In this election, the Democratic candidate ran on a platform of unity, his ability to make deals in Washington, and the record of his predecessor. The Republican candidate was known for racist dog-whistling, a reckless foreign policy, and erratic quotes that dominated news cycles. I bet you’d like to know how this one turned out!

The Last Four Years

President John F. Kennedy was eager to implement his New Frontier agenda. Unfortunately, the Democratic Congressional majority proved to be a burden, thanks to opposition from the Southern, conservative old guard. Kennedy was often forced to compromise by diluting his proposals. His first challenge was the recent economic recession, the worst since the 1930s. Kennedy had an ambitious economic and social plan to ensure a decade of renewed prosperity. Of course, he wasn’t able to enact the majority of his plan, but luckily, the recession ended within the year. The New Frontier was rounded out with some big-picture goals, as well. With the Peace Corps, Kennedy hoped to capitalize on the activist spirit of the upcoming generation in order to counter Communist influence in the Third World. His boldest action was the promise to put Americans on the moon by the end of the decade.

Just two months into office, Kennedy made the biggest mistake of his term by authorizing the CIA to overthrow the Communist leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro. During the Eisenhower Administration, the CIA was secretly training anti-Communist refugees to invade the island. They assured Kennedy that the operation would be a success. On April 17, 1961, 1500 men landed on the island’s Southern coast in the Bay of Pigs. They were quickly overwhelmed by Castro’s forces and captured. US involvement in the attack was immediately exposed. With the mission deemed a total failure, Kennedy’s reputation was understandably in doubt.

Tensions with the USSR were also deteriorating. At a meeting in June, 1961, Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev told Kennedy that he planned to end the on-going Berlin crisis on his own. Two months later, Communists and East Germans constructed the Berlin Wall, physically separating East and West Berlin. The Cold War reached its peak in the fall of 1962 when US aerial reconnaissance discovered Soviet nuclear missile sites in Cuba. The thought of nuclear weapons that close to the US mainland caused a panic in Washington. Kennedy chose to respond with a naval blockade of the island in October. Days went by with the world on the brink of nuclear war. Thankfully, Khrushchev backed down and withdrew the missiles. In response, Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba and (secretly) to remove US missiles from Turkey. The blockade finally ended on November 20th. Relations with Russia seemed more hopeful the following year, when Kennedy reached an agreement to limit nuclear testing.

The Cold War had also extended to Southeast Asia. Kennedy again followed Eisenhower’s lead by aiding South Vietnam against the Communists in the North. He increased the amount of advisors in the South and provided special forces to train them in counter-insurgency warfare. The number of Americans in Vietnam was rising dramatically. In 1963, however, Kennedy announced his intention to reduce US involvement in the country due to continued political oppression from South Vietnam’s leader, Ngo Dinh Diem. That November, Diem was assassinated in a military coup.

Domestically, Kennedy’s most important test was on Civil Rights. Beginning in the 1950s, African American activism was increasing, a development that Southern conservatives feared. Demonstrations were often met with violence from police and counter-protestors. Like Eisenhower, Kennedy willingly used federal troops to enforce school integration. Unfortunately, he also bent to “Senatorial Courtesy” on judges, meaning he consulted the Senators from applicable states when making appointments. Many of his judges were actually less supportive of Civil Rights enforcement than Eisenhower’s. Kennedy was sympathetic to the Civil Rights cause, but wanted to postpone meaningful legislation until his (potential) second term, when he could risk splitting the Democratic Party. Black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. were tired of waiting and continued to pressure the President. The ongoing violent confrontations, and movements like King’s March on Washington, finally persuaded Kennedy to submit a Civil Rights bill to Congress.

Sadly, Kennedy’s term was cut short. On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was shot and killed during a campaign motorcade through Dallas, Texas. The assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, took the shot from a nearby book warehouse. He was a former marine who had defected to the Soviet Union, but returned to the US. Two days after his arrest, Oswald himself was murdered by nightclub owner Jack Ruby while being transferred to another jail. The unbelievably chaotic nature of the events, and the questionable investigations that followed, inspired an endless series of conspiracy theories. No matter the true motive for Kennedy’s death, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was now his successor.

Johnson used the remainder of his term to continue Kennedy’s agenda. He announced a War on Poverty, in which new federal and state agencies would help the poor and provide social services. Despite his Southern roots, Johnson had also become a moderate on racial issues. He used his political skills, and Kennedy’s legacy, to form a bipartisan coalition to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, officially banning segregation in public facilities. In Vietnam, Johnson increased US involvement. In August, 1964, reports claimed that US ships had been attacked by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin. Although we now know that these reports were exaggerated, they were used by the Johnson Administration to justify military action. By an overwhelming margin, Congress authorized Johnson to take all necessary measures to fight North Vietnam. They did not make a formal declaration of war.

Major Issues

Kennedy’s death was a huge shock to the nation, but it didn’t subdue politics as usual in Washington. Conservatives argued that the Welfare State had overgrown since Franklin Roosevelt, that the US was too still weak against Communism, and that the Civil Rights movement was a violation of states’ rights.

Party Watch

Republicans were split on how to respond to the Kennedy/Johnson years. The Northern, moderate old guard now faced a growing base of conservatives in the West and South who felt abandoned by Democratic leadership. The main competitors in the primaries were New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Rockefeller represented the moderate wing of the party. Goldwater, on the other hand, was a staunch conservative who even criticized the “liberal” Eisenhower Administration. His grassroots support had been rising since Kennedy took office. Rockefeller struggled to win over social conservatives due to his recent divorce, still a taboo subject at the time. Goldwater supporters dominated the party convention. They heckled Rockefeller’s speech denouncing extremism. Goldwater won the nomination on the first ballot. He chose another conservative to be his running mate, little-known Congressman William Miller from upstate New York. The addition of Miller to the ticket signaled that Goldwater did not intend to unite the two ideological factions of the party. He also justified his pick by saying that Miller “drives Johnson nuts.” Goldwater’s acceptance speech included one of his most infamous lines. In response to Rockefeller’s criticism, he declared, “I would remind you that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice!” Moderates were outraged by his rhetoric. Some even believed his speech was a coded endorsement of the KKK. One reporter remarked, “My God! He’s going to run as Barry Goldwater!”

There was little doubt that President Johnson would win the Democratic nomination. He faced a minor primary challenge from Alabama Governor George Wallace, who used his campaign to spread support for states’ rights. The most eventful aspect to the party convention was the controversy surrounding Mississippi’s all-white delegation. Black activists argued that the state discriminated in its selection process and demanded that their own “Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party” be seated instead. Liberals like Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey sympathized with the movement, but Johnson worried that angering the South would cost him their support in the general election. Eventually, the party granted the new delegation two seats, and pledged to end discriminatory delegate selection in the future. Many activists considered this an unsatisfactory consolation, but accepted it, nonetheless. The delegations from Mississippi and Alabama walked out.

The next source of drama at the convention surrounded Johnson’s vice-presidential pick. He kept his choice a secret for as long as possible. Many Democrats favored John F. Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, for the position. Johnson, however, had a long history of distrust with Robert, a feeling that was solidified when Robert opposed his addition to the 1960 ticket. Johnson intentionally pushed Robert’s convention speech to the last day of the event to prevent a surge in popularity that might lead to a surprise VP nomination. After he officially secured his own nomination, Johnson revealed his VP pick to be Hubert Humphrey. The liberal Minnesotan provided an ideological and geographical balance to Johnson. In his acceptance speech, Johnson evoked Kennedy’s legacy by asking for a mandate to pass “the kind of laws that he would have us write.”

The Campaign

One of Goldwater’s slogans was “In your heart, you know he’s right.” Democrats added, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” The candidate’s extreme views were no secret. He compared the Welfare State to Communism and threatened to undo the New Deal. His “Southern Strategy” was to emphasize state’s rights. In the North, he hoped to benefit from white backlash to the recent Black riots. Although Goldwater actually voted for all previous Civil Rights acts, he opposed the 1964 bill on the grounds that it was too far of an overreach by the federal government. By far, Goldwater’s most controversial stance was on nuclear weapons. He freely endorsed using them against the USSR and North Vietnam, adding that he would like to “lob one into the men’s room of the Kremlin.” He argued that the American people needed to lose their fear of the word “nuclear” and should consider their military purposes. Crazy Goldwater quotes, both from his past and the current campaign, became a common talking point. He was infamous for “shooting from the lip,” meaning he did not consider the political implications of his words. He often condemned social and economic programs in the areas where there were the most beneficial. The attitude of Goldwater supporters, however, was summarized in one request to a reporter, “Don’t quote what he says, say what he means!”

Pollsters were confident of a Johnson victory, but the President didn’t just want to beat his conservative opponent, he wanted to win in a landslide. In his commencement speech at the University of Michigan, Johnson announced his “Great Society” agenda, a promise to address poverty and racial inequality. Johnson campaigned as the candidate of peace and unity. In response to Goldwater’s aggressive foreign policy views, Johnson argued, “The only real issue in this campaign… is who can best keep the peace. In the nuclear age, the president doesn’t get a second chance to make a second guess. If he mashes the button – that is that.” A dramatic TV ad from his campaign, which only aired once, showed a little girl picking flowers as an ominous voice counted down to a nuclear explosion. The concern over nuclear weapons even scared some liberal Republicans into switching allegiances. Goldwater did eventually tone down his rhetoric, partly thanks to pressure from Eisenhower, but it was too late to change the impression in voters’ minds.

Election Day

Thanks to the 23rd Amendment, the District of Columbia now gets electoral votes! The total number of electors reached 538, the same total we have today!

Johnson got the landslide he hoped for. He won nearly every region and was the first Democrat to sweep New England. In fact, this election marked the first time Vermont ever voted Democratic. However, he did not hold the South. The five states of the Deep South voted for Goldwater. Georgia ended its streak as the last remaining Southern state to have never voted Republican (not even during Reconstruction!).  

The Winner

Lyndon B. Johnson remained America’s 36th president! While his 486 electoral votes (to Goldwater’s 52) were not enough to beat Franklin Roosevelt’s record, Johnson did earn the highest ever popular vote percentage (since 1820) with 61.1%. Democrats also did well in Congress, providing Johnson with a Congressional majority to enact his Great Society.

What Did It Say About America?

Many voters were more anti-Goldwater than pro-Johnson and believed Goldwater did not represent the Republican party. But, despite his embarrassing loss, Goldwater unlocked a side of the conservative movement that has mostly been successful for the last 40 years. The Deep South finally cut its ties to the Democratic Party, setting up our modern geographical party divisions. In the short-term, Johnson was happy with his “mandate for unity.”

Was It The Right Decision?

Hell yes. Johnson’s second term is going to be a rough one, but promising not to incite nuclear war was a bar that Goldwater could not clear. Although Goldwater himself was not overtly racist, he was happy to make the Republican Party the new home for bigots. As for Johnson, like many of his Democratic predecessors, he ran on a platform of peace, yet led the US to war. And like most assassinated presidents, John F. Kennedy left behind the unanswerable question as to how he would have handled one of America’s greatest crises.