Nixon’s The One?

When the topic of consequential presidential elections in American history is discussed, the elections most commonly mentioned  include those of 1860, 1912, and 1932.  But there is one election which is often forgotten and yet has had an enormous impact on the United States: the election of 1960. The election pitted Republican Vice President Richard Nixon against Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy.

Throughout the campaign, Nixon suffered from bad luck. Nixon pledged to visit all 50 states. In the process of doing so, he hurt his knee on a car door, and was forced to spend time in the hospital. After he recovered, he insisted on still visiting every state, wasting time in states he was certain to win and certain to lose instead of focusing on states that could go either way. The first television debate between the two candidates hurt Nixon. He refused to wear makeup, so his stubble was clearly visible. He was sweating because of the bright lights inside the studio, was still recovering from his injury, and was tired from campaigning all day. Kennedy on the other hand appeared confident and energetic. In contrast to Nixon, Kennedy was blessed with good luck throughout the campaign. He was portrayed by the media as the rising young star of the Democratic party, and he had many celebrity allies who endorsed him, most famously Frank Sinatra, which undoubtedly won him many votes from young people.

On election night, Kennedy defeated Nixon, receiving 303 electoral votes to his 219. While most sources say Kennedy won the popular vote, the truth is that Nixon won the popular vote, and maybe even the electoral vote. Alabama had a strange system for voting in the 1960 election. Instead of voting for candidates, voters could choose up to 11 of 22 possible electors. 11 electors were Republicans pledged to vote for Nixon, 6 were unpledged Democrats, and 5 were Democrats pledged to vote for Kennedy. All 11 Democratic electors won. But the votes for Democratic electors were all counted as votes for Kennedy, giving him a national lead of 112,827 votes. If the vote is split proportionately with Kennedy receiving 5/11 of the vote, his share of the electors, Nixon has a national lead of 58,181 votes. In regards to the electoral vote, Kennedy likely won Illinois and Texas due to well-documented voter fraud. Had Nixon won both states, he would have won the electoral college and the election. Many Republicans wanted Nixon to contest the results of the election, including Eisenhower himself, but Nixon decided not to, not wanting to divide the country.

Had Nixon won in 1960, what would his administration look like? We can never know for certain, but it probably would have been a continuation of the Eisenhower administration. The size of government would not have  shrunk, but would have remained  steady, which would have been an improvement over the growth it saw in the Kennedy-Johnson years. Our foreign policy would have gone much more smoothly.  If Nixon had been elected in 1960, there would be no Berlin Wall, Cuban Missile Crisis, or Vietnam War.  When Nikita Khrushchev met Kennedy for the first time in Vienna in 1961, he came away with the impression that the young president was naive, gullible, and easily taken advantage of. He gave East Germany approval to build the Berlin Wall, which separated West Berlin from the rest of Germany for the next 28 years. The Soviet Union wouldn’t have put missiles in Cuba if Nixon was President. Nixon had dealt with the Soviet Union and Khrushchev as Vice President, and the Soviets wouldn’t have wanted to antagonize him. Nixon would have continued Eisenhower’s policies towards Vietnam and not become further involved in the war. Kennedy increased the number of advisors in Vietnam from 600 to 16,000, and his successor Lyndon B. Johnson fully committed the United States to the war in Vietnam after the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. The Vietnam War, the only war the United States ever lost, took the lives of 58,000 Americans and divided the country like nothing since the Civil War.

If Nixon had won, the Republican Party could have become just as associated with civil rights as the Democratic Party. And if Republicans had become associated with civil rights, the civil rights movement could have gone in a more conservative direction, instead of a liberal direction. In other words, advocating for equality of opportunity and not equality of outcome. In 1959, the civil rights movement was focused on ending segregation and on promoting racial equality. In 1970, it was focused on forced busing and racial preferences for Black people, other racial minorities, and women. With Nixon in the White House, the civil rights movement would have been guided in a more positive direction at a critical time. Both the Republicans and Democrats had civil rights wings in the 1950s, and the anti-civil rights wing was almost entirely located in the Democratic Party, so there is no reason Republicans couldn’t have found support in the civil rights movement.

Kennedy was all talk and no action on civil rights. He made his first speech on the subject in June 1963, more than two years after his inauguration, and only when the topic began to be discussed more frequently. This likely would have changed had he not been assassinated, but he would have gone in the same direction as Johnson did. Kennedy didn’t do much for civil rights, but he happened to be in the right place at the right time. The 1960s were pivotal years for the civil rights movement and would have been no matter who was president. If a Republican was president during those years, he could have guided the movement away from affirmative action and racial quotas. It could also have ensured that the two parties would have to compete for the votes of Black Americans, instead of only Democrats receiving a significant share of the black vote. Today, most people don’t realize that Democrats didn’t always get around 90% of the black vote. There was a severe decline in the Republican share of the black vote between 1960 and 1964. In 1960, Kennedy won the black vote 68 to 32. In 1964, Johnson won the black vote 94 to 6.

Most importantly, had Nixon been elected in 1960 the disastrous Johnson presidency would have been avoided. If Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated, Johnson couldn’t have used his death to push for his agenda. There would be no expensive and ineffective War on Poverty. There would be no government interference in healthcare, which would lead to increased costs of healthcare, and which in turn would lead to calls for more government interference in healthcare to deal with the increased costs of healthcare. There would be no welfare laws that destroyed the Black American family. And there would have been no Hart-Celler Act. Since 1965, this law has resulted in tens of millions of immigrants, legal and illegal, coming to the United States, and severely disrupting the unity of our nation. And this all could have been avoided if a few thousand people in a few states voted differently on November 8, 1960. Obama was right: elections have consequences.

Thomas O'Malley

Thomas O'Malley

1 Response

  1. Robert Geraci says:

    Well stated. One never knows, yet the argument is well put. While some say that contemplating “what if” scenarios are not useful, the point such an view misses is that they are useful to point out the horrors of what actually did happen.