Kennedy exceptionalism, the Vietnam War, and the limits of counterfactual history

Date & time
5.30–6.30pm Wednesday 7 August 2019

Fellows Rd Law Theatre 2

Building 6
ANU College of Law
5 Fellows Rd
Canberra ACT 2600

Professor Kevin Heller


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Presented by Centre for International & Public Law with the Attorney-General's Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

CIPL Monthly Seminar

Part of the CIPL Monthly Talk series series

Kevin Heller

If John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated on November 22, 1963, would the US have committed ground troops to Vietnam – a decision that led to what is widely recognised as the worst debacle in American military history? This counterfactual what-if, often referred to as “Kennedy exceptionalism,” has obsessed historians for two generations. I will argue in this presentation that historians who believe JFK would not have Americanised the war even if it meant “losing” South Vietnam are correct – but that the Kennedy exceptionalism counterfactual is one of the very few historical what-if questions that admit of a relatively clear and useful answer.


  • Professor Kevin Heller »

    Kevin Jon Heller is Associate Professor of Public International Law at the University of Amsterdam and Professor of Law at the Australian National University. He is an academic member of Doughty Street Chambers in London and a member of the Advisory Board of the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales.

    Kevin’s books include The Nuremberg Military Tribunals and the Origins of International Criminal Law (Oxford University Press, 2011), The Hidden Histories of War Crimes Trials (Oxford University Press, 2013) (edited with Gerry Simpson), and the Handbook of Comparative Criminal Law (Stanford University Press, 2009) (with Markus Dubber). He is currently co-editing the Oxford Handbook of International Criminal Law, which will be published by Oxford University Press in late 2019, and co-writing a book with Sam Moyn (Yale) provisionally entitled The Vietnam War and the Transformation of International Law.

    Kevin has been involved in the International Criminal Court’s negotiations over the crime of aggression, worked as Human Rights Watch’s external legal advisor on the trial of Saddam Hussein, served for three years as one of Radovan Karadzic's formally-appointed legal associates at the ICTY, and was the plaintiffs’ expert witness in Salim v Mitchell, a successful Alien Tort Statute case against the psychologists who designed and administered the CIA’s torture program. He is Editor-in-Chief of the international-law blog Opinio Juris, which is sponsored by the International Commission of Jurists.


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