There are any number of minor changes that could have led to a Nixon victory in 1960. The popular vote was the closest in living memory, with just a fraction of a percent separating the winner from the loser. In Barry N. Malzberg’s “Heavy Metal” -- published in Mike Resnick’s short story collection Alternate Presidents -- a last minute fight between Kennedy and Chicago’s Mayor Daley prompts the latter to tilt his city’s returns, and thus Illinois as a whole, into Nixon’s column.
A more intriguing turning point to me hinges on the way each of the candidates reacted to the arrest and imprisonment of Martin Luther King Jr. in Georgia on trumped up charges. Kennedy called King’s wife Coretta to offer his sympathy. Nixon failed to do so, though he apparently did try, without success, to get the Eisenhower Justice Department to intervene to get King released.
Nixon’s 1968 victory came in significant part because of his domestic platform of “law and order,” framed as a coded appeal to whites who resented the civil rights policies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The strategy laid the ground work for a massive shift in the states of the South, transforming it over the course of a few decades from a solidly Democratic bastion to an overwhelmingly Republican one. So it’s easy to overlook the fact that Vice President Nixon was a staunch supporter of the civil rights movement.
Frank characterizes Nixon’s decision not to intervene more forcefully as “cautious, even cowardly,” motivated by fear that he would alienate Southern whites who’d voted for Eisenhower without making any significant inroads among black voters. But JFK took an even greater risk. Nixon could have won without the South. Kennedy could not. In our timeline, the risk paid off. Kennedy picked up tens of thousands more black votes than he otherwise expected, including in the critical states of Illinois and Texas. Had Nixon shown the courage of his convictions, those votes could have been his.
It’s worth examining what this would have meant for an earlier Nixon presidency. There were any number of Republican presidents prior to 1960 who had campaigned for, and been elected with the help of, African-American votes, but who failed to do anything significant in the way of mitigating the horrors in which African-Americans lived. Nixon may well have been different, if for no other reason than because of the time at which he took office. Nixon saw civil rights as an issue intertwined with the Cold War. America claimed the mantle of leader of the free world, casting the Soviet Union as the enemy of freedom. However obvious that might be in retrospect, it was difficult to make that case to other when the United States visibly denied civil rights (and frequently life itself) to non-white citizens across much of its territory. It was even more difficult in the new nations of Africa, freshly emerging from decades or even centuries of colonial rule.
My guess is that a Nixon elected president in 1960 would have made this argument forcefully to Congress. With Democrats still in charge of both houses, and segregationist Southerners in charge of many of the key committees, getting any civil or voting rights bills through would have been just as difficult for Nixon as for Kennedy. It’s possible, though, that Nixon may have been able to pull enough support among Northern Democrats, together with the Republican caucus, to have pushed such measures through. He would likely have shown fewer compunctions than did Eisenhower about using federal authority to integrate southern schools.
From that standpoint, there might have been little difference in the pace of civil rights legislation under an earlier President Nixon than under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The long-term implications for U.S. politics, though, would have been significant. It would have made a G.O.P. embrace of the Southern Strategy highly implausible. The end result would likely have been a party that was less sectional and more moderate. That raises the question, though, of where conservative southern whites would have taken their votes. In 1968, both Nixon and George Wallace were competing for that bloc. If President Nixon emerged as a champion of civil rights, would that bloc have stuck with the Democrats? Or would have led to a durable third party, aiming both at southern conservatives and disaffected northern whites?
The Nixon of 1960 was a complex man, prone to self-doubt, temper tantrums, and bullying behavior. He had an extremely suspicious nature. He’d demonstrated a willingness to play dirty, both in his first congressional campaign (1946) and in his senatorial campaign (1950). He was not an easy man to like. But he was a long way from the bitter, obsessive, vengeful figure he’d become by 1968. Whether a Nixon elected in 1960 would have been any more effective as president, he would have been far less likely to have broken the law.
Could Nixon have had an even earlier start to his presidency? This is a question Frank comes back to repeatedly. Eisenhower was close to death at least three times during time in office. He suffered his first heart attack in September 1955, a severe gastrointestinal illness in June 1956, and a stroke in November 1957.
The stroke offered the greatest possibility for an early, and successful, Nixon presidency. It brought about widespread, public speculation that Eisenhower was no longer physically capable of carrying about the duties of his office. It was particularly worrisome to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Dulles’ uncle, Robert Lansing, had been secretary of state when President Woodrow Wilson suffered his own debilitating stroke, leaving the government largely under the influence of Wilson’s wife Edith for months. The stroke itself came just weeks before Eisenhower was scheduled to travel to a NATO meeting in Paris. According to Frank, had Eisenhower not recovered sufficiently to make the NATO meeting, he had planned to resign.
There were relatively few crises between 1957 and 1960 that give us much ground for speculation on how Nixon would have behaved differently from Eisenhower. It’s unlikely, for example, that Nixon at this stage in his career would have been inclined to risk war with Mainland China when, in August 1958, it resumed shelling of the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, occupied by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces. Nor is it likely that Nixon would have intervened to prevent the January 1959 overthrow of Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista. At this point, it was still unclear that Fidel Castro was a Communist. By contrast, the corrupt Batista was generally regarded as an embarrassment to the United States. The odds are that Nixon would have performed competently.
Would he have then won a term on his own merits in 1960? John F. Kennedy would have had a much tougher time beating Nixon as a sitting president than as a departing vice president. Lyndon Johnson – then the Senate majority leader and the most powerful Democrat in Washington – would have made a more formidable opponent had he been able to rouse himself to pursue the nomination more energetically than he did in our timeline. But Johnson would have faced a serious problem in terms of his geographical origins. In 1960, no one from South of the Mason-Dixon Line had been elected president in more than 100 years. His support for the 1964 Voting Rights Act and the 1965 Civil Rights Act were far in the future. In fact, LBJ was one of the Southern Democratic leaders who participated in the epic filibuster of the weaker 1957 Civil Rights Act. That might have helped him in the South, but it would have killed him in the North. It’s difficult to envision either of the other major Democratic candidates of 1960 -- Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey -- doing much better against an incumbent Nixon.
What might have happened if Eisenhower had died in 1955 or 1956 is another matter. At this point, Nixon was younger and less seasoned a foreign policy hand. He would have faced the twin crises of the Suez War and the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, presumably in the midst of a campaign for a full term as president.
Eisenhower ended the Suez Crisis by forcing Britain and France to withdraw their forces from Egypt, on pain of forfeiting badly needed financial assistance. Israel, then isolated, was pushed to withdraw from the Sinai in exchange for United Nations guarantees of its security and freedom of navigation (both of which ultimately proved worthless, leading directly to the Six Day War of 1967). This was one of the few moments since the start of the Cold War when the U.S. and the Soviet Union found themselves taking a common position against the European colonial powers. Nixon let it be known, years later, that he disagreed with Eisenhower’s handling of the Suez Crisis.
Nixon didn’t hold back from expressing his position on the Hungarian Revolution at the time, though. Shortly before Election Day 1956, Nixon gave a speech at Occidental College calling for open support of the rebels as part of a campaign to liberate Eastern Europe from Soviet rule. Calling for the liberation of Eastern Europe was hardly new for Nixon. Nor was it unique to the vice president. It was a position he shared with his foreign policy mentor, Secretary of State Dulles.
As mentioned above, Eisenhower refused to intervene in the Hungarian Revolution. Would the young Nixon have shown similar restraint? The pairing of Suez and Hungary would have presented him with an international crisis to match what Kennedy faced in October 1962. Like the Cuban Missile Crisis, this could all too easily have escalated into a nuclear confrontation.
Frank presents earlier points of divergence for Nixon. There were concerted efforts to dump Nixon from the Republican ticket, both in 1952 and again in 1956. Eisenhower appeared to support these efforts at times, particularly during the financial scandal that Nixon sought to stem with his famous “Checkers” speech. Eisenhower never liked to fire people. He much preferred to have other people deliver the bad news, or to encourage the offenders to resign. Various lieutenants in the 1952 Eisenhower campaign – including New York Governor Tom Dewey, twice the former GOP standard bearer – passed the word to Nixon that Eisenhower wanted him to resign from the ticket. Ike himself said nothing directly, and Nixon declined to fall on his own sword.
Eisenhower could have demanded Nixon’s resignation, though, which would have left the vice presidential nominee with little choice. Most likely, Nixon’s replacement on the ticket would have been William Knowland, the senior senator from California and Nixon’s bitter rival. Knowland was an experienced foreign policy hand, a staunch conservative, and an ally of Eisenhower’s main opponent for the Republican nomination, Ohio Senator Robert Taft. An Eisenhower-Knowland ticket would likely have triumphed in November 1952, although the upheaval might have made it a closer race than Eisenhower actually enjoyed against Stevenson. Whatever the outcome for Eisenhower, though, it’s unlikely Nixon would ever have had another shot at national office.
There is one still earlier divergence for Nixon that is particularly intriguing. In 1937, fresh out of Duke University School of Law, Nixon applied to become an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Nixon’s full application has since been declassified and is available for viewing on the FBI’s website. It appears that Nixon’s application was in fact approved. What happened next is unclear. According to one telling, Nixon’s decision to postpone his accepting the post until after he’d taken the bar exam led to the offer being withdrawn.
Nixon himself later claimed Hoover told him the only thing that kept Nixon from being made an agent was that Congress hadn't appropriated the necessary funds in 1937 -- entirely possible, given that 1937 was a year of budget cutbacks, but this doesn't appear as part of the original FBI record. Either way, had Nixon joined the Bureau, it’s unlikely he would have served in the Navy in World War II, and less likely still that he would have entered politics. Instead, he may well have spent the balance of his career hunting Communists and other alleged subversives with a badge and gun. And the shape of post-war American politics would have been unimaginably different.
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Andrew Schneider is the business news reporter for KUHF Houston Public Radio. His work has appeared in print in The Kiplinger Letter and The Writer, as well as online at KUHF.org. He is currently writing a memoir of his time in Afghanistan as a war correspondent. You can follow him on Facebook or on Twitter.