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Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy had Lived 2009


Distributed by Bullfrog Films, PO Box 149, Oley, PA 19547; 800-543-FROG (3764)
Produced by Peter O. Almond, James G. Blight, Janet M. Lang, Koji Masutani, David A. Welch
Directed by Koji Masutani
DVD, color, 88 min.

Jr. High - Adult
U.S. History, Vietnam War, John F. Kennedy, Political Science

Date Entered: 09/09/2009

Reviewed by Christopher Lewis, American University Library, American University

Virtual JFK is a companion to the book titled Vietnam if Kennedy had Lived.

Brown University professor James G. Blight begins by raising the question of the subtitle, Vietnam if Kennedy had Lived. To ask at this point is an exercise in what historians call counterfactual or virtual history, debating how history would be affected if one significant element had been different. The premise may sound academic but the filmmakers assemble a cohesive set of archival audio and film clips to demonstrate to the viewer Kennedy’s resolve to avoid war through diplomacy. His courage to stick with what he believed, to do everything possible to avoid war, while his closest advisors were urging the opposite and his political opponents were calling him weak and incompetent, is an inspiration. In light of the militaristic foreign policy that politicians now seem compelled to embrace, the kind of diplomacy practiced during the Kennedy era seems other-worldly.

This film is constructed with brief summaries of the six major cold war incidents that defined Kennedy’s policy and legacy and concludes with a segment on Lyndon Johnson’s reversal of Kennedy’s position on Vietnam. The incidents in order were the Bay of Pigs April 1961, The Laos Crisis, The Berlin Crisis August-November 1961, showdown over Vietnam November 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis October 1962, and the planned withdrawal from Vietnam in November 1963.

Through all the press conference footage, Kennedy’s charisma and humor is ever-present and his relationship with the press probably played a major part in the success of his policy. He is openly cautious about divulging information that may jeopardize ceasefire or peace negotiations and he completely lacks the tough-guy bluster that nearly every president following him has employed in one way or another.

The last part of the documentary is about LBJ’s prosecution of the war. Johnson’s repeated bold promises of success, the exile of his dissenting Vice President Hubert Humphrey from war meetings, and his personal regrets as the body count escalated, all sound very familiar today. The film makes a powerful statement about the will of presidents and strongly suggests that aggression in the modern era is too often answered with war.

The film’s thesis is rooted in its praise of JFK’s actions and little evidence is provided to suggest he was ever less than idealistic in his pursuit of peace. Obviously he had detractors and some undoubtedly blame him for the Vietnam War. Regardless of the biases one can see in the filmmakers’ selection of film and audio clips, the work is effective in contrasting Kennedy’s peaceful resolutions of major crises with the catastrophic results of the following administration’s more aggressive strategy.

Virtual JFK is highly recommended for general interest collections and especially for those strong in the areas of U.S. history, the Vietnam War, and peace and conflict resolution.