Everything was looking up for one young politician in 1960. He was well educated, experienced in politics, a military man, a father, a husband, and had his sights set on the White House. In fact, compared to the advantages he had over his opponent, many assumed the Presidency would soon be his. But the race was closer than many expected, and Richard Nixon did not win the election of 1960.
The election of 1960 came down to the wire after many thought it was a lock for Vice President Dick Nixon. Eisenhower’s VP shared many personal characteristics with his opponent, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, and their differences only balanced the scales further. Nixon was more experienced and well known, though not necessarily perfect for primetime in both appearance and speech. Kennedy lacked the experience of Nixon, was not as well known nationally, but had the appearance and sound of a President perfect for the age of television.
In the end, it was “a time for greatness,” and JFK won the election. His Camelot Presidency is notable for its youthful optimism, and notable failures (the Bay of Pigs) and successes (Cuban Missile Crisis) in Cold War foreign policy. Meanwhile Nixon failed to win the race for Governor of California in 1962, and his political career seemed doomed. The young President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 and Lyndon Johnson succeeded him as President. Johnson’s tenure is notable for successes in advancing civil rights legislation and other Great Society social programs. The rest of his time in the Oval Office is marked by the Vietnam War, which spilled into the Presidency of his successor – Richard Nixon.
Nixon of course did eventually become President after the election of 1968. History remembers him best for those years in office, for better or worse. The Watergate scandal shook the country, and shaped the remainder of the 20th Century. But let’s consider almost none of that ever happening, and instead Nixon is remembered for defeating the young Senator who also ran in 1960. Imagine instead if he won…
Immediately after winning the election, Nixon celebrates succeeding in his life’s ambition to win the White House. He seemingly picks up the torch from his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower, who generally kept his distance from the former Vice President. He would ride the wave of success well through his first 100 Days, relying on the “I Like Ike & Dick” popularity that would have had to have given him the edge over Kennedy.
The Massachusetts Senator meanwhile returns home defeated. Where he goes from here would be unclear. The Kennedy’s are a very powerful political family, and despite the loss, the performance Joe Kennedy’s oldest living son displayed on the national stage would only give them more political capital to work with. Needless to say, JFK won’t let his aspirations of the White House wither away as he might return to the Senate, or even give the Governorship a shot in 1962. But Kennedy was always troubled with health problems, including Addison’s disease which many have speculated would have ended his career and eventually his life even in reality, had he survived an assassination in Dallas.
Going with the assumption his health problems derail him while he builds up even more political prominence, we have to assume JFK is never elected President. This opens the door for his brother Robert Kennedy to run, and ride the wave of emotional support for the loss of his brother, much like he did in reality. Robert Kennedy would have to take on a larger role than he did in reality, seeing as how the Kennedy-Johnson policies on civil rights and other issues have to go on without either of them ever being in the White House.
So Nixon is President in 1960. What policy decisions he decides to act on first are unclear, but if there’s one thing we know for sure about Nixon, it’s that he hates Communists. Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba following the Revolution of 1959, something which concerned Eisenhower, Nixon and Kennedy alike. Before he leaves office Ike is developing a plan to fund a CIA backed mission to overthrow the Communist regime with the use of Cuban rebels. He hands it over not to Kennedy, but in this case, Nixon.
This is where our history could get real dark, real quick. Nixon, a staunch anti-communist and member of the House Un-American Activities Committee would take a hard line stance on Cuba. He would go ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion like Kennedy did, and when it fails, the notoriously paranoid and self-conscious man would be internationally embarrassed. Tensions would escalate quickly, and Nixon’s response would likely not be to accept responsibility as Kennedy did, but shift the blame to the CIA.
It’s now 1962, and the Soviet Union and Communist Cuba enjoy their little victory much like they did in reality. But it’s likely they would only test the testy Nixon further. In reality, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the next Cold War showdown, and it was handled by the diplomatic Kennedy with the assistance of his cool and calm advisors like his brother. But in a Nixon administration, where he probably hasn’t been able to put the Bay of Pigs behind him, taking questions from reporters personally, and feeling all out ready for revenge, his reaction might not have been so diplomatic.
Nixon’s rhetoric – even the mere use of the word “blockade” rather than Kennedy’s “quarantine” – would have been taken as an act of war. It sounds scary, and it sounds unrealistic, but it’s a genuine possibility that WWIII could have broken out on Nixon’s watch. With this, the entire history of the world changes. Who knows how far this war is taken. Will it just be escalated quasi-wars against the Soviets in places like Cuba and Southeast Asia, or will it mean Armageddon, and nuclear annihilation? If it’s the latter, then it’s fair to say we wouldn’t be here today.
So if Nixon takes the White House in 1960, at the very least, Kennedy is never assassinated, but may never be healthy enough to win the White House. Robert Kennedy would take up the reins of the Kennedy dynasty, and perhaps become President sometime in the 1970’s. But if things go really bad under Nixon, that decade, or any other decade for that matter, might never happen. The course of American history is entirely different. The course of world history is entirely different. Though it didn’t actually happen, what is fiction could have been fact, all because one man was almost President.
Featured photo source: CNN