November 22, 1963: Jonbar Hinge
A jonbar hinge, or point, is an event in history that radically alters the history following the event. The expression comes from the 1952 novel The Legion of Time by Jack Williamson. The phrase refers to an action by John Barr, in which his picking up one of two objects, either a magnet or a pebble, is a major turning point in history.
Creators of alternative history use different outcomes of these jonbar points to explore various different, or allohistorical, consequences. For many science fiction writers, academic historians, and television and movie producers, the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy is one of those jonbar points, much like World War II or the American Civil War, which has radically influenced history. With the Kennedy assassination, most of these alternative history stories, or uchronie, describe attempts to thwart the assassination and then go on to explore the aftermath and effect on history of Kennedy living beyond November 22, 1963.
Although there are multiple conspiracy theories regarding the Kennedy assassination, the best and most consistent evidence points to the following scenario: Lee Harvey Oswald, former US Marine rifleman, communist, and general failure in life, acting on his own, shot President Kennedy from the sixth-story window of the Texas School Book Depository as the President's car drove through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, Texas. Oswald fired three shots; the first missed completely. The second shot injured Kennedy in the throat and struck Texas Governor John Connally in the right shoulder and right wrist. The third shot struck the President in the head, killing him instantly. Later, Oswald was murdered by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner, in revenge for Oswald killing the president.
Uchronie regarding Kennedy surviving that fateful trip to Dallas include highly academic works, such as counterfactual history monographs like Diane Kunz's 1999 "Camelot Revisited: What If Kennedy Had Lived" in Niall Ferguson's Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals and presidential historian Robert Dallek's "JFK Lives" from editor Robert Cowley's 2003 anthology What Ifs? of American History. Both essays are serious attempts to explore the what-ifs of a full John F. Kennedy Presidency. Of course, the two historians draw different conclusions, with Kunz thinking that Kennedy would have been a mediocre president at best and Dallek speculating Kennedy would have avoided policy mistakes like America's involvement in the Vietnam War.
On the other end of the alternative history spectrum is the satirical "Grand Fifth Term Inaugural Issue: JFK's First 6,000 Days" from the February 1977 issue of National Lampoon magazine. In this strictly-for-laughs allohistory, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, the First Lady, is killed in Dallas instead of the President. The shaken Kennedy makes himself President for Life, marries Christina Onassis and launches an invasion of North Ireland. In between these two diverse poles lies a cottage industry of allohistorical speculation in the form of novels, short stories, television shows and movies on the subject.
In 1967, a mere four years after 1963, Peter Heath produced the first novel to combine time travel and Kennedy's death in a book called Assassins from Tomorrow. It was the second book in The Mind Brothers trilogy. In the novel, one contemporary man, Jason Starr, and his "mind brother" from a desolate future, Adam Cyber, try and prevent Cyber's bleak future by investigating and preventing Kennedy's death.
Barry N. Malzberg's 1976 novel Scop has the eponymous main character convinced his very desolate world of 2040 is the direct result of the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Scop time-travels multiple times to observe and prevent the murders. Typical of Malzberg, the narrative seems to suggest that Scop, by using the name Lee Harvey Osborn, is somehow also the assassin of John Kennedy. This also hints that Scop might be from an alternate timeline rather than just from the future.
Kennedy's slaying had a profound effect on Malzberg's writing. Besides Scop, in his Beyond Apollo (1972), the murdered astronaut is named Jack Josephson, recalling Jack Kennedy as Joseph Kennedy's son. In 1974 Malzberg published The Destruction of the Temple, in which a director reenacts the assassination as entertainment. In The Sodom and Gomorrah Business, also published in 1974, Abraham Zapruder, who filmed the Kennedy assassination, is considered a saint.
In 1980, Gregory Benford's Timescape relates the story of a University of California physics professor in 1962 whose experiment is receiving tachyon transmissions from 1998. The transmissions are messages about an impending worldwide ecologic disaster. Through a series of complex events, the transmissions cause a high school student to be in the Texas School Book Depository on November 22, 1963, where he struggles with Oswald. While Kennedy is badly wounded, the third would-be fatal shot misses. This action creates another timeline in which the ecological disasters of 1998 in the original timeline do not take place.
1986's A Time to Remember by Stanley Shapiro has a Dallas school teacher, David Russell, still mourning his older brother, who was killed in Vietnam twenty years before. Russell is sent back in time just minutes before the assassination to prevent it. He fails and ends up accused of the crime himself. Because of his interference, the America of 1986 is a right-wing militaristic state that directly dominates the world.
In Stephen Baxter's novel Voyage from 1996, Kennedy is crippled, but not killed in Dallas. The First Lady is slain instead. Kennedy is reelected in 1964, largely on a sympathy vote. He then commits America to a manned landing on Mars, much like he really did in 1961 regarding a landing on the moon. The Mars landing takes place in 1986.
Unafraid: A Novel of the Possible by Jeff Golden from 2009 has Kennedy surviving Dallas and going on to essentially create a utopian world with his brother Robert as Vice President and Martin Luther King, Jr. as Secretary of State. Written from the viewpoint of Caroline Kennedy, the novel is more political fantasy than counterfactual history.
Stephen King's 2011 best-selling novel 11/23/63 has another school teacher, this time Jake Epping of Maine, slipping through a crack in the space-time continuum. Epping goes back to 1958 to prevent the assassination. Epping successfully prevents the murder of Kennedy at great personal cost, but returns to his own time to find a nuclear-scarred wasteland with frequent unexplained earthquakes. Epping returns to 1958, which "resets time," and then goes back to the original 2011 to find things returned to normal.
In 2013, in time for the 50th anniversary of the assassination, political reporter Jeff Greenfield gave us If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History. The book is less a novel and more a straight-ahead counterfactual history text. Greenfield plays it rather safe in laying out his allohistorical speculations as to the what-ifs had Kennedy only been wounded and not killed in Dallas and went on to serve a second term as president. Bryce Zabel's Surrounded by Enemies: What If Kennedy Survived Dallas?—also published in 2013—plows the same ground as If Kennedy Lived, but in a much more character-driven, novelistic way. Surrounded by Enemies won the 2013 Sidewise Award for best long-form alternate history.
The Kennedy assassination also plays an important, if not central, role in short-form fiction works as well. Just two examples: Harry Turtledove's anthology Alternate Generals III has Chris Bunch's "Murdering Uncle Ho," which recounts how John F. Kennedy survived the 1963 assassination and escalated military action in Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Then there is Dan Krashin's "Final Report on the Assassinations of the President," published in 1998 in the British science fiction magazine Odyssey. Krashin has his time travelers repeatedly try to save Kennedy, but failing each time.
Nor is Kennedy's death only of interest to Americans. The British writer J.G. Ballard produced the surrealistic "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As a Downhill Motor Race" in 1966. Also, the 1999 Swedish counterfactual history anthology, Tänk om… Nio kontrafaktiska essär (Imagine If…Nine Counterfactual Essays), edited by Lars M. Andersson and Ulf Zander, featured Per T. Ohlsson's essay "Kennedy och Vietnam" (Kennedy and Vietnam).
Beside books and short stories, uchronie of the Kennedy assassination have been done for both large and small screen.
The "new" Twilight Zone episode from 1985 "Profile in Silver" (producer Harvey Frand, director John D. Hancock) has a descendant of John Kennedy (Andrew Robinson), Dr. Joseph Fitzgerald (Lane Smith), a historian, sent from 2172 to record the assassination. Fitzgerald prevents it instead. Saving Kennedy sets up sequence of events that begins with the assassination of Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev and would end in a nuclear war that will destroy humanity. Fitzgerald realizes his interference is the cause of all this and tries to fix the problem. The timeline is repaired when Fitzgerald takes Kennedy's place in the motorcade to be killed in his stead, while the president is sent to 2172.
Stanley Shapiro adapted his 1989 novel A Time to Remember into the 1990 made-for-TV movie Running Against Time (producer David Roessell, director Bruce Seth Green). The movie has the same basic plot and outcomes as the novel.
The TV series Quantum Leap has physicist Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) time traveling within his own lifetime by occupying the bodies of other people and "setting right what once went wrong." He is assisted in his efforts by a hologram of his partner on the project, Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell). The 1992 episode "Lee Harvey Oswald" (producer Donald P. Bellisario, director James Whitmore, Jr.) has Beckett leaping into Oswald's body, which Beckett has a difficult time controlling. At the conclusion, Beckett leaps into Secret Service Agent Clint Hill to try and save the president, but he fails to save Kennedy. Calavicci later reveals that Beckett saved the life of Jacqueline Kennedy, and in the original timeline, she had been killed as well. On a note, Donald P. Bellisario, the series creator and producer, served in the Marine Corps with Oswald.
Timequest (producer Mary Petryshyn, director Robert Dyke), a theatrical movie released in 2000, has a time traveler (Ralph Waite) appear in the Kennedys' (Caprice Benedetti and Victor Slezak) room in the Hotel Texas just hours before the assassination and convinces them and Robert Kennedy (Vince Grant) to avoid the motorcade. They stay at the hotel and the shooting is avoided. The rest of the movie deals with the allohistorical outcomes, which are much like those in Jeff Golden's novel Unafraid. It also deals with identifying the mysterious time traveler.
Finally, in 2016, Stephen King's novel 11/23/63 (producers Joseph Boccia and James Franco, directors James Strong et al.) was adapted as a miniseries on the TV and movie downloading service HULU.
All these various works manage to beg the question as to why the Kennedy assassination has grown to influence the popular culture so much, especially within the science fiction and academic counterfactual history genres.
Much of historical and allohistorical interest has to do with Kennedy as a person. He was the first of a new generation to take the presidency, a fresh face after the rather old and tired Eisenhower administration. Kennedy was a young man of 43 when elected, but also a World War II veteran that bridged the time between the "Greatest Generation" who had fought the war and their offspring, the "Baby Boomers." He was handsome and charismatic, with a beautiful and stylish wife and charming small children. Without being overly romantic, Kennedy represented, if you will, the best and brightest, and all that was hopeful for a glorious post-World War II America and world. Or at least that was the picture that was given to the world through such things as the allusions to King Arthur and Camelot and Kennedy's own "New Frontier" imagery.
Much of the alternative history about a full Kennedy presidency has tended to the hagiographic and has ignored much of what has been learned about Kennedy since his death. For example, they overlook Kennedy's many health issues. The president suffered from Addison's disease, a disorder of the adrenal glands that results in a shortage of hormones needed to regulate blood sugar, sodium, potassium, and responses to stress. The problem is life-threatening and requires regular doses of cortisone. Kennedy also had serious back problems, colitis and ulcers. He also was a serial womanizer and had multiple affairs while in the White House. Taking an objective historical view, there is no reason to believe that Kennedy would have been any more than a moderately successful president, or that his administration would have been some kind of golden age.
Seemingly, in historical and allohistorical terms, the murder of the president on that day in Dallas triggered a whole set of other outrageous events during what has been called the "Tumultuous Sixties." The murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1969, America's long and bloody involvement in Southeast Asia, violence in the civil rights and anti-war movements, and domestic terrorism from the likes of the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers arguably may all be traced back to Kennedy's murder. Ostensibly, preventing Kennedy's death would have prevented all of the bloodshed and chaos.
Further, for the science fiction community, Kennedy was arguably the first science fiction president. He was certainly innovative and forward looking. He drove the space program and the space race with his May 25, 1961 speech to Congress that said the US "should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."
Kennedy's homicide also coincided with the start of what was to become the New Wave of science fiction. The New Wave, as a literary movement, was defined by high degrees of experimentation in form and content, as well as certain literary and artistic sensibilities. The New Wave focused less on hard science, technology-driven tales and more on soft science and character-driven stories. The movement is generally considered part of a post-modernist tradition and was, in many ways, science fiction's reaction to the counterculture mood spawned in the sixties. Many writers in the New Wave, particularly Barry N. Malzberg, used the assassination as a touchstone for the despair, pessimism and sense of alienation which abounded in science fiction during the late 1960s and 1970s.
Ultimately, the same angst about Kennedy's untimely and violent death, which gave rise to the multiple conspiracy theories, also gave rise to the need for many science fiction authors, political writers and historians to "rewrite" the event. As William Manchester said in his 1967 book The Death of a President: "If you put the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn't balance. You want to add something weightier…" For conspiracy enthusiasts what is added to balance the scales is the Mafia, the CIA, the Cubans, Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson or the Illuminati, or perhaps some combination of some or all of them colluding to kill the new King Arthur. For the various science fiction and political writers, historians, TV producers, and filmmakers who have addressed the assassination, the scales are balanced by rewriting and fictitiously changing, or trying to change history; hopefully for the better, but more often for the worse.
11/23/63, directed by James Strong, Fred Toye, John David Coles et al. and written by Bridget Carpenter, Stephen King, Quinton Peeples, et al., Bad Robot (15 February 2016).
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_______. The Destruction of the Temple (New York: Pocket Books, 1974).
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