What-if alternate histories are a maddening pursuit of truth more suited to comic-book superheroes and Back to the Future movies than to serious scholarly research. As Brown University professor James G. Blight explains, if Cleopatra’s nose had been longer, Marc Antony wouldn’t have been attracted to her, the Roman Empire would have turned out differently, and Western civilization would have been fundamentally transformed. Neat parlor trick, but the deal-with-it reality of actual events is always more compelling.
Thankfully, Koji Masutani and Blight (Masutani’s cowriter, coproducer and on-camera narrator) don’t dwell on suppositions. Instead, they methodically examine how John F. Kennedy’s stalwart authority and nuanced judgment preserved an unambiguous, if fragile, peace at six different inflammatory moments during his presidency, when seemingly all of his advisers told him that war was the only option.The examples they choose—the Bay of Pigs debacle, the crisis in Laos, the erection of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis and two critical junctures in managing Vietnam—are well known, as are Kennedy’s decisions. But it is always worth pointing out (especially in an election year) the extent of a President’s influence in matters of war and peace. The past has been recorded, but the future remains unwritten.