A few months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the U.S. Information Agency produced a commemorative film, Years of Lightning/Day of Drums. The narration concluded with these words:
Some day, there will come a time when the early 1960s will be a very long time ago.”
In 2013 the world will note the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death — November 22, 1963 — and today, the early 1960s are truly a very long time ago.
And people still ask: What would the world be like today if Kennedy has escaped death on that fateful day in Dallas?
Writers of “virtual history” – where the what ifs of history are examined to find alternative outcomes to real events – have produced books envisioning a world where the Nazis won World War II, and an America where the South won the Civil War.
On the wall of my office hangs the papier-mâché matrix from which the front page of The Toronto Telegram was printed the day of the assassination. The headline reads, KENNEDY SHOT, DIES. Each time I glance at this now historic artifact the thought is renewed in my mind: “What if Kennedy had lived?”
The pursuit of this thought led me into the arena of virtual history, and has resulted in my new, short e-book, “Kennedy After Dallas: JFK’s Return to the White House for an Epochal 2nd Term.”
While I am admirer of John F. Kennedy and revere his memory, I have not attempted to portray an idealized version of the man, free of faults and absent of mistakes.
In speculating on what might have transpired had Kennedy not been killed, I have built on the historical record of his administration to project the logical outcome of policies set in motion by JFK before Dallas.
For example. JFK had shown considerable skepticism about the wisdom of U.S. military policy and had expressed his apprehension about the consequences of another Bay of Pigs or Cuban missile crisis.
For example, there was the time when he walked out of a meeting of his National Security Council as it debated the merits of a preemptive first strike on the Soviet Union. “And we call ourselves the human race,” he said later to his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk.
If Kennedy had lived, history would have unfolded differently. Our narrative sets out the alternative reality that would almost assuredly come to pass had fate allowed JFK to return to the White House after Dallas.
Across a range of areas — foreign policy, civil rights, civil liberties, outer space — JFK set in motion attitude and ideas that would after his death come to be accepted as conventional wisdom.
“The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city.” he says in Years of Lightning/Day of Drums. It was a recognition of an unwelcome truth in a demonstration of realpolitic that has been unmatched by any succeeding president.
Vietnam, of course, was the greatest challenge of the Kennedy years and those that followed. Would he have done things differently if he had lived?
Vietnam was already a divided country when Kennedy took office in 1961. The old French colony of Indochina had been cut in half – communist and non-communist – at the Geneva peace conference of 1954.
In a debate in the Senate that year, young Senator Kennedy set out the view that would guide his future presidency. It would be “dangerously futile and self-destructive,” he declared, “to pour money, materials and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory.”
Less than three months before his death, Kennedy told newscaster Walter Cronkite: “In the final analysis it’s their war. They’re the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors but they have to win it. The people of Vietnam against the communists … I don’t think the war can be won unless the people support the effort …”
There was a quicker and cheaper way out of Vietnam than that which was finally followed by the United states. I am convinced JFK would have found it, and Kennedy After Dallas describes how it might have come about.
A reviewer of my book has challenged me on what Kennedy would have done to inquire into the attempt on his death. The reviewer suggests he would have gone all out to find out who was behind the actions of Lee Oswald Harvey, and suggests it might have been Lyndon B. Johnson. I do not accept that judgement, not because I think Johnson incapable of leading such a murderous mission, but because I believe Kennedy’s commitment to the sanctity of the American political system would have deterred him from seeking such an earth-shaking explanation.
Kennedy had a strong fatalistic streak. On the day after the settlement of the Cuban missile crisis, he told his brother, “This is the night I should go to the theater.” He left on his desk a slip of paper on which he had written a line from a prayer of Abraham Lincoln: “I know there is a God – and I see a storm coming. If he has a place for me, I believe that I am ready.”
Lying abed one Saturday morning scanning the travel section of the Globe and Mail, I spotted a story about people going to Paris to study French. That’s something I’d always wanted to do, and so I went on the web to see what I might find. Alliance Francaise looked like my best bet. Its offerings included a one-month “intensif” French course. Its seductive invitation: “Vous apprendez le francase a Paris.” How could I turn that down?
A little background. I’ve studied French on and off for years, but never with much discipline, nor with the opportunity to use what little I’d learned. Deborah speaks French from having worked there on leaving school, but there was no way I could keep up with her. The fact I want to write a book with a French setting – one I’ve been researching for years – gives me added motivation. So I made the decision to go to Paris. With Deb’s enthusiastic support, I’m delighted to add.
I signed up for the course and for the housing arrangement that Alliance Francaise offers. It’s a great deal – a month of classes five afternoons a week, plus breakfast and dinner with a French host. All for less than $100 a day Canadian. My hosts, in an interesting neighborhood on the right bank, are Michel, a security engineer, and Violette, un avocat.
Apprehensions? I had plenty. Would I be able to keep up with the bright young kids that I’d undoubtedly be thrown in with? Can an old guy like me learn something new? Did I have the energy to make it to school every day – plus enjoy at least a few of the delights Paris has to offer?
Now that I’m about to start my fourth and final week, I can answer “oui” to all of the above. My class is largely mid-30s to 40s adults, with just a few youngsters added in. Many are immigrants to France – from Turkey, Poland, Bulgaria and other European countries. Cleber, a Brazilian bar tender. Liliani, a pretty Cuban dancer. Tjouba, a Turkish book editor. Robert Blake, an American writer-illustrator whose wife has been posted to Paris by Nissan. He’s sold over four million of his children’s books. Our youngest student, an 18-year-old Australian girl. And a bright young Italian man who is studying science po, speaks pretty good English, wants to be a politician. At break, he grabs our professor’s computer and throws up You Tube videos of soccer games and Latin rock. That’s what set Liliani and Yolande to dancing, as you see here. We have fun, and we learn.
And our teacher? Mademoiselle la professeur, Sarah. Bright, vibrant, tres francaise! Also, pregnant, and wants the world to know it.
Of course, one of the delights of being in Paris is the food. And no more expensive than back home — sometimes less so. Amusing sight: Standing outside a restaurant at noon, waiting for it to open (along with a half dozen others) I saw a motorcyclist arrive, park on the sidewalk, and go to the door. Producing a key, he opened it, took off his helmet, and became the matrie ‘d! A gracious one, too, and host of un bon restaurant grec.
How’m I getting along? Conjugations, nouns masculine et feminine, verbes falling out of my Bescherelle, pluriel and singular, dance in my head all night long. I think I’m doing okay, better on written French than aural. That’s fine, as my main interest is in reading French for research. But it’s great to travel around Paris and be mistaken for a native!
When I visited Paris with Deborah last year we had a very pleasant dinner at La Ferme Saint-Simon, on a little street just off blvd. St-Germain, of course on the Left bank. So naturally, I went back there Saturday night, having first reserved online. La Ferme is one of those stand-by French restaurant, not great, not horribly expensive, but a place that very much gives you the feel of the country. I chose Souris d’agneau brisee. What can one say? braised lamb is braised lamb. The glass of Chablis was a reward for being there. (I happen to think that dish for dish, Lyon and Brussels serve better food than Paris.)
When one dines alone, one must try to compensate by closing observing the neighboring diners. Two men at nearby tables with their ladies intrigued me. One, a balding, bespectacled fellow wearing a jacket, sweater, shirt and tie, stood out from the rest of the men in the room, most of them dressed ultra-casually. This man did something I’ve not seen in years. He drew from his pocket a cloth handkerchief and dabbed at his face. I didn’t know they made those things anymore! I put him down for a retired insurance company adjuster, perhaps a throwback to the ancien bourgeoisie. The other gentlemen looked precisely like a Quebec politician, now dead, who I once knew. Genes do tell.
Forgive me if I sound touristy, but all travelers have to walk, eat, sleep and see the sights. I did my gawking in the morning when, true to my research needs, I wandered along Quai d’Orsay to a stark five-story sandstone building on rue Saint-Dominique that now houses the Ministry of Defense. It is where Gen. Charles de Gaulle had his office before the German occupation, and to which he returned on Liberation Day to find not a thing out of place. On the way, I encountered one of those delights for which Paris is so famous – a tiny square called Place Samuel Rousseau (I think this Rousseau was a composer), behind which stands the Basilica of Saint Clotilde. Enjoy the picture!
Two touristy encounters: A new dodge is for street people (Algerians, apparently) to bend over a few feet from you and feign picking up a gold ring. It happened twice to me. The first time, the woman pretended it would not fit her, then offered it to me. Next, she asked for coffee money. I gave her a few coins but declined the ring, which she quickly pocketed. A little later, a young man tried the same thing.
Alliance Francaise handled my registration with dispatch, and I soon possessed a “student” card which will give me entry to a month of French classes starting Monday (Oct. 1). This is the real reason for my trip to Paris – to fulfill a long denied ambition to better speak and read French as an aid to my tesearch for various projects.
Also on Monday, I’ll be buying my month’s pass on the Metro for 62 Euros ($80), compared to the $115 the TTC charges Toronto commuters. Before that, I’ll find my way to the 12th Arrondisement where I’ll be staying with a French couple, the Lefis, for the extent of my visit. More later.
The Canadian flag may be raised or lowered at the Quebec National Assembly, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that some good things have come from the election of the Parti Quebecois. Here are two worth considering:
First, the Harper government’s decision to quit backing asbestos mining, which occurs only in Quebec.
Second, the withdrawal by Lowe’s, the American hardware giant, in its bid to take over Quebec-based Rona Inc.
The new Premier, Mme. Marois had promised to withdraw the guarantee the provincial Liberals had offered for a $50 million loan to start up asbestos mining again at Asbestos, Que. (The name says it all.) And she made it clear the PQ government would do everything in its power to stop the take-over of Rona.
If you agree it is time that Canada stopped exporting asbestos to third-world countries (having banned its use in our own construction), you will be pleased with Ottawa’s action to no longer oppose adding asbestos to the global list of hazardous substances. Also, if you believe boards of directors should have the power to reject unwanted takeovers, then you’ll take comfort in Lowe’s withdrawal of its cash-rich take-over bid.
Neither of these things would have come to pass without a PQ government in power.The fact they did adds further weight, I think, to the argument that Quebecers chose exceedingly well when they voted on September 4.
They clearly had no wish to go down the sovereignist path, and so accordingly made sure the PQ did not get a majority. But they did want change, and the social democratic policies of the PQ met with the same high level of support that New Democratic candidates enjoyed in the last federal election.
In both the asbestos and Rona cases, it’s significant that the Quebec government had no real power to stop either of the projects. What Ottawa says in foreign affairs is solely Ottawa’s business. And the Rona take-over, if it had proceeded, would have been determined by federal authorities under Canada’s federal investment review policies.
During the election campaign, Mme. Marois promised to pick fights with Ottawa. Her strategy was that Quebec couldn’t lose. If Ottawa gave in, that would prove the heft of the sovereignist threat. If Ottawa didn’t buckle, that would show there’s no place for Quebec in Canada.
We can take comfort in the fact that the first two big consequences of the election go against both these stratagems. Instead, they demonstrate that practical realities — and policies that are responsive to the public good — will usually achieve the desired results. Any Quebec government could have taken the stance the PQ did in these instances, and the outcome would have been the same. Proving once again the irrelevance of separatism.