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What If…? Armageddon 1962 Documentary Has an Alternate Take on History

The sad reality for writers and members of the media like myself, is that 99.99 percent of what we do is rather routine, often dull, and rarely glamorous. It is for that reason that the events of Monday, Oct. 14, 2013, were such a pleasure for myself and other journalists. Gathering with a number of my peers and colleagues at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., I had the pleasure of attending the premiere and a subsequent panel about the new Military Channel documentary film, What If…? Armageddon 1962.

The film chronicles an intriguing alternative history based upon real world events that almost occurred in December 1960.

Produced for Discovery Communications by NBC Peacock Productions, the film chronicles an intriguing alternative history based upon real world events that almost occurred in December 1960. Well researched by the team at Peacock Productions, the basic premise of the film is drawn from books written by a variety of authors, including television news journalist Jeff Greenfield, Eric Swedin, Timothy Naftali, and myself.

The “what if” begins with an attempted assassination of then-President-elect John F. Kennedy when he was leaving his family’s compound in Palm Beach, Fla., to attend mass on a Sunday morning in December 1960. Outside, among the journalists covering the soon-to-be first family was a madman, a deeply disturbed anti-Catholic radical who had converted his car into a rolling IED with 7 sticks of dynamite and a detonator.

John Kennedy would have died a month before his inauguration. Thus the tantalizing question: What would’ve happened next?

In reality, the bomber caught sight of Jackie Kennedy and her children preparing to join the President-elect, and could not go through with the plot. But what if Jackie and the children had not been there, and he had carried out his plan? Later investigation by the Secret Service indicates that in all likelihood, the bomber would have succeeded, and John Kennedy would have died a month before his inauguration. Thus the tantalizing question: What would’ve happened next?

What If…? Armageddon 1962

What If…? Armageddon 1962, which airs on the Military Channel on Oct. 22, hosted a discussion at the Newseum with authors Eric Swedin, Jeff Greenfield, and John D. Gresham, and was moderated by Harry Smith. Discovery Communications photo

In his book Then Everything Changed, Jeff Greenfield supposes that Vice President-elect Lyndon B. Johnson would have become president in his own right, and left to face the emerging crisis situations of the 1960s with a hybrid of Kennedy and his own supporters in senior cabinet and staff positions. One of the more intriguing approaches taken by Greenfield in Then Everything Changed is that history is much like a river that normally flows within its banks and only occasionally is diverted from its natural course. Based upon this, most of the events and challenges that John Kennedy faced in his administration, Johnson also faces. However, Greenfield rightly supposes that Johnson, a lifetime legislator and politician, would approach these situations in a much different way, using much different judgment paradigms than Kennedy would have. In particular, Greenfield believes that Johnson would’ve deferred much more to the opinions and advice of his military advisors, particularly those members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

At this point in the film, the Cuban Missile Crisis comes to the forefront, and is handled by the hypothetical Johnson Administration with a great deal less discretion and diplomacy than it was historically by John F. Kennedy. Now taking up the plot line of Eric Swedin’s When Angels Wept, it proposes a much more apocalyptic outcome for the 1962 Caribbean Crisis, a genuine worldwide nuclear confrontation, and disaster for planet Earth. Along with an excellent array of archival footage and computer graphics, What if? Armageddon 1962 makes extensive use of interviews with both Greenfield and Swedin, along with Naftali and myself. The result is a genuinely intriguing and exciting alternative history of the early 1960s that frankly left me both rattled and stunned by the outcome projected.

 What If…? Armageddon 1962

What If…? Armageddon 1962 makes use of works by Eric Swedin, Jeff Greenfield, and John D. Gresham and Norman Polmar, among others. Discovery Communications photo

Following the film, Greenfield, Swedin, and myself were invited to take part in a panel discussion hosted by NBC News journalist. We answered a variety of questions about our own individual work on the early 1960s, and the Cuban Missile Crisis itself. As a member of the panel, I found the answers and discussions with our audience lively and interesting, with more than a few additional intriguing “what if” questions being posed and asked.

The production standards of What If…? Armageddon 1962 are both first-rate and standard-setting.

So what do I think of the film? Having been involved in dozens of such documentary films over the past 15+ years, I have to say that the production standards of What If…? Armageddon 1962 are both first-rate and standard-setting. Looking back over the past summer when we were doing the interviews and research for the film, it is sometimes difficult to remember how the many assorted pieces of interviews, research, and archival material were all coming together at the time. But having seen the finished result now, I can proudly say that this is probably the finest documentary I’ve ever been involved in, and I hope you will take the time to watch it when it premieres on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013, on The Military Channel at 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. EDT.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...