Alternate History

What Might Have Been

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As we are all aware, in OTL, the election of 1960 was one of the closest in American history. The 'real' history does, of course, show that Vice President Richard M. Nixon defeated Senator John F. Kennedy to become President of the United States. Nixon, then, was the unfortunate occupant of the Oval Office when the Russian missiles were placed in Cuba. It was Nixon who went mano-a-mano with Khrushchev. It was Nixon who gave the order to bomb Cuba. It was Nixon who narrowly avoided a full-scale war only, historians argue, by sheer good fortune and a certain lack of willpower on behalf of the Kremlin. But it was nonetheless Nixon who is remembered to this day as the President that almost got everybody killed, and in Germany is still remembered as "Der mann der Berlin verlor" - "The man who lost Berlin."
Of course, what happened happened, and the past is obviously prologue. However, would it necessarily have been so? What if, instead of Nixon, it was Kennedy who was inaugurated on January 20, 1961? After all, Nixon's victory came only because he won a handful of states, such as Hawaii, Missouri, Illinois and his home state of California, by razor-thin margins. What would the world have been like if it had been President Kennedy, not President Nixon, who had led the free world when the Cuban Incident took place? This timeline explores that question.

Kennedy's election

John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1993) was elected as America's 35th President in a very close election on November 8, 1960. A Democrat, the first in the White House since Truman, Kennedy was young, handsome, liberal and idealistic. Married to a young and beautiful wife and from a wealthy Massachusetts family, Kennedy was in many ways the 'people's president'. His brothers, Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, later came to prominence in American politics in their own right - indeed it was Ted who succeeded his brother as Senator from Massachusetts.

Editor's note: This might seem unlikely, but both Bobby and Ted Kennedy had similar ambitions to their brother. It is not totally inconceivable that either brother would have succeeded Kennedy - the Massachusetts party machine, coupled with Kennedy's influence, may have insisted, as the Kennedy name carried enormous weight. I have chosen Ted to succeed Kennedy as it is perhaps more likely Bobby would have filled some prominent role in his brother's administration, such as Secretary of State or, perhaps more realistically, White House Chief of Staff.

Early presidency

One of the first challenges Kennedy faced as President was the disastrous CIA-backed invasion of Cuba in what became known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. Cuban dissidents and exiles, trained by the U.S., invaded Cuba with the intent of overthrowing the newly-installed pro-Soviet government of Fidel Castro. It was an operation authorised by the White House and one which was a complete disaster for Kennedy and his administration. The exiles failed miserably in their task, most of them were captured or killed and Kennedy was forced into a flat denial of any U.S. involvement.
Editor's note: It's very likely the Bay of Pigs invasion would have been as bad under Kennedy as it was under Nixon in OTL. Some historians have suggested Kennedy would have stopped the invasion before it began, but that is somewhat unlikely. Kennedy was just as concerned about Castro as Nixon was, and nobody, not even the Democrats, wanted a potential Russian base ninety miles from the U.S. mainland. The invasion, which had after all been prepared before Nixon (or Kennedy) came to office, failed for any number of reasons, none of which had anything to do with the man who occupied the Oval Office.
Following the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, the Soviet Union established a missile base on Cuba. This, of course, was totally unacceptable to the U.S. government and harsh words were followed by harsher actions.

Cuban Incident

The beginning of the crisis was on October 14, 1962, when U.S. spy planes took photographs of the missile base under construction. When Kennedy saw the photos, he knew that unless the situation was handled very carefully, it would most likely lead to a nuclear war with Russia. Military officials and the Cabinet pushed Kennedy towards a quick bombing raid, destroying the missiles and, hopefully, trusting that the Soviets wouldn't go to war over the incident. Kennedy was unconvinced. He insisted that a more diplomatic solution be found. Eventually, an agreement was reached between Kennedy and the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to dismantle the base in exchange for certain U.S. concessions, one of which was a pledge never to invade Cuba.

Editor's note: This, perhaps, is the most controversial part of this timeline as it takes a lot on faith. Nixon, as we now know, did not attempt a diplomatic solution, but it is a matter of extreme conjecture whether an accommodation with the Soviets could ever have been reached. Khrushchev knew that the U.S. would have to react to the missiles and, presumably, this was his plan when the base was established. Documents released by the Russian government have shown that Khrushchev wanted to exact some sort of concession out of Nixon, a plan which backfired spectacularly and led, of course, to Khrushchev's arrest, trial and execution. The POD above assumes that the more level-headed Kennedy (historians can at least agree on that) not only sought a diplomatic solution but was able to implement it.

Thereby, the nuclear exchange that took place in OTL when Nixon bombed Cuba did not take place. U.S. missile bases and military targets in Europe were not bombed, the "nuclear cloud" over central Germany never formed, Moscow was never destroyed, and West Berlin never fell to the Russians. Importantly, as the nuclear exchange never happened, the political (as opposed to radioactive) fallout never hit the U.S. Kennedy would not have declared martial law, as Nixon did, and the 1964 election would not have been marred by the violence that affected it *here*.

Late first term

With the crisis over, Kennedy was able to get back to governing. To liberals and peace activists he was a hero - he had prevented what potentially could have been World War III and had cemented himself as a voice of reason and diplomacy. To conservatives and anti-Communist agitators, he was derided as weak against Russian demands.

Kennedy remained as an icon of the peace movement throughout the rest of his life. He was reluctant to involve U.S. forces in global conflict - to the chagrin of the Republicans, including Nixon, who was actively seeking the Republican nomination for President in 1964, this included Indo-China, where Soviet and Chinese-backed forces had successfully overthrown the pro-Western governments of a number of nations, most notably Vietnam. Kennedy refused to submit to pressure from his Cabinet to commit American troops to stop the spread of Communism in South East Asia.

Editor's note: Would Kennedy have deployed troops to Vietnam as Nixon did in 1961? We'll never really know for sure. Nixon's troop deployment was, after the exchange of 1962, eventually withdrawn from South East Asia after Mao withdrew troops for Ho Chi Minh's communist rebellion. It seems unlikely Kennedy would have made the same decision, though the lack of the 1962 exchange may have altered events. Kennedy was clearly more pacifistic in his outlook than Nixon, and not as devoted to the destruction of Communism (as he himself said in 1977, "Communism isn't the threat to America. The threat to America is the people who will destroy what we have to protect us.")

1964 re-election

In 1964, Kennedy was re-elected, again defeating Nixon but by a slightly larger majority than he had in 1960. During the 1964 campaign, certain members of the press apparently became aware of a number of improprieties committed by the President, mostly in relation to marital infidelity. Despite this, Kennedy's popularity and a record youth turnout saw him convincingly win a second term. The one casualty of the Kennedy administration was Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who was dropped from the ticket and replaced, amid great controversy, by Florida's George Smathers.

Editor's note: Kennedy's infidelity to his wife is now a well-established matter of public record. The rumours about his personal life between about 1963 and 1970, when his very public affair with Judith Campbell became suddenly and startlingly revealed, were enough to cost him the Governor's office in 1970, but as President, they might have been even more damaging. They probably, however, would have been easier to suppress. As Senator and Governor, Kennedy had less access to resources he could use to cover up his affairs than he did in real life. The big question, of course, is whether Marilyn Monroe would have gone public with her story concerning her affair with both John and Robert Kennedy, as she did in 1997. Neither Kennedy brother was ever President - if either one had been, would Monroe have gone public much earlier, perhaps out of spite for being jilted?

The dropping of Johnson in favour of Smathers reflects a trend in the Democratic party that already existed. Smathers was said to be favoured by Kennedy as his running mate in 1960 anyway, and had Johnson's corrupt activities come out in 1963-1964 (as they did in real life), the Vice President could easily have been impeached, forced to resign or just dumped from the Democratic ticket.

Kennedy's second term

President Kennedy was sworn in for his second term on January 20, 1965. In the opening months of his term, Kennedy worked with the Democratic Congress, particularly Speaker John McCormack, in implementing his second-term agenda which included a more multilateral foreign policy and a package to stimulate America's economy, which had been in a slump since before his presidency.

The economic outlook going into 1966 was so bad that Kennedy was forced to fire his Secretary of the Treasury. With unemployment and inflation rising, and with the Federal Reserve urging the government to reign in spending, the Republican Party regrouped and was able, in the 1966 mid-term elections, to win control of the U.S. Senate (though not the House). Kennedy, in the last two years of his Presidency, faced increasing scrutiny from Congress. In the same year, 1966, Kennedy's brother and Chief of Staff Robert Kennedy was elected Governor of New York.

One issue Kennedy failed to address was civil rights for America's black or Negro population. The civil rights movement had gained strength under his presidency with the expectation that the liberal Democrat would be sympathetic to the cause espoused by Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other civil rights leaders. However, Kennedy was unwilling to move on such a controversial subject, fearing the loss of the South, traditionally a Democratic bastion. Furthermore both his Vice Presidents, Johnson and Smathers, firmly opposed greater civil rights.

Kennedy entered 1968 with a somewhat deflated sense of accomplishment - the Republican-dominated Senate had stifled much of his second-term agenda. As the Democratic party chose its new nominee, Kennedy wisely remained on the sidelines. Only in the last few months of his office did Americans see the "old Kennedy", the charming, liberal icon the country had grown to love. Kennedy finished his term as popular as he was when he started it, but in his own words "left many things incomplete."

Editor's note: McCormack is still Speaker, even in this timeline, due mostly to his dominance in Democratic politics and close association with Sam Rayburn. The Republican takeover is not a given - however, due to the economic situation America would undoubtedly have faced during the 1960s, we can assume some opposition to Kennedy's policies would have manifested itself.

Robert Kennedy's election to the New York Governorship occurs earlier than it did in OTL, when he had to wait until 1974. His brother's coattails would have undoubtedly helped him into that position earlier.

Kennedy's lack of action on civil rights also mirrors Nixon's in OTL. Particularly with Smathers as VP, Kennedy would have been just as resistant to change as Nixon, though possibly he would have personally spoken against segregation. Indeed, Senator Kennedy in OTL eventually became a champion of the civil rights movement, but this would probably not have occurred as President, since he had the South to worry about.

1968 election

As Kennedy faced the last year of his Presidency, the Democratic and Republican contenders lined up to succeed him. On the Democratic side, Vice President George Smathers became the front-runner. His predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, also declared himself a candidate. Other notable Democrats who sought the Presidency included Senator Eugene McCarthy and Senator Hubert Humphrey, who, like Johnson, had also sought the Presidency eight years before.

Meanwhile, Nixon having ruled himself out for a third tilt, the Republican Party almost unanimously rallied around Nixon's 1964 running mate, Nelson Rockefeller, whom Robert Kennedy had unseated as Governor of New York two years before. Rockefeller, from the party's liberal wing, was seen as the perfect man to lead America out of the Kennedy era without totally undoing the work the popular "JFK" had done. Rockefeller swept the primaries and emerged as the Republican nominee long before the Democrats decided on their own candidate.

Eventually, the Democrats ended up with a deadlocked convention. Smathers clearly had the most delegates, but McCarthy had almost as many and Johnson, though trailing the others, was clearly still a contender. As the convention went into a second day, the single issue most dividing Democrats - civil rights for Negroes, became evident. Those in favour of the status quo coalesced around Smathers, while those in favour of change and desegregation favoured McCarthy. Johnson's candidacy having collapsed, he was expected to endorse Smathers, but, in an unexpected move, instead endorsed McCarthy and, in a famous speech to the convention, championed civil rights.

The move was enough to swing the convention to nominate McCarthy for President. In a show of unity to the party's pro-segregationist wing, McCarthy nominated George Wallace, the former Governor of Alabama and avowed segregationist, as his Vice Presidential nominee.

The campaign was fought largely on the civil rights issue, but also on economic concerns and how to lift America out of the recession it was experiencing. Rockefeller emerged as the candidate seen as best for the economy, while McCarthy, though championed by the civil rights leaders like King, floundered as support for segregation across the South suggested a low turnout in traditional Democratic states, despite Wallace's presence on the ticket. In the end, Rockefeller won a substantial victory and on January 20, 1969, was sworn in as the 36th President. Rockefeller's Vice President was Barry Goldwater.

Editor's note: The Democratic candidates here are pretty much the same ones as in OTL, with the obvious exception of Smathers. At the real 1968 convention, the issue dividing Democrats was foreign policy, not segregation, but since the Cuban Incident never took place in this timeline, a different division would have undoubtedly emerged. Of course, in OTL the Democrats already had a candidate in the form of President George McGovern - it was his foreign policy views - chiefly an end to the Cold War - that caused the Democratic Party to split. The split in OTL didn't lead to McGovern's disendorsement, but a split along segregationist grounds could have proved very difficult for the party to repair.

Johnson's "conversion" to the civil rights cause is actually based on fact - though he usually voted against any civil rights laws in Congress, Johnson, in his 1970 memoirs, records that he was in favour of civil rights but felt that he best represented the views of Texans by voting against them. It also bears mentioning that, since the McGovern Presidency never happened, the civil rights movement took a lot longer to come to full fruition in this timeline. Of course, even in OTL, McGovern didn't institute full-scale civil rights legislation, so even here the segregation issue was a contentious one.

For the Republicans, in this timeline as in ours, Rockefeller was simply last man standing. In OTL, Henry Cabot Lodge, Nixon's VP, was the only obstacle in Rockefeller's way. Since Nixon was never president in this timeline, Lodge would have been no impediment to Rockefeller's rise. Even in our timeline, Lodge was totally unable to disconnect himself from the failings of the Nixon administration and Rockefeller simply buried him in debates.

Rockefeller's margin of victory over McCarthy would probably have been similar in this timeline than his victory over McGovern was in OTL. Rockefeller's doctrine of dialogue with the USSR effectively neutralised foreign policy as an issue, allowing the election to be about domestic policy and economic issues. As this is what our 'alternate' 1968 election is fought around anyway, we can only assume Rockefeller would have been the victor.

Goldwater is a logical VP choice for Rockefeller. The Arizona Senator was an anti-communist activist who would have nicely balanced the ticket. Choosing Goldwater might have been controversial in some circles, however.

Negro rights movement

Meanwhile, in Europe...

1976 election

Islamic revolution in Iraq


Soviet reforms



List of presidents

John F. Kennedy (Democrat), 1961-1969

Nelson Rockefeller (Republican), 1969-1977

Ronald Reagan (Republican), 1977-1985

Gary Hart (Democrat), 1985-1987 [Resigned]

Walter Mondale (Democrat), 1987-1989

Jack Kemp (Republican), 1989-1993

Jerry Brown (Democrat), 1993-2001

John McCain (Republican), 2001-2009

Barack Obama (Democrat), 2009-present

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