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Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived (DVD Review)

23 Oct, 2009 By: John Latchem

Street 10/27/09
$26.95 DVD
Not rated.

By the time President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the United States had 16,000 military advisors deployed in South Vietnam. Within five years, Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, had sent more than 500,000 troops to Southeast Asia and committed military forces to a destructive air campaign against North Vietnam. By the end of the conflict, more than 58,000 American soldiers and 2 million Vietnamese were dead.

Virtual JFK uses Vietnam as the prime example to ask the question of whether those in power can avoid war or if such conflicts are ultimately unavoidable. The film serves as the visual companion to the book of the same name, written by James G. Blight, Janet M. Lang and David A. Welch.

Blight and Lang served as advisors on Errol Morris’ film The Fog of War, a profile of Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, widely considered to be the architect of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Virtual JFK is a further indictment of McNamara’s vision. The end result is basically a love letter to JFK and his foreign policy initiatives to resist war.

Blight, a professor at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, serves as narrator for the film. His conclusion is simple: had he lived, Kennedy would have resisted escalating the war in Vietnam. Johnson, being of different temperament but surrounded by the same advisors, made a different choice.

Blight’s thesis is based on what he notes as a recurring pattern of Kennedy’s presidency: Six times Kennedy was put in a position to commit U.S. forces to military action, and six times he avoided war. The film is thus divided into an analysis of each of these incidents, from the Bay of Pigs, to Laos, to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In essence, then, the film is not so much an examination of alternate history, but an examination of where in the filmmaker’s mind history went wrong.

Without saying as much, Blight hopes to draw parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. Though the film was made prior to the 2008 election, Blight’s message is clear: When it comes to war, whom we elect as president does matter. The fascinating effort is bolstered by a series of clips from press conferences that reinforce the cyclical nature of history. The political posturing of 45 years ago isn’t so much different than it is today.

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