Thursday, October 24, 2013

Alternate Nixons Part 1

Guest post by Andrew Schneider.

With the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination rapidly approaching, there have been quite a few new JFK histories floating around.  Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days provides some useful insights into how President Kennedy’s policy ideas were evolving in the last few months of his life, shaped in part by the traumatic loss of his baby son Patrick.  Jeff Greenfield’s If Kennedy Lived takes several of Clarke’s themes a step further – considering how Kennedy would have handled U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the civil rights struggle at home had he been reelected in 1964.

But there was another anniversary earlier this year that has been largely overlooked.  January 9 marked the centennial of the birth of Richard Nixon. Rarely have two opposing candidates for the presidency been so shaped and defined by their rivalry as were Kennedy and Nixon.

In 1960, Kennedy was the junior senator from Massachusetts.  He had wealth, charisma, and an inspiring war record, but a very thin record of legislative achievement. He was a Roman Catholic in a country where anti-Catholic sentiment was still common, particularly in the traditional Democratic strongholds of the South. He had name recognition, true, but that came from being the son of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. -- a man cast into the political wilderness for his disastrous turn as ambassador to Britain when that country was fighting for its life during World War II. Harry Truman – in 1960 the only living Democrat to have occupied the White House – was one of many concerned that Ambassador Kennedy would have an outsized influence if his son achieved the prize that had eluded him. “It’s not the Pope I’m afraid of,” Truman said. “It’s the Pop.”

Nevertheless, Kennedy broke out of a heavily contested field in 1960 to claim the Democratic nomination.
As the incumbent vice president, Nixon had superior name recognition. He was a native Californian, who could count on what was then the second-largest state bloc of electoral votes. He lacked any serious opponent for the Republican nomination, enabling him to save his resources for the general election. He was just a few years older than Kennedy and, as has been since been revealed, in considerably better health (Kennedy having suffered for years from Addison’s disease and near crippling back ailments).

Nixon certainly lacked Kennedy’s charisma. But he had something that was arguably a more valuable asset at the height of the Cold War. He had eight years of experience in the fields of foreign policy and national security. And he’d learned at the right hand of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the greatest military leaders the country had ever produced.  The race was his to lose. But lose he did. The great irony was that, in large part, Kennedy won by calling into question the record of Eisenhower and Nixon on national security, stressing a missile gap with the Soviet Union that turned out to be non-existent.  On this basis, he convinced a reed-slender majority of voters that he would do a better job of keeping the country safe. In essence, he out-Nixoned Nixon.

Kennedy spent much of his term defined by the Cold Warrior mold he’d cast for himself. The late David Halberstam was one of the first to make this case in The Best and the Brightest, arguing that the McCarthy era still very much defined the acceptable bounds of foreign policy in the early 1960s. Any sign of weakness in confronting Communism anywhere in the world could lead to a sharp domestic backlash. “Who lost China?” may have lost its potency as a rallying cry in American politics by this point, but would Kennedy really want to chance having it come back as “Who lost Indochina?” Kennedy knew how this worked better than anyone, having cut his senatorial teeth on McCarthy’s Investigations Subcommittee. While McCarthy was dead, the veteran Red hunter Nixon was still very much alive.

Nixon remained a credible threat to Kennedy’s reelection until late 1962. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Nixon’s withdrawal from politics after losing the California governor’s race upended the table. It gave Kennedy the room to pursue one of his most significant foreign policy achievements, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the U.S.S.R. Even getting this through the Senate required some quiet support from former President Eisenhower. But Kennedy was still concerned enough about his right flank that he was reluctant to do anything as dramatic as pulling U.S. military advisors out of Vietnam until after he was safely reelected.

The degree to which Kennedy shaped Nixon’s career, as opposed to the other way around, is the stuff of legends. Kennedy and Nixon had both been elected to Congress in 1946. This was an era when it was possible for American politicians of different parties to be friends. And for the better part of fourteen years, the two men were friends. The 1960 campaign ended that and left Nixon with a deep sense of betrayal. The narrow margin of Kennedy’s victory, dependent as it was on the votes of Lyndon Johnson’s Texas and an Illinois dominated by Richard J. Daley’s Chicago, convinced Nixon that Kennedy had stolen the election from him. His failed comeback bid in 1962, with Kennedy campaigning against Nixon on behalf of California Governor Pat Brown, only deepened his sense of resentment.

There was always a streak of suspiciousness in Nixon. During his own presidency, this metamorphosed into what has often been described as paranoia. As Henry Kissinger himself observed, though, “Even paranoids have enemies.” Few people had done more to earn Nixon’s enmity than the Kennedys. From the day he took office in 1969 until well into 1972, Nixon was convinced that JFK’s sole surviving brother, Ted Kennedy, was the biggest threat to his political survival. The Chappaquiddick Incident, and the younger Kennedy’s involvement in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, made this highly unlikely. But by this point, Nixon was taking no chances.

Ultimately, it was Nixon’s determination to break his enemies, real and imagined, before they could break him that led to Watergate and forced his resignation in disgrace.

Kennedy’s assassination has been described, both at the time and in the half century since, as a tragedy.  The violent murder of a relatively young and apparently vigorous leader was certainly a national trauma.  There is ample evidence that Kennedy would have sought to wind down America’s commitment in Vietnam starting in 1965, had he lived and won reelection. By that measure, the bullets fired at Dealey Plaza may have been a contributing factor to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans, not to mention well over a million Vietnamese. But a tragedy, at least in the classical sense of the term, is something that is at least partially self-inflicted. And by this measure, the term tragedy more accurately describes Nixon’s fate.

Nixon was a man driven to achieve great things by monumental ambition, and who ultimately succeeded. But the cost was immense. What he went through in order to achieve his goals magnified his character flaws –distrust, jealousy, self-doubt, bitterness, to name just a few – until they overwhelmed not only his talents but his reason. There are few clearer statements of tragedy in American political rhetoric than the most memorable line in Nixon’s farewell address: “Always remember, others may hate you. But those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” In the process, he nearly tore the country apart.

A tragedy, any kind of tragedy, is one that naturally invokes the question, “What if?” “What if Kennedy had lived?” is one that people have been asking ever since November 22, 1963, and it is by far the most popular starting point for any alternate history focused on JFK.  Nixon, by comparison, is a far less popular figure either for AH fiction or counterfactual analysis.

Because Nixon did ultimately win the presidency, such speculation tends to focus on what happened during his time in office, particularly the Watergate scandal. Alan Moore’s Watchmen is set in a world where Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were murdered, the 22nd Amendment was repealed, and Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as president. This required not only altering history but bending the laws of physics. Watchmen, after all, is set in a world where superheroes exist and where the U.S. won an outright victory in the Vietnam War, thanks to the nuclear-powered Dr. Manhattan.

Less frequently explored is the question of how Nixon would have behaved as president had he won the 1960 election.  Harvey Simon explored this last year in The Madman Theory: An Alternate History of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  There are at least two major problems with this book.  One is that, as the title indicates, it presumes a President Nixon in 1962 would have acted with the same degree of irrationality as the real Richard Nixon did in the later years of his presidency.  Even if one argues that the earlier Nixon had the same psychology of the later one, this ignores Nixon’s behavior during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which itself could easily have turned into a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets.

My bigger problem with the book is that it jumps straight from Nixon’s election to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis, though, was in no small part the result of Kennedy’s decision first to go ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion, then to deny the Cuban exile forces any direct American military support, and finally to abandon them. The debacle convinced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that Kennedy, despite his anti-Communist rhetoric and policies, was a weak leader who would fold rather than risk a confrontation.
It’s unlikely a President Nixon would have conducted the Bay of Pigs the same way. Indeed, his own advice to Kennedy in the wake of the debacle -- “It is essential that you act as big as you talk” -- reflects this. Nor is it likely that Khrushchev, who had met Nixon and undoubtedly knew far more about him than he did about Kennedy in 1961, would have viewed Nixon as someone he could bluff or bully.

Had Nixon gone full bore into Cuba, with air support and naval support for the Bay of Pigs invasion, Khrushchev would have trumpeted it as another example of American imperialism. For this, he would have gotten a positive hearing from at least some Latin American nations, as well as any number of nations around the world that had just emerged from colonialism. Would Khrushchev have escalated the crisis into a superpower confrontation?  I doubt it.  Nixon was a close observer of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. He would have been the first to remind Khrushchev that the U.S. had stayed its hand when the Soviets used force against a country they considered part of their sphere of influence.

The result might have been a quick victory for the American/anti-Castro Cuban forces, or it might have turned into a guerrilla war that would have ground on for years. Either way, it would have meant no Cuban Missile Crisis. It also may have headed off deeper American involvement in Vietnam.

One of the reasons Kennedy felt obliged to shore up the Saigon government was to draw a line in the sand against the further spread of Communism after having failed to do so in Cuba.  Nixon had been all for U.S. military intervention in Vietnam in 1954, in order to shore up the French at Dien Bien Phu. Eisenhower had scotched the idea.  By 1960, the U.S. was providing military advisors to support the government of President Diem, but little more. Nixon would have been under far less pressure to step up that aid, much less to send combat troops.

Learn more about the alternate history of this controversial president in Alternate Nixons Part 2, coming out tomorrow.

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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 He is currently writing a memoir of his time in Afghanistan as a war correspondent. You can follow him on Facebook or on Twitter.

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