News & Politics

A Silly 'What If' About the JFK Assassination

This is Warren Commission Exhibit No. 697, President John F. Kennedy at the extreme right on rear seat of his limousine during Dallas, Texas motorcade, Nov. 22, 1963. His wife, Jacqueline, beside him , Gov. John Connally of Texas and his wife were on jump seats in front of the President. (AP Photo)

John F. Kennedy was assassinated 54 years ago today. There were the usual articles in the media recognizing the anniversary, all pretty much boilerplate accounts of the assassination, the conspiracy theories, and the obligatory mention of “Camelot” and how different the country might have been if Kennedy had lived.

But I came across a different sort of Kennedy assassination remembrance at CNN by Sandee LaMotte. Ms. LaMotte is  proposing the idea that because President Kennedy was wearing a very tight back brace at the time of the shooting, he was unable to pitch forward and avoid the fatal head shot.

It was his habit of wearing a tightly laced back brace that may have kept him from recoiling to the floor of his car after the assassin’s first bullet to the neck, setting him up for the kill shot.

“The brace was a firmly bound corset, around his hips and lower back and higher up,” said Dr. Thomas Pait, a spinal neurosurgeon who co-authored a paper about Kennedy’s failed back surgeries. “He tightly laced it and put a wide Ace bandage around in a figure eight around his trunk. If you think about it, if you have that brace all the way up your chest, above your nipples, and real tight, are you going to be able to bend forward?”

The Kennedy clan closely guarded the true extent of John Kennedy’s medical problems well past his death.

Though details escaped over the years — it’s hard to hide news photos of him walking on crutches before and after one of his numerous back surgeries — it wasn’t until 2002, when historian Robert Dallek was allowed access to a collection of documents spanning 1955 and 1963, that specifics began to emerge.

Brace or no brace, Kennedy was a dead man. No matter where you believe the fatal shot originated, it was the shot that traversed through the soft tissue of his neck, exiting just above the knot of his tie, that sent him into shock. So that the idea he would have been able to react and seek cover on the floor of the limo is just silly. Also, if you believe the fatal shot was fired from the sixth floor of the Book Depository, you know that the angle for the shooter was such that there was no place for Kennedy to hide in the limo. The shooter had him. Kennedy’s head was as big as a grapefruit in his telescopic sight.

Imagining counterfactual or alternative history is fun — a great parlor game. But as Niall Ferguson wrote in Virtual History, a wonderful collection of counterfactual essays by noted historians, alternative history creates a false picture of events. History does not unfold in an orderly, majestic fashion as some narrative histories might have you believe. There are so many things happening at once that altering one or two events will not change history that much in the long run.

That scholarly principle torpedoes the notion of the “Great Man” theory of history, where towering individuals are able to bend history to their will. I believe this mistaken notion is why JFK admirers are so intent on creating scenarios and alternate history where Kennedy survives and leads us into a beautiful future where everyone is equal, everyone has a good job, nobody goes hungry, and, of course, we didn’t get tied down in Vietnam.

Similar scenarios probably followed Lincoln’s death. Reconstruction would have been a breeze and we all would have lived happily ever after. Both men were beatified after their deaths, turned into civic saints despite their numerous failings and shortcomings. Perhaps it was the manner of their deaths and the fact that they left so much to be done that made it easy to create the many myths surrounding them.

In some ways, we’re still trying to deal with the shock to our system created by the assassination. Certainly the aftermath raised questions about the honesty of our government for virtually the first time. But positing ridiculous alternative history scenarios about the assassination doesn’t help.