamian idealism and refers to the idea JFK espoused that “crises or problems are man-made and, therefore, can be solved by men.” Masutani asks us to enlighten him.

    As a philosophy student who sits in an ethics class among many people who side with Hobbesian descriptions of the “natural state of humanity,” I can offer a description of one area from which this cynicism sprouts.

    The ‘is/ought’ analysis such that humanity is fundamentally in a state of war, therefore we ought to behave in certain ways, sways many minds in universities. The idea being, the sooner people get ‘realistic’ about the ‘nature of humanity,’ the sooner the ‘idealists’ will stop fooling themselves. Of course, this is usually accompanied with a tell-tale sneer. The idea which follows is that in order to prevent civil war a nation must bind together to conquer other nations.

    The trouble I have with Hobbes (tracing back to Plato’s “Myth of Gyges”) is the neglect to address Socratic aims. Hobbes assumes that the pursuit of the good life hinges on the attainment of power and resources. Socrates, however, rightly asserted that even if one possessed the ability to act in any way without getting caught, one would still have reason to “do the right thing” so that, among other reasons, one could enjoy self improvement of character.

    Psychology tells us that, in the long run, Hobbesian-type pleasures are ephemeral, where as the benefit of building genuine human relationships promote longer lasting joy. The same thing that holds for individuals also holds for nations. Anyone who has put in the effort in their lives to work on maintaining caring human friendships will be quite aware of the priceless value of such bonds. The future will be characterized by the quality of the experiences we can promote, not the amount of objects we possess or the degree of authority we impose.

    Once Hobbesian sayings such as “human beings are fundamentally evil” are replaced with Socratic sayings such as “evil human beings are fundamentally confused,” I think cynicism will fall out of fashion — although, I never thought it was very attractive.

  • robm

    I cannot top being a philosophy student and a Canadian.

    I do think that things would have turned ‘differently’ had there not been Johnson (civil rights) or Nixon (China). Not that these things wouldn’t have happened anyway. I’m no fan of either, BTW. The current President Bush has shown us the worst. Let us hope the next President shows us the best.

  • dr-seuss


    First your comment and then my response.

    “Anyone who has put in the effort in their lives to work on maintaining caring human friendships will be quite aware of the priceless value of such bonds. The future will be characterized by the quality of the experiences we can promote, not the amount of objects we possess or the degree of authority we impose”.

    Wisdom is not necessarily more abundant when materialism is lacking. The two may never meet or they can commingle in harmonious ways. Or, the entire polarity can be functionally inverted. Consider the huge amounts of money Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey spend on charity. Pointing at people saying “Oh, look how shallow…” (I know you didn’t actually say that, I’m saying it to illustrate a point) is not only duplicitous, but also passé. Individual temperament, cultural position, and varying psychological factors is what decides the “quality of experiences”, not some inanimate philosophical precept. Socrates was wrong about “doing the right thing” (in this context) because not everyone is interested in improving their character. Dare I suggest that not everyone is capable of improving their character? Look at it this way. Those of us of introspective or poetic bent may be more ‘likely’ to improve our character, but not those who are content or have chosen not to, or those who have never figured out how – which is in no way a litmus test to someone’s character. Then again, what do you mean by “character”?

  • I don’t think JFK had in mind the complete abandonment of Vietnam to the communist. However, it is unlikely that the situation under his watch could ever have ever escalated in the way it did under Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy most likely would have used multiple strategies and political tactics, including special forces, to help save South Vietnam from falling to the insurgency. I don’t at all agree there are similarities between Vietnam and Iraq or Afghanistan. George Bush did exhaust the political and sanction strategies with Saddam Hussein, he did not rush to war as falsely accused over and over again, and Saddam Hussein gave all indication that he was pursuing WMD’s. Many democrats believed this before George Bush even became president, that is why they approved the invasion. Libya was definitely pursuing WMD’s and only completely stopped after we invaded Iraq. But here’s the real question: What will Obama do in regard to the president of Iran and his nuclear program? Will he have the guts to wage some kind of strategic war if all else fails, or at least support Israel in removing such a dangerous scenario? I believe Kennedy, if president today, would do something to stop these Islamic dictators from getting their hands on a nuclear device, just as he prevented Castro from having nuclear capabilities. Kennedy was all for peace as much as possible, but not at any price.

  • What wonderful advice to Pres. Obama. War is the sign of failure of diplomacy. Gene Rodenberry had a wonderful sci=fi story of how we were ostracized by the Committee of Universal Planets because “You still think war can solve anything” and “You still see war as an option.” AS we totter off toward the dustbin of history, and the extinction of our species.