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Campus News

October 23rd, 2023

Three seconds that changed history

Counterfactual history explored in JCLS presentation via Kennedy assassination

It's factual history that the Secret Service reaction to the shots fired in Dallas on November 22, 1963 wasn't immediate.

The never-ending debate is how different might the world look today if that response time had been better.

Would U.S. ground troops have been introduced to the Vietnam War?

Would two Kennedy assassinations have been averted?

Would the list of American Presidents look quite different than what we have today?

All of those unanswerable questions – and many more – were explored during last Wednesday night's Joan Crawford Lecture Series presentation What If: Counterfactual History and the JFK Assassination.

Dr. Richard Midcap, Garrett College's president and the JCLS presenter, observed that counterfactual history can be likened to "history without certainty.”

"Traditional history is viewed as concrete and provable,” said Midcap, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in U.S. history as well as a doctorate in education. "Counterfactual history is anything but concrete and provable.

"It's based on extrapolating timelines in which key historical events don't occur, or have different outcomes, and then hypothesizing possible different outcomes,” added Midcap.

One of the central features of counterfactual history, according to Midcap, is what's known as "the butterfly effect.”

"Making small changes in a historical event can have large impacts down the road,” said Midcap, who taught history at Chesapeake College before becoming Garrett College's president. "In counterfactual history, ‘butterflying' something that happened away is what takes place when that small change leads to other changes.”

Midcap used the Kennedy assassination as an example, explaining the ensuing investigation indicated the first shot would not, by itself, have been fatal.

"Secret Services agents on the Kennedy detail in Dallas said they had enough time between the two shots that hit Kennedy to debate whether what they heard was a firecracker or backfire from an automobile,” said Midcap. "If driver Will Greer had immediately sped up and begun taking evasive action, it's likely President Kennedy would have survived.”

If that had been the case, Midcap asked, what historical events that followed might have been "butterflied away”?

"Three things that are easily butterflied away are Lyndon Johnson's presidency, Bobby Kennedy's assassination, and – to a lesser extent – U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War,” said Midcap.

"If Kennedy lived, it's not even certain he would have retained Johnson as his vice president,” said Midcap. "An influence-peddling scandal involving Johnson that was just starting to break in November 1963 was shut down once he became president. Had that scandal become public knowledge in 1963, it's likely Johnson would have been dropped from the ticket in '64.”

Midcap noted Bobby Kennedy's assassination took place while he was running for president in 1968 – a campaign he was unlikely to have undertaken had JFK lived.

"If JFK had lived, Bobby was likely still have been in the Kennedy cabinet – either still as attorney general or possible secretary of defense – rather than running successfully for the U.S. Senate in 1964. He simply wouldn't have had the political base at that time to run for president – and thus wouldn't have been an assassin's target in 1968.”

Extrapolating the impact of Kennedy's survival on the course of the Vietnam War is much more difficult.

"There were a lot of conflicting opinions – even among President Kennedy's senior advisors – over how the U.S. response in Vietnam would have differed from how President Johnson approached it,” conceded Midcap.

"What we do know is that there were 16,000 U.S. military advisors – and no American ground troops – in Vietnam at the time of Kennedy's death,” said Midcap. "We also know he had signed NSAC-263 a month before his death, authorizing the withdrawal of 1,000 of those advisors by the end of 1963. That indicates to me that he was at least potentially looking for an exit ramp out of Vietnam.

"If you postulate that Kennedy gets us out of Vietnam, what else gets butterflied?” asked Midcap. "Well, much of the 1960s turbulence – including the war-related college campus riots – probably doesn't take place. The economy is likely better, given the U.S. doesn't absorb the estimated $176 billion it took to fight that war between 1961 and 1973.”

All of which, according to Midcap, might butterfly away the Nixon Presidency.

"Nixon used an unpopular war and a divided Democratic Party to barely eke out a win over Hubert Humphrey and third-party candidate George Wallace in 1968,” said Midcap. "With no war and an improved U.S. economy, I don't see Nixon winning that election.”

Which, Midcap said, then butterflies away the Watergate scandal and the resulting cynicism of many citizens toward politics.

"You could make a case that Kennedy living dramatically rearranges our lineup of presidents,” said Midcap. "Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are much less likely to reach the White House. If Nixon doesn't win, Gerald Ford doesn't become president because Nixon never resigns.

"Jimmy Carter won the first post-Watergate presidential election as an honest outsider who could be trusted,” continued Midcap. "No Watergate – I don't think there is a Carter Presidency.

"George Bush – who built his political career through presidential appointments by Nixon and Ford – likely has no plausible path to the presidency,” said Midcap. "And with no President George Bush, is there a pathway for a President George W. Bush?

"If Kennedy lives, you have at least six men who became president who might not have reached the White House,” concluded Midcap.

Midcap acknowledged that there are equally valid arguments for a different history had Kennedy lived. He said those debates are what make counterfactual history so intriguing.

"That's one reason why the Back to the Future film series is so popular,” said Midcap, referring to the three-movie set starring Michael J. Fox. "That series essentially asked what would happen if you went back in time and changed one event. Exploring those alternate timelines provided the central theme of the whole series.”