What If It Had Rained in Dallas or Diefenbaker Forgot About the Tree?
Anniversary journalism is lazy but inevitable. We were bombarded with the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination stories and more than once I turned away from the horrible film clip of a man being murdered. I thought it fascinating that through the mourning porn, few stopped to consider Kennedy’s impact on Canada – and it was enormous. More fun, I thought, would be to play the “what if” counter-factual game of historical inquiry and ponder the effects on Canada not of his life but if he had lived.
After all, Kennedy’s living past November 1963 could have happened if one of two things had changed. First, if it had rained in Dallas that day then his limousine would have had its roof in place and Lee Harvey Oswald (or whoever) may not have found his target. Second, on a 1961 visit to Ottawa Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had insisted on Kennedy planting a ceremonial tree at the Governor General’s residence. While shovelling dirt he had seriously reinjured his already weak back and so was fitted for a stiff brace. He was wearing it that day in Dallas and after the first shot it had kept him erect and a sitting duck for the second and deadly shot.
So what if it had rained in Dallas or Diefenbaker had forgotten about the tree?
President Kennedy and Prime Minister Diefenbaker in Ottawa
JFK was a careless philanderer. He consorted with prostitutes, movie stars, and even a mobster’s girlfriend. He was once asked what he wanted for his birthday and he pointed to a young Hollywood starlet in a magazine. Guess who was with him a few days later?
In August, 1963, the F.B.I. told Attorney General Robert Kennedy that his brother was having an affair with East German communist spy Ellen Rometsch. This was different. This was serious. She was quickly deported on an Air Force plane. Days before Kennedy left for Dallas, the Senate Rules Committee was preparing to subpoena Rometsch in its investigation of Bobby Baker who was suspected of having shady financial dealings with Senators and of arranging many of the president’s dalliances.
The sex-spy scandal could have shattered Kennedy’s presidency. There would have been significant ramifications for the increasingly left-leaning Canada if the uproar and possible impeachment had led to the election of the Republican’s 1964 presidential candidate, the extreme right-wing Barry Goldwater.
But what if Kennedy was re-elected? He and Diefenbaker hated each other. The president knew and liked Liberal leader Lester Pearson and so his government helped defeat Diefenbaker in the April, 1963 election. Kennedy then ordered a resumption of positive Canadian-American interaction. The vastly improved personal relations between leaders could have earned major dividends for Canada.
Pearson had campaigned on a promise to surrender to Kennedy’s pressure and house American nuclear missiles in Canada. In the subsequent months, though, Kennedy worked to end nuclear proliferation and signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He was sending signals to the Soviet Union with hopes to create what would later be called détente. It is likely that Pearson would have reacted to the changing Cold War policies and tenor and revisited his long-held views on disarmament and used his relationship with Kennedy to get the weapons of mass destruction back out of Canada.
Kennedy invited Pearson to his home and asked for advice on Vietnam. When told he should get out, Kennedy laughed and said that any fool knew that but the question was how. After the 1964 election, Kennedy would probably have withdrawn the American military ‘advisors’ he had dispatched and there would have been no Americanized Vietnam war.
Without the Vietnam War, tensions caused by Canada’s opposition to it would not have existed. Eighty Canadians who went to the U.S. to serve would not have died. Tens of thousands of American draft dodgers would not have crossed the border. Without Vietnam, African Americans and Canadian women and youth fighting for change would not have had the link that helped unite and strengthen their movements. The young, for instance, would probably have initiated their cultural rebellion but without much of its anti-war inspired, revolutionary anger. Vancouver’s Gastown, Toronto’s Yorkville and conversations at dinner tables across the country would have been different.
After eight years of Kennedy’s growing liberal consensus, and without the war tearing America’s social fabric, the ‘silent majority’ that helped elect Richard Nixon may not have evolved. No Nixon would have meant no anti-American wave caused by Nixon’s 10% tax on Canadian trade and by his Vietnam policies. No anti-American wave could have tempered the uptick in Canadian patriotism – our negative nationalism. No Nixon would have meant no Watergate so we might not still be suffering its sad legacy of wrathful, prying journalism and popular political cynicism.
John F. Kennedy was America’s first celebrity president. He taught all future leaders – Trudeau, Clinton, Obama and Trudeau again – the efficacy of image and television. He was a flawed man but a transformational leader with a positive vision and the courage and intellect to pursue it. Had he lived and dodged scandal, Canada would have been different then and different now.