17 thoughts on “The Kennedy-Nixon Debate”

  1. Hmmm. Would Nixon have continued Dyna-Soar and MOL? Wasn’t X-15 kinda starved for funding after Apollo started?

  2. That’s a separate issue. The question is whether the same historical circumstances that resulted in Kennedy making the decision to do a moon race would have resulted in Nixon doing so as well.

  3. Would Nixon have prevented those historical circumstances in the first place by not appearing weak at the very beginning?

  4. Those are interesting things to ponder, Big D. Would Nixon have provided air support during the Bay of Pigs invasion? Could the invasion have succeeded? If it had, the rush to the moon might not have happened. Likewise, the Cuban Missile Crisis might not have happened even if the invasion failed (and certainly wouldn’t have happened if it succeeded). The Soviets judged Kennedy to be weak so they tested him.

    Other imponderables include what might’ve happened in Southeast Asia. The US had advisors there under Eisenhower and Nixon almost certainly would’ve continued that. Would the US have radically expanded our presence there under Nixon like what happened under Johnson? We certainly would not have had that asswipe McNamara as SecDef which likely would’ve been a huge improvement.

  5. McNamara did a lot of things which were necessary at the time to rationalize the defense expenditures in military hardware. There were some failures in project risk mitigation but the truth is most of those options in merging systems turned out to be correct in the long run.

    As for the Vietnam war, the problem is the objectives were misguided, the strategy was unrealistic, and the rules of engagement were all wrong. The domino theory was also flawed. Not long after the US withdrew Vietnam, China invaded it. The fact is the Chinese did not want the Soviet Union in their backyard. If the US had managed to hold Vietnam, I doubt the Sino-Soviet split would have happened.

  6. The Soviets were committed to their space program long before Kennedy was elected. I suspect that, faced with Russians in orbit, Nixon would have put the U.S. into some sort of race to the moon. He might not have given a stirring speech that committed us to a landing by 1970, and I’m sure that Democrats in Congress would have been strident in condemning Nixon for “throwing money away in outer space instead of spending it here on Earth where Americans are living in poverty.”

    Hmmm … If Nixon had been elected in 1960, would Lee Harvey Oswald have assassinated him? How would the murder of a Republican president by a Soviet sympathizer have changed how the Sixties turned out? What would President Lodge have done? Would Goldwater have won the nomination and the election in 1964?

  7. Even if Nixon had responded with a moon race (not a sure thing), I’m not sure the Republicans could have pulled it off. Kennedy put James Webb, a Democrat, in charge of NASA. Webb realized that getting to the moon would take more than two presidential terms, and maybe more than two parties’ presidencies. It certainly would take longer than the Congress was allowed to obligate the country Constitutionally.

    So he set up NASA centers in traditional pork states, and counted on their Congressmen to deliver over the span of a decade. He set up a system that was designed to be as close to unkillable politically as any human could conceive.

    He built better than he knew, as evidenced by the fact that NASA survives despite the fact that most people want it dead.

    I’m not sure the Republicans of 1960 were that cunning.

  8. Hmmm … If Nixon had been elected in 1960, would Lee Harvey Oswald have assassinated him?

    Very unlikely. Kennedy visited Texas because the Democratic party was under some pressure and the Democratic governor and the Vice-President from Texas requested it. Oswald got his shot at Kennedy because Kennedy drove right past his place of employment. I can’t see Nixon making a trip to Texas.

  9. No Kennedy = no Johnson = no Southern High Technology Crescent. No JSC, Michoud, Stennis, or expansion at Marshall. HSF stays at Langley.

    No McNamara but also no Webb. X-20 but no MOL. Glennan probably stays on as Administrator for several years. Apollo was already under study so in all likelyhood it would have continued in its’ original form (circumlunar).

    Whether the Soviets would have tested Nixon as they tested Kennedy is something of a cipher, but they tested all new presidents. They did try to pull a fast one on Nixon in ’69 (involving establishing an SSBN base in Cienfuegos) but he pretty much cut it off at the knees.

    I’ve never been convinced Nixon would have run Bay of Pigs at all. I’m also fairly sure he wouldn’t have orderd the assassination of Diem or the building of ICBMs by the thousand.

    I’m also faily sure that he would not have been reelected in ’64. It’s hard for any party to hold on to the White House longer than three terms.

  10. “This story got me to thinking. If Nixon had won instead of Kennedy, would we still have done Apollo?”

    Nixon was not known as friend of the space program. In fact, as Apollo wound down he said that NASA would now “have to scratch like all the other chickens”. So if I had to guess, I’d say that Apollo would not have happened. Ultimately, I think Apollo actually happened for three reasons:

    * to beat the Russians in the Cold War,
    * as a monument to a slain president,
    * as an excuse to feed federal dollars to the aeronautics industry so that the companies would survive to do subsequent military projects.

  11. Actually, Nixon was in Texas the day Kennedy was shot.

    That being said, I suspect we still would have had (and won) a moon race, but the supremacy of civilian control would not have happened, so we would have seen what the Air Force could do with X-20 and MOL…

  12. Just as a reminder for all of you allo-historians, in this scenario Lyndon Johnson is still Senate Majority Leader and likely candidate for President in 1964. Johnson at this time was a big supporter of a large space program. Nixon knows this.

  13. “Only Nixon can go to China” … but would he have gone to Lyndon Baines Johnson? Would he have worked with Johnson to achieve the eventual goal for the good of the country, or against him to prevent LBJ from grabbing credit for the successful moon landing? (And to prevent Texas from getting all that tasty space pork.)

    I’d like to think he’d choose the first course … but I remember that Nixon’s name is on the Apollo 11 plaque.

  14. I suspect we still would have had (and won) a moon race, but the supremacy of civilian control would not have happened, so we would have seen what the Air Force could do with X-20 and MOL…

    And if Nixon had been assassinated by a left-winger (not necessarily by Oswald, there are a lot of wild cards in history) it seems plausible that the Sixties would have been a lot less liberal than they were in our history. Apollo might have been an Air Force program. And when we got to the moon, we would have claimed it.

  15. As for the Vietnam war, the problem is the objectives were misguided, the strategy was unrealistic, and the rules of engagement were all wrong. The domino theory was also flawed. Not long after the US withdrew Vietnam, China invaded it.

    LBJ was noted for saying the military couldn’t bomb an outhouse without his permission. They asked the military to come up with a list of the top 100 bombing targets in North Vietnam, and then started from the bottom instead of the top. This gave the North Vietnamese time to build up their air defenses. It was McNamara and his so-called Whiz Kids who put the emphasis on bean counting for military operations, but then they were too stupid to count the right beans. Instead of counting targets destroyed, they counted sorties. This led to abominations like sending 8 F-105s out carrying a single bomb each (due to a bomb shortage) instead of putting all of those bombs on 1 or 2 planes. The result was higher casualties and reduced combat effectiveness.

    South Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975. Within roughly a month, so did Laos and Cambodia. Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 and in response, China invaded Vietnam.

  16. Well, what we know now that we didn’t know then is:

    (1) Eisenhower was a lot more aggressive a Cold Warrior than was thought at the time, or was known publically for decades afterward, and the Soviets were afraid of him. I think it unlikely in the extreme they would have “tested” his Vice President the way they felt free to try to push the kid (Kennedy) around.

    (2) LBJ was a supremely canny legislator, but an absolute flop as a leader of men. In four short years he pissed away, in Obama fashion, unbelievable political advantages and public good will.

    (3) Apollo was overcompensation, and the Kennedys were the kings of overcompensation. It’s hard for me to see Apollo happening except with the Soviet test, the Kennedy overcompensation, and the Kennedy “Camelot” assasination tragicomedy — all points mentioned above already.

    So I agree with no Apollo and a space program carried out by the military, and I doubt there’d have been a man on the Moon yet, there being no real practical use for such a thing. But I bet there’d be a lot of orbital craft, of various sizes and shapes, and a lot of orbital experience.

    Further…I am not sure Nixon would not have been re-elected in 1964. The phenomenon of four terms of the same party was not unthinkable at the time, since plenty of people remembered Roosevelt and Truman. I don’t think LBJ could get elected on his own, without the Kennedy drama or the Northeast/Midwest machine.

    I can see someone in the restless younger generation of veterans, someone like Kennedy, successfully taking the Presidency for the Democrats in ’64 or ’68, arguing for beating swords into plowshares and letting the torch pass to a new generation. A Clinton kind of peace-dividend triangulator.

    I’m assuming here that the tax cuts would still have gone into effect, and generated a subtantial mid-decade boom, and that the ratholes of Vietnam and the “Great Society” would have been left unfilled with American wealth. That would have set up some “visionary” Democrats for the end of the 60s. Americans are not happy when they’re wealthy and free; whenever it happens they throw it petulantly away on some grandiose scheme for Heaven on Earth, proposed by a country-fair huxter directly descended from the the Wizard of Oz, and have to later claw back their heritage painfully.

  17. There was a rift between China and Russia and there is a belief that the Vietnam war may have been “unnecessary” and perhaps not only a failure of intelligence but also a a failure of imagination. But on the other hand, the common assertion that the Vietnam war was unnecessary may even be incorrect. Later in the war, Nixon and Kissinger did work on exploiting what they saw as the potential for differences between China and Russia to extricate the U.S. from Vietnam.

    As to all of this beating up on McNamara, what people forget or maybe never knew was that McNamara, as one of the Whiz Kids, was part of the strategy of how the Allies won WW-II. The Germany vs the British, Russian, and US allies was kind of like the Confederacy vs the Union. The Confederacy had all of the brilliant generals and humiliated their opponents in all of the early battles. The Union had the industrial and population base to grind down the Confederacy.

    Same sort of analogies apply to Germany vs Allies. And before someone gets started about how “it was the Soviet Russians who really won the war against Germany”, remember that American supply of especially trucks (amateurs talk strategy, professionals plan logisitics) that was crucial.

    Who were the Whiz Kids? These guys were the young-gun industrial planners who overwhelmed Germany with war production. You know the tired anecdote of the German manning an anti-tank gun. He ran out of shells, but the Americans did not run out of tanks.

    So these “so-called” Whiz Kids won WW-II, maybe not in the most elegant way, but won it in the way Lincoln prevailed over the Confederacy. As for Vietnam, the Whiz Kids (and a whole lot of other people) were “fighting the last war”, so in that sense they were dummies, but the manner in which they fought the last war, they were heroes, so how things played out in Vietnam is even more so a tragedy rather than the farce that many people so glibly claim.

    One more point on the Russia-China split. I always though that the “paranoid style” was characteristic of my ethnic forefathers of the Near East. I never knew China was “in the same boat.”

    It turns out that the Russian repression of the “Prague Spring” in 1968 was a major factor in China and Russia not getting along. As it turns out, China was a much more autocratic regime in those days than their Czech brothers-in-socialism with their “socialism with a human face.” But the way the Chinese saw it, it was a question of Russia saying “my way or the highway”, essentially being the bad bully of the Socialist world, and China saw what the Russians were doing as “sending a signal” to the Chinese, “lookout, Bud, we’re top dog around here and you do things strictly according to our way or not at all.”

    I got a taste of this in 1999 after the U.S. air war on Serbia following their Kosovo repression, where one of my teaching assistants, a man from China, turned to me and explained, in connection with the “accidental” bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, that the entire “Kosovo War” as waged by the U.S. was a warning to China to “stay away from Taiwan.” Holy cow! I had no idea that the Chinese had goofball conspiracy theories, just like Serbs!

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