Experts weigh in on how a 1960 Richard Nixon presidential victory may have changed history
Cuba crisis, space program, scandals may have played out differently
For more on the Kennedy presidency watch the CNN Original Series “American Dynasties: The Kennedys,” premiering Sunday, March 11, at 9 p.m. ET.
If just a few thousand votes in a few key states had gone the other way that day, you could argue that Cuba might now be our 51st state.
The world might never have heard the names Neil Armstrong or Watergate.
It was Election Day: November 8, 1960. Two Americans who would later become legends — Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat John F. Kennedy — faced off in one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history.
By the time it was over, Kennedy had won and Nixon’s camp was quietly accusing the other side of dirty tricks. The election was about much more than Washington bragging rights.
It ended up influencing events that would drive the next 20 years of the Cold War.
But what if Nixon had defeated Kennedy? How would he have handled the Cuban missile crisis? Or the space race with the Soviets?
While no one can predict the future or be certain how a politician would deal with a scenario, here’s what some historians and experts say might have happened if Nixon had won in 1960:
A very different Cuba scenario may have played out
When it came to the Soviets, Nixon had more experience than Kennedy. Vice President Nixon had already faced off against Khrushchev in the famous “Kitchen Debate” during a visit to Moscow in 1959.
In 1961, two months after a failed invasion by CIA-backed Cuban exiles at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, Kennedy met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Austria. Historians agree that Kennedy did poorly in his negotiations. A year later, it was discovered that the Soviets had deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba — just 90 miles from the United States.
“Kennedy allowed himself to be bullied by Khrushchev [in Vienna] and he regretted it,” said Evan Thomas, an award-winning journalist, editor and author of “Being Nixon: A Man Divided.”
“Some scholars think that — after that — Khrushchev felt like he could push Kennedy around. And that made him, perhaps, more likely to put the missiles into Cuba.”
Nixon had done well against Khrushchev, had stood up to him, Thomas said. “It’s quite possible that Nixon would have done better” in Vienna.
If Nixon had made a stronger impression than Kennedy, perhaps the Soviets would never have put those missiles in Cuba. Then there never would have been a missile crisis at all.
But what would have happened if Nixon were president in 1962 and Khrushchev had gone ahead and deployed those nuclear missiles in Cuba?
“I worry that Nixon would have responded precipitously, and been more likely to order a military strike,” said Thomas. “Nixon’s language at the time was quite interventionist and hawkish. … That makes me worry that he might have tried to invade Cuba.”
An invasion of Cuba by U.S. military forces could have sparked World War III, or resulted in a new U.S. territory.
JFK’s affairs: He might have gotten caught
In the 1960s, the rules of the day called on news reporters to respectfully cover the country’s leaders, and that usually meant turning a blind eye to politicians’ extramarital affairs. Decades later, those rules would change and the news media would relentlessly cover political sex scandals.
If Nixon had won in 1960, it’s likely Kennedy would not have been targeted for assassination – and that means he might have lived long enough for his infamous sexual dalliances to become fodder for the news media.
“I think it’s likely he would have continued his womanizing ways and possibly he would have gotten caught and exposed,” said Thomas.
Of course, JFK may never have been able to attract the attention of women like Marilyn Monroe – who famously delivered her sultry version of “Happy Birthday” to Kennedy in 1962 – if he never won the presidency.
No Apollo moonshots?
It’s hard to imagine a universe where Neil Armstrong did not walk on the moon. Would Nixon have called for a moon landing, as JFK did?
In May 1961, Kennedy urged Congress to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade – something he wouldn’t live long enough to see happen. Nixon had become president in 1969 when the Apollo 11 mission put Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.
Nixon continued to support the lunar program during much of his presidency, which spanned all six moon landings.
But eventually, as federal belt-tightening became an issue, Nixon supported a budget that included canceling the final three Apollo missions in favor of developing the space shuttle.