Viet Nam Generation
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A sniper. A plot to kill the President. A conspiracy at the highest levels of government. A military-industrial complex threatened by the prospect of peace, and anxious to start a war.
Oliver Stone's JFK? Yes, but also oddly enough the plot of Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Most of the reviews of Star Trek VI have pointed to it as a post-Cold War film for the 1990s, the end of a series bringing to an end a cult history (with apologies to Francis Fukuyama), but few reviewers make the same point about JFK. Stone's film is not science fiction, but it is a speculation (in and of itself about the events of the assassination, never mind its relationship to Viet Nam) and implicitly dwells upon one of the central devices of SF--what if. Stone's film surely would not have had the same resonance if it had appeared five years ago, suggesting as it does that the lessening (and virtual disappearance) of Cold War tensions which characterizes superpower relations today all could have happened thirty years ago...if President Kennedy had lived.
All this has long been a hobby of historians (in a sense, it is the basis of their work): in 1932 J.C. Squire edited a famous collection entitled If It Had Happened Otherwise in which speculations were offered by, amongst others, Winston Churchill. Such "what ifs?" have also long been a central device of science fiction, and alternative histories a favorite theme, for instance, in the history where the Protestant reformation never took place (Kingsley Amis' The Alteration, or Keith Robert's Pavane), or the Confederate South won the American Civil War (Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee), or Hitler the Second World War (the most popular alteration of all, perhaps, best represented by Philip Dick's The Man in the High Castle). All establish moments--hinge points--where history took a different path-- some important, others trivial in themselves. For Stone's JFK, the hinge point is obvious--the assassination, and the fresh commitment to the Viet Nam War made by the alleged text of National Security Action Memorandum 273--as Stone imparts his personal veteran's backspin to the conspiracy theories of assassination buffs, to suggest that the deaths of two million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans need not have happened. Stone's "thesis" surely evades anything but a simple-minded understanding of the forces leading to American intervention, but true or false, the hinge of those awful moments in Dealey Plaza has stimulated "what if?" fiction. George Bernau's Promises to Keep (1989) stands as an interesting companion text to Stone's JFK: in it, the President survives the assassination, sits out a term convalescing, and returns to office after fighting the President from Texas--his ex-Vice President--for the nomination, determined to get the nation out of the Viet Nam War. His brother has died, assassinated by the sabotage of his helicopter while visiting the War, pointing to a second "what if?" the one which caused Daniel Ellsberg to break down in the documentary Hearts and Minds (1972), at the thought of what might have been if RFK had not been shot in 1968.
In science fiction, the new wave writer J.G. Ballard wrote in the Sixties of the fascination of the event in his short story, suitably transgressively entitled "The Assassination of John F. Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" while in the Seventies, Barry Malzberg wrote the novel The Destruction of the Temple (, pre-figured by his 1969 short story, "A Soul Song to the Sad, Silly, Soaring Sixties") in which the events of the murder are constantly reenacted for the gratification of a movie director, actors, and the audience. But, perhaps the most mature alternative history novel science fiction has yet produced also concerns these events--Gregory Benford's masterly Nebula Award winning Timescape (1980). Benford neatly combines an alternative history with communication across time, with intermingled narratives set in the future and the past. In 1998 the planet is slowly being assassinated by algae fed by man made pollutants, which are starving the oceans of oxygen. Two scientists experiment with tachyons--particles which travel faster than light--in order to try to communicate with the previous generation, and send back a warning of things to come. In California, in 1962, a graduate scientist Gregory Bernstein receives the messages as persistent interference in his nuclear magnetic resonance experiment. Deciphering them, he fails to convince his colleagues and the scientific establishment of their veracity, the Press ignore his story and...and forty pages from the end of the book, the Sixties section of the novel reaches this date: November 22, 1963. The familiar chain of events in Dealey Plaza interrupts the life of the University (Oswald arrested, Cronkite on TV, waiting for news outside Parkland hospital), except...except that a high school student is also on the top floor of the Texas School Book Depository. He speaks to reporters minutes later:
"You had not seen Oswald before? You had no sign that he had a rifle and--"
"Look, like I said, I was down here to get some magazines. Mr. Aiken is doin' this special two-day extra-credit project in our college level physics course, the PST one. It was on the stuff in this magazine, the Senior Scholastic. Mr. Aiken, he had me come down here to get 'em for the class this afternoon. There was something about y'know this ah, signal from the future an--"
"The shots--how many of them hit?"
"Hell, I dunno. He got off two 'em okay. I socked him good just before the third." (385)
The Zapruder film, the third shot, the head-shot--at this instant the reader knows that the "future" will change, in a coda set ten years later, the messages have been believed, and Bernstein is a recognized authority in a new science which rode piggy-back into the public eye on the events in Dallas. Just as Benford neatly uses the Kennedy assassination as a hinge point, but without romanticizing the President, it isn't made clear if the Viet Nam War has been avoided (perhaps it has been won?), and our expectations are similarly overturned when Robert Kennedy is reported to have lost the 1968 election--caught in a wire-tapping scandal. History has been changed, but not by the route intended. it isn't even certain that Bernstein's warning will prevent the pollution, but Benford finishes the novel with an ironic affirmation of free will: "there was yet still time."
Timescape is an extraordinary novel, one which the above summary can't give justice to--do read it if you can. With the same sense of irony about what might have been, Norman Mailer in his article on JFK in the February 1992 issue of Vanity Fair draws attention to a darker alternative history than Stone's, quoting from Jonathan Yardley's Washington Post review of Thomas Reeves' book JFK: A Question of Character (1991):
"[Reeves'] analysis suggests that the assassination of John Kennedy, however cruel and ghastly, may have spared the nation something even worse than the prolonged orgy of grief and hagiography which followed it. He suggests that the gentlemen's agreement by which details of Kennedy's private life were kept secret might well have been violated, for whatever reason, during a second term, and that a vote of impeachment might well have followed.
This, had it come to pass, could have been more damaging even than Watergate. The spectacle of a president of the United States on trial for illicit liaisons within and without the White House, for questionable relations with ranking figures in the underworld--this would have been more than the United States of the mid-1960s could have stomached." (109)
Ah, but what if...?