Outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower was immensely popular. Vice President Richard Nixon tried to capitalize on his large base for his own candidacy, but a handsome, young New Englander stood in his way. The result was one of the closest elections of all time!
The Last Four Years
During the Eisenhower years, Americans continued to enjoy a rapidly expanding economy, save for a few mild recessions. As the Civil Rights movement grew, however, it became clear that not all citizens were receiving an equal share in the country’s prosperity. In 1954, the Supreme Court ended segregation in public schools in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Eisenhower never vocally supported the decision, but he did take his responsibility to uphold it seriously. That belief was put to the test in 1957 when segregationists tried to prevent the first African American students from entering Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Eisenhower persuaded Governor Orval Faubus to remove the Arkansas National Guard from the school and allow the black students to enter. Unfortunately, their removal left a vacuum for a violent mob. Eisenhower sent in federal troops, marking the first time such an action was taken to enforce Civil Rights in the South since Reconstruction. Still careful to not openly endorse desegregation, Eisenhower argued that the violence was damaging America’s global reputation and providing ammo for Communist propaganda. Troops remained in Little Rock for the entire school year. The first black student graduated in that spring. Frustratingly, Faubus simply closed public schools the following year and Eisenhower no longer intervened. He was more committed to preventing violence than solving racial issues. In general, Eisenhower believed desegregation should be a slow process. He did not take Martin Luther King Jr.’s advice to use the bully pulpit to advance racial integration. That being said, Eisenhower oversaw two Civil Rights laws (another first since Reconstruction), advanced desegregation in the Capital and the armed forces (which began under Truman), and appointed judges who supported Civil Rights.
Following the Suez Crisis, Eisenhower announced the Eisenhower Doctrine, committing the US to protect Middle Eastern countries from foreign aggression and, specifically, from Communists. The most notable use of the Doctrine was in Lebanon, where US troops prevented pro-Egypt forces from gaining power. The operation was considered a success, but Eisenhower’s policy overlooked more serious nationalist trends that were developing in the region.
In the late 1950s, the US struggled to keep up with the USSR technologically. This was most evident in 1957 when the Soviets launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into space. Eisenhower made the Space Race official with the subsequent creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA. Competitiveness aside, tensions between the two world powers had decreased in Eisenhower’s second term. He met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at Camp David in 1959. They planned to meet again in 1960, where Eisenhower hoped to form an arms reduction agreement (an agenda he mocked when it came from his 1956 opponent, Democrat Adlai Stevenson). Just before the meeting, an American U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down over Russian territory. Not knowing the pilot had survived (via parachute), the White House claimed that the plane was conducting weather research. According to their story, the pilot had reported issues with his oxygen equipment, and therefore may have lost consciousness and drifted off-course. The Soviets exposed this excuse as a lie. Eisenhower accepted responsibility for the incident, but added that the flight was a matter of national security. At his next meeting with Khrushchev in Paris, he did not apologize, prompting Khrushchev to walk out. The arms deal was off the table. Elsewhere, Eisenhower continued to use the CIA for morally questionable missions in an effort to combat Communism. In Guatemala, CIA agents began training anti-Communist exiles from Cuba to invade the island and overthrow Fidel Castro.
Although Eisenhower was highly experienced in foreign policy, many felt that the US was lagging behind Russia. Communism continued to expand around the world, and even… in space!
In order to take back the presidency, Democrats needed an exciting candidate. The front runner was Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, whose popularity had grown since his bid for the vice-presidential nomination four years earlier. Kennedy was young (only 43) and came from a powerful, Northeastern family. He served in the Navy during WWII and earned a Purple Heart for leading his crew to safety after a surprise Japanese attack. Despite his youthful public persona, Kennedy actually lived with several health issues, mainly hormone deficiency from Addison’s Disease. After his brother died in the war, he inherited the role as his father’s favorite son, and the political aspirations that came with it. In 1958, he was re-elected to the Senate by the largest popular majority in Massachusetts history. The biggest obstacle to Kennedy’s rising fame, however, was his Catholicism. The party’s last Catholic nominee, Al Smith, lost in a landslide to Herbert Hoover in 1928. Due to his religion, he even lost typically-Democratic Southern states. Kennedy fought bigotry with humor. In a speech at the Al Smith Memorial Dinner in 1959, Kennedy compared the loss to Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 opponent, saying, “I think it well that we recall what happened to a great governor when he became a presidential nominee. Despite his successful record as governor, despite his plain-spoken voice, the campaign was a debacle. His views were distorted. He carried fewer states than any candidate in his party’s history. To top it off, he lost his own state that he had served so well as governor. You all know his name and his religion – Alfred M. Landon, Protestant.”
Kennedy’s closest rival for the nomination was Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, a popular liberal. Kennedy used the primaries, still a new tool for candidates, to prove his electability. He won a surprising victory in Wisconsin, Humphrey’s neighboring state. Next, the Kennedy campaign poured money into West Virginia. His subsequent victory showed that, even as a rich, Northeastern Catholic, he could still win in a Protestant, working class state. At the party convention, Kennedy faced another challenge from Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. Luckily, Kennedy had gained enough support from the primaries to win the nomination on the first ballot. In order to appease Southern Democrats, who had strayed from the party in recent elections, Kennedy offered Johnson the VP spot. Johnson accepted, though many Northern Democrats felt betrayed. In his acceptance speech, Kennedy introduced the “New Frontier,” a promise to enter the new decade with a focus on the issues of war, prejudice, and poverty, as well as the opportunities of space exploration.
Although Eisenhower remained popular, he was the first president officially forbidden from serving a third term, thanks to his own party’s efforts following Roosevelt’s four-peat. This left the Republican nomination open for Vice President Richard Nixon. Nixon came to Washington as a Representative, then Senator, from California. His first claim-to-fame was his active role on the House Un-Americans Activities Committee. His relative restraint in comparison to other Anti-Communists like Senator Joseph McCarthy made Nixon a palatable running mate for Eisenhower in 1952. His sleazy political style often displeased the honest Eisenhower, but Nixon was still able to be an active vice president, even leading cabinet meetings while the President recovered from a heart attack. For the nomination, he initially faced a challenge from New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a moderate liberal. After a brief tour of the country, Rockefeller determined that Nixon’s lead was unsurmountable and dropped out of the race. Nixon met with Rockefeller to offer an olive branch to his faction of the party, and to show that we was not the partisan he once was. Nixon, like his Democratic counterpart, went on to win the nomination on the first ballot. He was the first vice president of the modern era to win his party’s nomination without first ascending to the office due to vacancy. He shared the ticket with the US Ambassador to the UN, and former Massachusetts Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., whose grandfather had been close friends with Theodore Roosevelt. In his acceptance speech, Nixon also promised to build a better America, but stressed the importance of private enterprise and reduced government spending. He added, “When Mr. Khrushchev says our grandchildren will live under Communism, let us say his grandchildren will live in freedom.”
Early in the campaign, Nixon committed to visiting every state. That plan was put on hold in August, however, after a knee injury led to an infection. He did eventually complete his pledge, but wasted valuable time campaigning in inconsequential states. Although Nixon was only four years older than Kennedy, his main selling points were his experience and maturity. He often boasted about his role in the Eisenhower administration. Unfortunately, when a report asked the President for examples, Eisenhower, anxious to end the press conference, responded, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”
Kennedy ran on his youth, coupled with catchy TV ads. In response to Nixon’s emphasis on experience, Kennedy pointed out that the two of them entered Congress in the same year and added, “Nixon is experienced, experienced in policies of retreat, defeat, and weakness.” Kennedy accused the Republican administration of allowing the US to fall behind the Communists. He argued that the election represented a “race between the comfortable and the concerned.” When faced with accusations that his rich father, who served as Ambassador to England under Roosevelt, was bankrolling his campaign, Kennedy again deflected with humor, saying, “I announced earlier this year that, if successful, I would not consider campaign contributions as a substitute for experience in appointing ambassadors. Ever since I made that statement, I have not received one single cent from my father.” Kennedy received lots of help from his running mate in the South. Johnson worked hard to win back voters unsure about Kennedy’s Northern roots.
Unsurprisingly, Kennedy continued to face opposition regarding his religion. In September, he appeared before a group of Protestant ministers in Houston to make it clear that he supported the separation of church and state and would put his duties to the Constitution above the Vatican. He told the crowd, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic.” The ministers were pleased with his speech. In fact, Kennedy was so explicit, that some Catholics complained that he would turn into a Protestant!
The 1960 contest featured the first ever presidential debates of major candidates. There were four debates in total. Nixon wanted to show off his debate skills and foreign policy experience, while also displaying that he was no longer the mudslinger of his younger days. Kennedy aimed to prove that he was equally knowledgeable and experienced. The first debate was on September 26th, in Chicago. Unfortunately for Nixon, its focus was domestic issues. Simply put, Kennedy looked better on camera. He came off as relaxed and confident. Nixon, on the other hand, was visibly tired from a long day of campaigning and was still recovering from his knee condition. He did not wear makeup and had a five o’clock shadow. Kennedy quickly put Nixon on the defensive for the shortcomings of the Eisenhower administration. Nixon often addressed his opponent in his rebuttals, while Kennedy spoke directly to the audience. Many felt like Kennedy was the candidate with the greater factual knowledge. According to legend, radio listeners believed that Nixon performed better, while TV viewers preferred Kennedy. Nixon improved in later debates. He corrected his image, wore makeup, and benefitted from the focus on foreign policy. Unfortunately, viewership of the remaining debates fell significantly.
Just two days before the final debate, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for protesting segregation at a restaurant in Atlanta and sentenced to four months in prison. Kennedy called King’s wife to express his concern while his brother, Robert, reached out to the judge to secure King’s release on bail. Although Nixon discussed the case with Eisenhower’s Attorney General, he ultimately decided that it would be inappropriate to intervene and stayed silent. Kennedy’s actions were applauded by the black community. King’s father, a Protestant minister, told reporters that he had planned to vote for Nixon due to Kennedy’s religion, but changed his mind. When informed about the comment, Kennedy replied, ”Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father. Well, we all have fathers, don’t we?”
Both of the previous two presidents joined the campaign. Eisenhower spoke on Nixon’s behalf in important states like ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. His popularity aided Nixon, though Democrats accused Nixon of “piggybacking” into the White House. Truman, despite being initially lukewarm about Kennedy, participated in his typical aggressive campaign style. In one speech, he told Southerners that if they voted for Nixon, they deserved to go to Hell. When asked about the remark, Kennedy replied that he would tell Truman that they should “try to refrain from raising the religious issue.”
The race was close all year. In October, pollster George Gallup still refused to make any predictions, and most political scientists agreed. One comedian joked that “neither candidate is going to win.” Just before election day, however, polls predicted a Kennedy victory.
Peace Corps Pause!
Following the third debate in New York, Kennedy flew to Ann Arbor, Michigan, arriving early in the morning. He was scheduled to sleep in a room at the University of Michigan Student Union for a few hours before embarking on a train tour across the state. From the windows, his team noticed a crowd of students gathering outside the building. Kennedy had no prepared statement, but decided to give an impromptu speech on the steps of the Union. He greeted the students “as a graduate of the Michigan of the East, Harvard University.” With the debate fresh in his mind, in which Nixon reminded viewers that the last three Democratic presidents had all taken the US to war, Kennedy asked the crowd if they would be willing to volunteer in foreign service as doctors, technicians, or engineers. He explained, “I am delighted to come to Michigan, this university, because unless we have those resources in this school, unless you comprehend the nature of what is being asked of you, this country can’t possibly move through the next ten years in a period of relative strength.” Kennedy’s appeal that night became the inspiration for the Peace Corps, one of the cornerstones of his agenda.
We’ve finally reached 50 states! Alaska and Hawaii have been added to the Union!
The election turned out to be even closer than predicted. Kennedy was ahead in early returns, but his lead slowly diminished as the night went on. Kennedy was initially declared the winner of California, but absentee ballots swung the state for Nixon. It took days to finalize the results. Kennedy did well most of the East, while Nixon had the advantage in the West. A group of electors in the South, freed from the election results by their state governments, refused to vote for Kennedy (and one for Nixon in Oklahoma) due to his support of Civil Rights. Instead, they cast their votes for Virginia Senator Harry Byrd. Luckily, this did not affect the final result. This was the last election in which the national winner did not take ohio.
John F. Kennedy won! He was America’s 35th president. At 43, he was the youngest person ever elected to the office (although Teddy Roosevelt had ascended to the role at 42). Of course, he was also the first Catholic president. Although Kennedy easily won the electoral college 303-219, the popular vote was extremely close. The final percentages were 49.7% and 49.5%, with just under 120,000 votes separating the candidates. It was the closest margin since the Harrison/Cleveland contest of 1888. Some Republicans accused the Democrats of tampering with votes, pointing to irregularities in Illinois and Texas. Nixon distanced himself from those claims, saying that a recount would be damaging to America’s image.
What Did It Say About America?
It’s time for young blood! In a stark contrast to Eisenhower’s grandfatherly presence, Kennedy represented a new generation ready to lead America into the next decade. Kennedy used television to his advantage, in both ads and debates. Fittingly, he was young, handsome, and somewhat of a celebrity as president. Geographically, although some electors defected to Byrd, Lyndon Johnson was able to fend off complete dealignment in the Democratic South for one more election cycle.
Was It The Right Decision?
Yes! How could you not vote for the charming Kennedy over the gruff Nixon? I suspect Kennedy will have a mixed record on his actual performance as president, but without a doubt, he pushed America into the necessary, but treacherous, social change of the 1960s.