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The First Term of Richard Nixon [1961-64]


By Scott Palter


© Final Sword Productions LLC 2007



1960 was as much of a toss-up dead heat election as 2000. There was less screaming because the candidate the media loved, Camelot Jack Kennedy, won the coin toss instead of a Republican. Indeed on a proper count Nixon won the popular vote in 1960. AP, whose results virtually everyone takes as gospel, simply misrepresented the Alabama results after an all-night session watching Illinois and Texas hang fire. ( ).

Now as with any close election there are multiple reasons why the winner won. However the biggest IMO was that Ike did not especially like Nixon and did not go out of his way to hide it. The aging Eisenhower also expected Nixon to win without him. His last minute appeal is credited with saving the Pacific Coast for Nixon, especially California. Let us presume that he responds to Kennedy’s grandstanding on Cuba [Kennedy had been briefed on the projected Bay of Pigs but needled Nixon anyway for the administration’s failure to act against Castro] by actively campaigning for Nixon. Ike was extremely popular and could in all probably have pushed Illinois, Texas, Missouri and Delaware into Nixon’s column. Nixon wins 52%-47%-1% [the 1% slightly overstates Byrd but is easier than doing fractional percentages].

Now the first thing that follows from this is that the whole Camelot thing never happens. The media types that invented Camelot and made Jack and Jackie into pseudo-rock stars simply see Nixon as Ike’s third term, another gray chapter in Corp Rat America [the Amerika thing is later and doesn’t happen in this ATL]. Culturally the early 60’s are seen as part of a Long Decade of the 50’s. At subsurface levels the larger social forces that produced feminism, the gay liberation movement etc. are still there and as strong as in OTL. They just don’t have a few magic years to invest with a glamour those years never really had.

The first big change comes with Cuba. Kennedy was essentially trapped into the Bay of Pigs. Unlike Nixon, who had large scale national security experience, Kennedy was green and treated as green by the US national security establishment. Kennedy watched the wheels come off the plan. Operational security failed – the core of the plan and the staging areas in Florida and Central America leaked through the world media. Castro responded with large scale roundups of suspected opponents of the regime that made the concept of a paramilitary landing leading to a national rising increasingly absurd. So the best case scenario was a US Suez or Hungary – the Exile Brigade lands, establishes a pseudo-government and the US Marines then have to conquer the island at the invitation of this supposed Free Cuban regime. It would have been a propaganda disaster of the first order. Although our intelligence did not know it at the time it also risked the Soviets using the few nukes they had in Cuba [ the existence of these is subject to dispute but I believe they were there].

Now in addition to everything Kennedy faced with Cuba Nixon would have faced the liberal wing of the Democratic Party relentlessly pounding at running insane risks in a return to gunboat diplomacy. Instead of Stevenson giving a false speech at the UN denying US involvement he and Mrs. Roosevelt would have been leading marches against a risk of nuclear war. A Democratic Congress would have paid more attention to such peace movements with a Republican in the White House. My guess is that Nixon scraps the invasion and stands down the brigade. He would have taken a barrage of criticism from his own rightwing but by the standards of the early 60’s GOP Nixon was somewhat of a centrist. He was also simply not vulnerable to attacks as a ‘Pinko’.

These political trends would IMO carry over to the Berlin Crisis of that summer. Khrushchev had been pushing for a resolution of the status of the two Germanys. Khrushchev regarded Kennedy as sallow, young and inept. Nikita knew Nixon. Instead of just putting up the wall my guess is that he would have sent an emissary to Nixon in advance. In turn with Nixon estranged with the right wing of his party [the people who became the Goldwaterites in our 1964] he would have been freer to do a deal. The obvious deal was joint recognition of both German regimes by both blocks and the beginnings of a military treaty [what became the conventional force agreements from the 80’s] between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The obvious trade would have been a partial stand down of the Red Army forces in East Germany by switching from an offensive to a defensive deployment strategy. Khrushchev could also have let the Germans who wished to leave go. Offering 90 days to exit before the Wall went up would take the sting out. Making the Berlin Wall part and parcel of a strategy of both blocks fortifying the borders as a peace move would reduce instead of increase tensions in Europe. Adenaeuer would have had a cow but European public opinion would have backed reduced tensions and the beginning of Ost Politik between the two blocks. Few in Europe regarded a third suicidal European war as a ‘good idea’.

Coupled with this Nixon would not have been locked into Kennedy’s rhetoric about a missile gap. Kennedy knew from his candidate’s briefings that this was bunkum but found it a good campaign tool. In reverse Nixon would have been more temperate in the nuclear build-up to prove that Ike’s policies had been right all along. Khrushchev might have hesitated to try a Cuban missile buildup in the face of Nixon. However if he were caught with missiles in Cuba negotiating with Nixon would have been easier. Nixon could have been upfront about swapping out missiles in Italy and the UK for the Cuban ones which would have enabled Nikita to save face. Nixon would probably have held onto at least some of the Turkish missiles for a few more years however. Whereas the other nations were happy to no longer have those nuclear targets on their soil Turkey actually wanted the missiles as proof that we really would defend them.

Vietnam would probably have been a non-issue with Nixon. Kennedy upped the stakes in Vietnam both because of his fascination with unconventional warfare and to get a win on the board to redeem his failure in the Bay of Pigs. Nixon’s Cuban failure would have been of a different sort and his ‘peace’ agreement in Germany would more than have redeemed his standing. In all probability he does with Vietnam what Ike had done in Laos, fold the hand rather than up the stakes. So sometime in 1962-63 the Diem family leaves for comfortable exile in Paris or Taipei and a ‘neutralist’ regime takes over [this is the Laotian formula; but for the expansion of the Viet war under Kennedy this would over time become a full red regime in each case]. Nixon would have shored up Thailand instead. Stronger regime facing a much weaker red insurgency. Note that not doing Vietnam makes trouble down the road in Indonesia but in the short run he misses a quagmire at the cost of his rightwing having yet another foaming frenzy [beyond a narrow anti-Communist lobby few Americans in the early 60’s could find Indochina on a map].

So far this is all sounding like the yellow brick road but now we get to the downsides. The Apollo Program as we know it simply does not happen. We still have a space program and still work towards a lunar landing but it is simply not a priority. The priority was Kennedy and I see no way Nixon reversing himself on this. We add a little extra whenever the Soviets do a spectacular but as Nixon showed in his two terms in OTL he was never that interested in space exploration at the cost of expending his own political capital.

Nixon would also have had more trouble with race and civil rights than Kennedy. I have no doubt Nixon would have continued using Federal troops and the FBI to enforce court orders in the same manner as Kennedy did as this is just an extension of Ike’s policies. However the bulk of the civil rights movement had relocated politically to the Democratic Party in the 40’s. The incongruity of the Democrats being the political home of the NAACP and the White Citizens Councils was often remarked on but in fact both had to try a bit more to be accommodating with a Democrat in the White House as both were to some extent invested in the success of a Democratic President. With a Republican President each is free to cater to their constituency by being more maximalist. My guess is that Nixon gets less cooperation out of the Dixiecrat governors. There is more bloodshed enforcing the court orders and more troops are needed. Nixon could probably have worked with LBJ as Senate Leader to get a voting rights bill through in 1962 by linking it to tax cuts on the order of the ones JFK got in OTL. He would have gotten no credit for what he did. The civil rights people would have seen him as a defender of the old order and the Dixiecrats would have seen him as another Yankee outsider destroying the South. Before his first term is over he probably has some northern race riots and a racial climate as bad as LBJ’s last years. This was a no-win issue for a Republican.

So our Nixon faces the 1964 campaign season with peace and prosperity but large scale internal turmoil over race and with the cultural issues bubbling just below the surface. He will be facing a Goldwater revolt in his own party and a Wallace 3rd party come November. Odds are he is a one term President followed by Humphrey or Johnson. He would be remembered as the man who mishandled the race issue with the Détente treated as something anyone in his position could have reached. These same ATL historians would have regarded a coup by Brezhnev and the Soviet military-industrial complex against Khrushchev as absurd. Nikita may have had a few misadventures but his détente would have enabled a softer Communism geared a bit more towards producing consumer goods instead of tanks.




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