The Butterfly Effect: What would have happened had Kennedy not been assassinated?

A progressive utopia, World War 3 or something in between?

Sensitivity to initial conditions means that each point in such a system is arbitrarily closely approximated by other points with significantly different future trajectories. Thus, an arbitrarily small perturbation of the current trajectory may lead to significantly different future behaviour. – Wikipedia

Today marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination – which I’m guessing you already knew. Just about everyone with Internet access is weighing in with a take, and I’m not sure I’ve seen any that get to the ultimate cultural importance of the event like the two pieces we have here, penned by Drs. Denny and Booth. Please, make a few minutes to read those posts and perhaps share them with your friends.

I also wanted to offer a thought or two, although my personal experience with Kennedy was nonexistent. When he was killed I was a baby and my only recollection was my mother setting me in front of the TV to watch the funeral. I had no idea what was going on, but it seemed very sad.

So for me, the whole JFK thing is history, not lived experience, and instead of reflecting on him, per se, I’m more interested in the ball that his presidency set rolling.

The principle of sensitivity to initial conditions, briefly defined above, is better known as the Butterfly Effect. It says that small, seemingly insignificant events can ultimately lead to dramatic results elsewhere down the line – the hypothetical butterfly flapping its wings outside your window today spawning a tornado in China next year. While it’s a scientific concept, there’s little doubt that it applies to other systems as well, and I can’t help thinking that the Kennedy assassination was not only a butterfly, it was a rather large one.

Has he not been killed, I wonder, how might our present world be different? There are literally millions, perhaps billions or trillions, of possible answers. But here are the questions I ask in thinking about it.

  • Would he have gotten us out of Vietnam or, like Johnson, gone all-in?
  • Would he finally have killed Castro, and if so, how might the USSR have reacted?
  • He’d almost certainly have been reelected in 1964, which means either a) no Johnson presidency, or b) a Johnson presidency commencing in 1968 instead of ’64.
  • Given this, would JFK have pushed for the Civil Rights Act? If so, would he have been successful? LBJ had the advantage of being Southern and, as such, might have set off fewer alarm bells than a polarizing Boston Yankee. I’m not sure here, honestly, and perhaps we have some historians reading who can shed more light on the subject.
  • In any case, probably no single moment in the last 50 years of our political history exerted a greater lasting impact on what was to come than the Civil Rights Act. (That we know of, anyway – we are talking about the Butterfly Effect, after all, and it’s possible that Wilbur Mills sneezed in a subcommittee once, thus staving off World War 3.)
  • Does a second Kennedy term allow the man to fulfill his potential as a Rushmore-worthy leader? Because his performance up to the point of his death, as Jim indicates in his post, wasn’t especially noteworthy (unless you consider nearly getting us into the aforementioned WW3 to be noteworthy).
  • If so, there’s every reason in the world to like Robert Kennedy’s chances at succeeding his brother, assuming he doesn’t get shot. Again, butterflies everywhere.
  • And maybe the conservative backlash that began with Tricky Dick, climaxed with Reagan, and has continued more or unabated with each president since (including the two Democrats, Clinton and Obama) might not have happened.
  • If not, Nixon might have won in ’68 anyway, although coming to power in the wake of a failed liberal icon like Kennedy would have represented an entirely different political capital landscape than assuming the reins from a beatdown, anti-charismatic cur like Johnson.
  • In this scenario, maybe Watergate never happens, which means Jimmy Carter certainly never happens (his big appeal was that he wasn’t tainted by that DC insider things – he was a safe, bucolic tonic for Watergate disease, in other words). This means a lot of things, not the least of which is that evangelicalism doesn’t get so overtly injected into presidential politics as it did upon Carter’s arrival. The movement conservatives would probably still have pushed that agenda, but the national psyche would have been so very different at this point who can say how it might have been received.

The FutureI can go on like this for days, but you probably get the point. And as I say earlier, I’m just poking at a couple of strands out of bazillions. These questions each hypothesize a butterfly or two, and for each one here there are probably a few million others flapping their wings for all they’re worth.

Of course, we’ll never know, not unless someone figures out a way to slip through the membranes in the posited quantum multiverse to explore some of the infinite parallel threads that branched out of the events of November 22, 1963. 11/22/2013 might be a significantly better place than the one Denny describes. Or, the gods help us, it might be worse. We might have been nuked off the face of the planet by now.

It’s a certainty that it would be different. And that, folks, is your utterly useless observation of the day.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Categories: History, Politics/Law/Government

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2 replies »

  1. You know Sam, as fascinating as this is, and it’s great, the one I wonder about is Bobby. I think he might have made a better president than JFK (and he’d certainly have learned a lot from his brother’s experiences, of which he was an integral part). And something almost all historians and biographers agree about is that he deepened as a person and as a statesman as a result of his brother’s death. He had crystallized, perhaps, the best of JFK’s vision while having learned how to avoid some of big brother’s missteps.

    Where I think you nail it is your reading of what might have become of the religious right. I think we’d have moved much more in a British direction of “religion’s nice and all, but it’s nothing people should hate, even kill each other about.” That kind of good psychic health might mean we’d be a much more mature, better place environmentally, politically, and emotionally.

    As a certain Mr. Wilson said, “Wouldn’t it be nice….”

    • And this is where you get the butterfly swarm from hell. If you get two JFK terms followed by two RFK terms, it’s 1976 and at that point it’s just about impossible to speculate what comes next. The political and social context would be so dramatically different – we know the conservative thinkwanks would have been cranking for all they were worth, but 16 years of effective liberal presidency (using that term advisedly, of course) would have made their task a damned sight tougher than it was. We can say this much for certain. No Watergate, no Carter. No Carter, and Reagan’s chances would have been notably less.

      Of course, 16 years of fucking up and we’d probably have elected David Duke by now…..