It presents itself as a piece of “virtual history,” that is, speculation about how things might have turned out if one important event had not happened. But a new documentary isn’t really about that.
“Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived” does wonder about what might have happened if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated in November 1963. Would Kennedy’s personality and judgment have avoided the large-scale quagmire of the Vietnam War?
But in fact, the movie doesn’t invent a parallel history. It uses film clips and transcripts to establish a pattern in Kennedy’s behavior during his presidency, particularly during a series of crises that hit him almost immediately after taking office—and then allows you to draw your own conclusions.
These crises included the Bay of Pigs fiasco (when, much to the fury of U.S. hawks, Kennedy declined to support the CIA-trained anti-Castro force with a full-scale military action), Communist incursions in Laos, and the building of the Berlin Wall. And that was just 1961; the Cuban missile crisis would come the next year.
In all of these situations, Kennedy was prudent and skeptical, but steadfast. His maneuverings during the Cuban missile crisis were bold, but they also involved a lot of backstage negotiation (something the film doesn’t go into).
All of which kept the country out of war, but allowed JFK’s opponents to accuse him of weakness. This time-honored tactic is still around — the enemies might change, but the tricks remain the same.
A remarkable taped meeting during the Cuban crisis contains Kennedy’s extremely shrewd calculation that aggressive U.S. military action in Cuba would be a way for the Soviets to justify taking West Berlin. At that same meeting, ultra-hawk Gen. Curtis LeMay tells Kennedy that a lack of military action in Cuba would be akin to the appeasement of Hitler at Munich (an all-purpose insult still much in use today).
But Kennedy was right. Whether he would have been right on Vietnam is a mystery, since the president himself was partly responsible for sending U.S. military there during his term.
A single talking head, Brown University’s James G. Blight, takes us through the JFK chronicles — and his opinion on Kennedy’s Vietnam behavior isn’t hard to guess.
The most impressive thing about the movie is not the “what if” game, but director Koji Masutani’s marshaling of newsreels and documents. (It appears that the Vietnam footage has been artificially “aged” with dirt and scratches, a device as puzzling as the use of Satie music.)
Finally, “Virtual JFK,” with its vision of an articulate commander-in-chief who counsels caution and long-range planning, is undoubtedly intended to contrast with recent history. Mission accomplished.