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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

CNN  — 

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.

Nixon and Khrushchev share a laugh during Nixon's visit to the Soviet Union 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

Undated photo shows US actress Marilyn Monroe a few weeks before she died in 05 August, 1962 at the age of 36. The circumstances of her death have never been cleared up. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Did Marilyn Monroe admit to JFK affair?
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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.

President Nixon greets Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and "Buzz" Aldrin.

“Under Nixon, NASA became just another domestic program, and the agency’s budget decreased even as it retained ambitious goals,” writes former NASA consultant Jason Callahan of the Planetary Society.

So, Nixon probably wouldn’t have urged the United States to put a man on the moon if he had won in 1960.

“Instead of sending men to the moon by the end of the decade as President Kennedy had wanted … President Nixon likely would have focused on the construction of a small, staffed space station that could have been serviced by the shuttle-like vehicle,” wrote NASA historian James Hansen in his 1995 book “Spaceflight Revolution.”

No Watergate scandal?

nixon animation
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The Watergate scandal that forced President Nixon to resign in 1974 permanently changed America.

For the first time a commander-in-chief had quit the office in disgrace. Nixon’s Republican successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned the former president and the nation suffered a painful crisis of confidence. Polls showed that Americans had lost their trust in their leaders and their government.

America elected Democrat Jimmy Carter – someone from outside Washington, a former Georgia governor and peanut farmer – as its next president.

“Nixon’s paranoia went up a great deal after he lost in 1960, partly because he felt the Kennedys had used dirty tricks to defeat him,” said Thomas. “He felt the Kennedys were better at dirty tricks than he was in 1960. And he was probably not wrong about that. The Kennedys played hardball. And [his brother] Bobby Kennedy was probably smarter about dirty tricks in 1960 than Richard Nixon was. I say that having written a biography of Bobby Kennedy.”

Quiz: How well do you know Watergate?

If Nixon had won the White House in 1960, Thomas said, Nixon’s confidence would have been higher. “He wouldn’t have been so paranoid about the Kennedys, for one thing,” he said. “And he would have been less likely to get himself into trouble.”

“This is all pretty speculative, because Nixon was pretty paranoid. And those are some deep-seated instincts that got him into trouble in Watergate. And they may have shown themselves as early as 1960. But [if Nixon had won in 1960] I think it’s a good guess that Watergate wouldn’t have happened.”

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No Goldwater nomination? No President Reagan?

Here’s where all this “what-if” business gets even more complicated:

If Nixon had won in 1960, there would of course have been no President Lyndon B. Johnson. Given that, would conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater have even tried for – much less succeeded in winning – the GOP nomination in 1964?

During his campaign, Goldwater green-lighted a national TV speech by a former actor named Ronald Reagan that’s credited with helping to spark the American conservative movement and spur Reagan’s political career.

No, we’re not saying that a Nixon victory in 1960 would have meant no President Reagan.

But that year does provide a powerful reminder: Votes and elections can change the course of history.