A new wave of civil rights activism during the year 1960 indicated that social activist movements would be more aggressive during the Sixties than they had been during the previous decade. A sit-in at a lunch counter by four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina gained national attention, & the nonviolent protest tactic spread around the country in the months that followed, successfully pushing many private businesses to desegregate their facilities. Many African-American groups rallied around the idea that non-violent civil disobedience was the future of the movement, although there were some dissenting voices. The presidential election of '60 pitted Vice-President Richard Nixon against the young upstart Senator John F. Kennedy. In order to win the Democratic nomination, Kennedy made certain to address & mitigate concerns that his Catholic faith would have an undue influence on his conduct in office. JFK's energy & charisma helped him outshine Nixon in one of the first televised presidential debates in US history. The November election proved extremely close, but Kennedy prevailed by a narrow margin in the popular vote & a broader margin in the Electoral College. Nixon showed restraint by accepting JFK's victory, despite reports of suspicious voting irregularities in Chicago. The FDA approved a birth control pill for the first time. Although its adoption was gradual, this development opened the door for major changes in American gender relations & sexual norms. We conclude by pointing out that there was much continuity between the late 50s & early 60s, but developing societal trends had already opened the door for the big changes soon to come.Support the show
From Boomers to Millennials is a modern US history podcast, providing a fresh look at the historic events that shaped current generations of Americans, from the mid-1940s to the present day. Welcome to the second of two episodes about the year 1960, a/k/a Episode 16, “New Trajectories for American Politics & Society.” In Part I, we examined international relations & defense policies. Here in Part II, we will consider domestic political & social developments, including a new phase in the struggle for African-American civil rights. The most famous aspects of the civil rights movement freed African Americans from oppression by state & local governments, such as the discrimination that kept most Southern blacks from voting & the policies that banned them from using the same public facilities as white people. However, prohibiting discriminatory behavior by government officials alone was not enough to make life equal for black people in the South. A major part of the Jim Crow system was the common practice of private businesses refusing to serve non-white customers. African Americans even encountered these slights sometimes in the North, where government discrimination was mostly absent, but private discrimination was fairly common & perfectly legal. Being denied service by many businesses created tremendous difficulties for non-white travelers, who might be unable to find a restaurant that would serve them food & a hotel that would give them a roof over their heads for a good night’s sleep. This problem forced many black travelers to carry a travel guide called the “Green Book” that identified the businesses willing to serve African Americans. In 1960, a new wave of civil rights sit-ins hoped to eliminate the regular indignity black people faced at the hands of those businesses that valued having an exclusive environment over the principle of serving customers of all races. This topic is still one of the aspects of the civil rights agenda that is surprisingly controversial even today; for example, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky critiqued the component of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that applies to private businesses just 10 years ago.
After historic gains for the civil rights movement via the Brown v. Board desegregation decision by the Supreme Court in 1954 & the successful integration efforts of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, racial progress seemed to have stalled by the end of the Fifties. But a novel tactic soon brought a fresh burst of energy to the civil rights cause at the start of a new decade. It all started when four African American students at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro spent several months having regular dorm-room discussions about the unfair treatment that black people received in the American South. These young men, named David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., & Joe McNeil, were fast friends & allies who are now remembered by history as the “Greensboro Four.” After extensive consideration & planning, they resolved to do a sit-in at a segregated local department store in order to challenge the racial status quo. Historian James T. Patterson contends that the Greensboro Four got the idea of doing a “sit-in” from writings circulated by the Congress of Racial Equality (or CORE), which was a civil rights organization founded in Chicago during 1942. CORE followed the teachings & example of Mahatma Gandhi, the famous Indian independence & peace activist. The organization experimented with a variety of nonviolent resistance tactics during the late 40s, including sit-ins, where CORE members sat down in the opposite section of a segregated facility from the one assigned to their race. However, at that time they had limited success & the tactic was not widely adopted. According to history professor Raymond Arsenault, a harsh McCarthyite political climate coincided with financial difficulties to cause the CORE organization serious problems during the Fifties, but it managed to survive into a more promising era for social activism. Arsenault notes that CORE was excited to see Martin Luther King & other leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (see Episode 11) successfully use the types of nonviolent tactics that they had long espoused. CORE then began propagandizing its methods & mobilizing its own aggressive campaign of civil rights protest, which would soon make national headlines as the CORE-sponsored Freedom Rides shook up the South during 1961. But that’s a story for our next episode. First, let’s return to the four college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, as they set out to use CORE’s tactics to spark a civil rights renaissance in the Upper South.
The Greensboro branch of the Woolworth’s department store chain had a “lunch counter” (basically, a sit-down diner) that officially served only white patrons. On February 1st, 1960, the Greensboro Four entered the Woolworth’s, & each man purchased a small item in order to prove that he was a legitimate paying customer. The Four then sat down at the lunch counter & asked to be served in the same manner as the white customers. A white waitress reminded them that the lunch counter did not serve (quote-unquote) “colored people,” but the students refused to move. According to Patterson, a black dishwasher emerged from the kitchen & told the men that they were being (quote) “stupid troublemakers” who were just going to wind up stirring up anger against black people. Nevertheless, the students once again refused to move. A police officer stopped by and tried to intimidate & provoke the young men. They refused to react, but they also still refused to move. It was a standoff, and they remained in place without being served until the store closed down for the day, when they finally left & headed back to campus. On the walk home, they all vowed that they would return to Woolworth’s to sit in again the very next day.
The four soon learned that news of their courageous demonstration had spread around town; back at North Carolina A&T, they received an enthusiastic welcome from their fellow students, who praised them for taking a stand against Jim Crow by taking a seat at the lunch counter. Some fellow students volunteered to join them at the sit-in the next day; on February 2nd, the original Greensboro Four were joined by 20 other protesters. In subsequent days, the ranks of black protesters grew, & some pro-segregation counter-protesters began showing up as well. All this made for a tense environment, & regular shoppers began to avoid the downtown Woolworth’s, much to the frustration of store management. As the sit-in continued for weeks, some white students from nearby colleges began joining the black students in the daily protest. According to historian Raymond Arsenault, the local Greensboro chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (or NAACP) worked to support the sit-in. However, the cautious national leadership of the NAACP refused to endorse the demonstration, fearing that sit-ins were too disruptive & that they might cause white business owners to rally against the civil rights movement. On the other hand, more aggressive anti-racist organizations like CORE promoted & encouraged the Greensboro sit-in, & also worked to organize protests picketing other Woolworth’s locations in solidarity.
Indeed, positive press for the students’ nonviolent protest tactics soon motivated copycat sit-ins to occur outside of Greensboro. According to James T. Patterson, (quote) “black students were starting to sit in at lunch counters elsewhere in the state. Within a week, the movement had spread across the border to . . . Virginia & . . . South Carolina. A week [after that], 54 sit-ins were under way in 15 cities in 9 states [across] the South.” The civil rights movement was now spreading like wildfire. Patterson observes that (quote) “black resentments, which had somehow failed to ignite . . . between 1957 & 1959, had exploded” in early 1960 (close quote). Historians James Henretta, David Brody, & Lynn Dumenil report that (quote) “By the end of the year, about 50,000 people had participated in sit-ins or other [civil rights] demonstrations [eventually leading] lunch counters [to] be desegregated in 126 cities throughout the South” (close quote). Patterson reports that sit-ins also took place even outside of the former Confederacy during the year 1960; there were protests at racially discriminatory businesses in the states of Illinois, Ohio, & Nevada. The demonstrations started with lunch counters, but expanded out to challenge any segregated facilities; Patterson writes that sit-in demonstrations (quote) “challenged segregation at . . . parks, pools, beaches, restaurants, churches, libraries, transportation facilities, museums, & art galleries” (close quote).
The Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in that started it all continued for months. Finally, in July 1960, the local Woolworth’s management gave in to the protesters & agreed to integrate the lunch counter. Patterson recounts that the store had already (quote) “lost an estimated $200,000 [dollars] in business [due to the disruption from the sit-ins], or [about] 20% of anticipated sales” (close quote). Ultimately, the desire for peaceful & profitable commerce overcame prejudice in Greensboro. Although there was considerable tension & intimidation of protesters, there were relatively few arrests or acts of vigilante violence directed at the participants in this original sit-in. Greensboro, as a relatively large & modern city in the Upper South, was more moderate in its approach to racial separation than some other places in Dixie. At sit-ins in other communities, civil rights protesters sometimes had ketchup poured on them in an attempt to get them to leave their seats. Such attacks were only a preview of the brutality that would occur when civil rights activists tried to crack Jim Crow in the Deep South, as we will see in our next episode. Yet even sit-ins in the Upper South & in the North were sometimes broken up by local police. Patterson recalls that stores sometimes (quote) “summoned police to arrest demonstrators at sit-ins on charges such as trespassing or disturbing the peace. Some 3,000 protestors went to jail in 1960” (close quote). Many activists served only short sentences or were released on bail, but while in custody, civil rights protesters often faced unsympathetic or even rough treatment from cops, guards, & inmates. However, the success of many of the sit-ins at desegregating businesses made the hardship seem worthwhile for many protesters. The surviving members of the Greensboro Four to this day express pride in their work as civil rights pioneers, & North Carolina A&T erected a statue in their honor on the college’s campus in 2002.
Patterson argues that (quote) “The sit-ins of 1960 arose, as did the civil rights movement [actions] in later years, from the collective efforts of unsung local activists; they sprang from the bottom-up” rather than being orchestrated by forces at the top of society. The quest for equal rights for African Americans brought together a diverse coalition of advocacy groups. The NAACP was the venerable old establishment of the civil rights movement, which tended to be rather cautious & legalistic; its attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall, preferred to fight battles in the courts rather than in the streets. The aforementioned CORE organization was a more militant Northern-based & secular group that focused its efforts upon coordinating multiracial civil rights protests across the nation. On the other hand, Martin Luther King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (or SCLC) founded in 1957, was dominated by Southern black clergymen, but it also generally supported the sit-in movement. SCLC was usually moderate in its rhetoric, but it favored direct grassroots action. Finally, just to add to this confusing alphabet soup of civil rights organizations, in 1960 the sit-in movement inspired the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (or SNCC), which was an energetic youthful wing of the civil rights crusade, one that would become more radical than other groups by the late 60s, when it turned toward a Black Power ideology.
It’s also important to note that, even during the 1950s, there were some African Americans who rejected a strictly non-violent resistance strategy. One of these, Robert F. Williams, headed up a local NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina. When black leaders in his community heard about a coming threat from local Ku Klux Klan members during 1957, they armed themselves & exchanged gunfire with the Klan in a skirmish that ended without any major casualties on either side. Williams then wrote a book in 1962 arguing for armed self-defense among black people. Meanwhile in the North, a black convert to Islam who had been born as Malcolm Little, but who now called himself Malcolm X, was beginning to draw attention with his militant separatist message that encouraged black people to seek independence from whites rather than attempting to integrate with them. These divisions within the early civil rights movement capture the fact that it was not a monolithic effort; it contained multitudes of factions that agreed that African-Americans needed more rights, but they often disagreed over what strategies, tactics, & priorities would best achieve their goals.
The increasing demands of the civil rights movement was only one of the many pressing issues that would need to be addressed by the winner of the 1960 US Presidential election. The year’s contest would prove to be among the most competitive & dramatic presidential races in modern US history. Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy of Massachusetts (also known as “JFK”) soon became the leading candidate for the Democratic Party nomination. A full origin story of the Kennedy political dynasty that documents the quirks & characteristics of its members, will have to be saved for a future supplemental episode. In this program, we will provide a brief overview of JFK’s background. The textbook Liberty, Equality, Power notes that (quote) “A wealthy, politically ambitious father had groomed John F. Kennedy for the White House” (close quote). The handsome & wealthy JFK also had the good fortune to attend college at Harvard University, arguably the most elite institution of higher education in the country at the time. Soon after his graduation, the Pearl Harbor attacks brought the USA into World War II, & Kennedy served in the US Navy on a Patrol Torpedo (or PT) Boat in the Pacific. During the war, JFK endured grave dangers, helped to rescue fellow officers, & won military honors. He returned home from war as a decorated veteran determined to start a political career, & with the help of his powerful & influential family, he was elected to the US House of Representatives in the late 1940s. He then captured a Massachusetts US Senate seat in 1952. JFK narrowly fell short in a bid to be the vice-presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket in 1956, & by the end of the Fifties, the Kennedys had hatched plans to get John to the top of the ticket.
According to Henretta, Brody, & Dumenil (quote) “Ambitious & hard-driven, Kennedy launched his campaign in 1960 with a platform calling for . . . health care for the elderly, aid to education, urban renewal, expanded military & space programs, and containment of Communism abroad” (close quote). While Senator John F. Kennedy lacked many major legislative accomplishments, he had plenty of energy, charm, & charisma. Patterson suggests that (quote) “Intellectuals & journalists responded favorably to his dry wit, irreverence, & cool, detached intelligence” & he argues that (quote) Kennedy “was the most charismatic American politician of the . . . era, especially to women & younger people” (close quote). Historian John M. Murrin & his co-authors point out that Kennedy’s (quote) “1953 marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier added a special dash of glamour. A favorite of the media, ‘Jackie’ won plaudits for her good taste, stylish dress, & fluency in several languages” (close quote). John Kennedy (whose nickname was Jack) was 43 years old at the time of his presidential run (& looked still more youthful), making him potentially the youngest man to serve as president since Teddy Roosevelt took office in 1901. Our listeners who are Gen-X or older Millennials born during the 1980s can perhaps take some comfort in knowing that, in a field like politics, you can be in your 40s & still be considered “young.”
However, probably the biggest novelty involved with JFK’s candidacy was not his age, but his religious background. The Kennedys were Roman Catholics descended from Irish immigrants, while every previous President in US history had at least nominal Protestant religious heritage. The most controversial denomination to previously be represented in the White House was Unitarianism, a creed adhered to by President William Howard Taft, but that tradition was an unorthodox denomination that at least evolved out of American Protestantism. Having a Catholic president was a much more controversial matter. The USA had mainly been founded & populated (until the late 19th Century) by staunch Protestants from Northern European countries such as England, Scotland, the Netherlands, & Germany. For centuries, Catholics & Protestants had been religious arch-rivals, battling for the soul of Christian Europe. In the United States, the Protestants had always been the predominant faction. Despite the arrival by the 20th Century of many millions of Catholic immigrants (primarily from Ireland, Italy, & Eastern Europe), a majority of Americans showed voting preferences that kept non-Protestants from reaching the highest levels of national power.
The origins of the Protestant-Catholic split during the European Reformation & the theological differences between these religious groups are both beyond the scope of our podcast. Suffice it to say that Catholics & Protestants historically often viewed each other as practicing an inferior or even heretical version of Christianity. In the US, suspicion of Catholics emerged in part out of a notion that the Vatican was hostile to democratic government. Most Catholic countries were monarchies up until at least the late 19th Century, and some Popes (such as Pius IX) had indeed expressed opposition to religious freedom & liberal democracy. However, contrary to what numerous paranoid Protestants believed, in general American Catholics did not blindly follow every single dictate from the Pope. The vast majority of Catholics in the USA came to believe in democracy, but that wasn’t enough to stop the bigotry they often encountered. The fact that many of the first Catholic immigrants to the US were impoverished Irish who worked in low-skill, low-status occupations had also contributed to the traditional disdain that many American Protestants had for them. Before 1960, only one Catholic had been a major party’s presidential nominee in American history; that man was New York Governor Al Smith, who in 1928 captured the Democratic Party nomination for the US presidency, but he was then soundly defeated by Republican Herbert Hoover in the general election. Some rural southern Protestants in the Democratic Party coalition had expressed hostility to Al Smith’s candidacy at that time, & his religion certainly cost him votes, which opened up the question of whether a Catholic could ever win the White House.
The religious issue presented a major obstacle that John F. Kennedy would need to get past, but he was confident that he had the political skill to do so. The authors of Liberty Equality Power argue that JFK’s decision to get his campaign off to an early start, (quote) “along with [utilization of] a talented staff & his family’s vast wealth, helped Kennedy overwhelm his [main] Democratic challengers,” namely Senators Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota & Lyndon Johnson of Texas (close quote). Kennedy also benefitted from the fact that, (quote) “Despite chronic . . . health problems, which Kennedy’s staff effectively concealed, JFK projected the image of a vigorous, energetic leader” (close quote). We will discuss JFK’s health problems in an upcoming supplemental episode, but for now the important thing is that the folksy Senators Humphrey & Johnson simply could not compete with Kennedy’s ethos of youth, sophistication, & charisma. His background as a war hero helped Kennedy avoid being labelled as a pampered rich kid & earned him more credibility among blue-collar voters. Like many successful politicians, JFK also gained an edge by being willing to promise the American people perhaps more than he could plausibly deliver for them. He told voters that he would cut taxes to stimulate the economy, while simultaneously spending more money on both domestic programs & the military.
Kennedy ensured his nomination with his solid victory in the West Virginia Democratic Primary, where his main competition was the blue-collar liberal, Hubert Humphrey. Patterson writes that Humphrey came to resent the way that he was vastly outspent in that race by JFK; indeed, personal wealth could provide a candidate with an unearned advantage even back in the Sixties, when wealth was more evenly distributed in the USA than today. In any case, JFK’s campaign spending advantage was among the factors that allowed him to prove via his win in West Virginia that he could prevail in even one of the most Protestant states in the country. In some Northeastern & Midwestern states, Kennedy’s religion may have been more of an asset than a liability during the primaries, because there were many Irish Americans & other Catholic Democrats in those regions, who were excited about having a chance to vote for one of their own. Nevertheless, upon securing the party nomination, Kennedy erred on the side of caution with his selection of a running-mate. JFK decided at the Democratic Convention to choose one of his rivals in the primaries as his potential vice-president. Kennedy selected Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, in part because of his rural Southern Protestant background. JFK knew that his Catholicism was still a liability in some corners of the country, & Johnson’s presence on the ticket would help the Democrats win the key state of Texas & would reassure Democratic voters in other heavily Protestant states within the American South.
So, we have wrapped up the Democrats’ presidential primaries, but what about the Republican contest? James Henretta, David Brody, & Lynn Dumenil note that many GOP leaders would have loved to run the still widely-admired President Dwight D. Eisenhower for a third term, but Republicans had pushed through the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution establishing presidential term limits just 9 years prior (see Episode 6). That move had been motivated by conservatives’ anger over President Franklin D. Roosevelt breaking with American tradition by running for a third term as president. Now, it seemed the GOP had their own equivalent of FDR in Ike, an affable & broadly popular leader who appealed to the average American, but they had no choice but to put him out to pasture. Of course, even if Republicans could have nominated Eisenhower to run again, there’s a decent chance he would have declined, given his advancing age & his various health problems while president, including a recent heart attack (see Episode 10).
Perhaps one reason Ike might have been run again (were it not for the 22nd Amendment) was his pronounced lack of enthusiasm for the other major party candidates in the race, whom he seemed to think were unworthy to fill his presidential shoes. He dismissed Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy as a spoiled rich kid who was far too young & inexperienced to serve in the White House. Eisenhower also remained skeptical of the judgment & leadership skills of the favorite for the Republican nomination, his own Vice-President, Richard Milhous Nixon. According to Eisenhower biographer Jean Edward Smith, Ike slighted Nixon by declining to endorse any candidate prior to the 1960 GOP Convention, & then when he spoke at the convention (quote) “he devoted his entire speech to the accomplishments of the past 8 years & never once mentioned Nixon, although Nixon by that point was the only candidate in the race” (close quote).
Jean Edward Smith describes the relationship between Eisenhower & Nixon as “tepid,” & it didn’t get any warmer during the year 1960. Nevertheless, Nixon tried to tone down his naturally combative personality & imitate Ike’s upbeat, glad-handing campaigning style in hopes of replicating his success. James T. Patterson contends that (quote) “Nixon’s labored attempts in 1960 to project a more genial persona especially irritated detractors, who thought that he remained a phony” (close quote). On the other hand, (quote) “Fellow Republicans admired Nixon’s dogged tenacity & partisan spirit” (close quote), but Ike didn’t think much of Nixon’s campaigning. According to Smith, he worried that even the kinder, gentler version of Nixon was still coming across as (quote) “too partisan & was driving away [the] independents & conservative Democrats who had voted for [Eisenhower] in droves” (close quote). Ike also had personal reservations about the conservative Californian; he noticed that the Vice-President was a transparently power-hungry man, who seemed able to make strategic allies but who had very few real friends. Smith quotes Ike’s personal secretary, Ann Whitman, who was also distrustful of Nixon. She said: (quote) “The President is a man of integrity . . . He radiates this . . . & everybody loves and trusts him. But the Vice President seems like a man who is acting like a nice man rather than being one” (close quote). Obviously, Ann Whitman was biased toward Eisenhower, having spent years working with him. But if she sensed a certain ruthlessness & vindictiveness underneath Nixon’s cultivated cheerful façade, well, subsequent events would prove that she was not exactly wrong about that.
Indeed, when we first introduced Richard Nixon back in Episode 4, we discussed the ruthless red-baiting tactics he used at the beginning of his career in 1946 to defeat incumbent Congressman Jerry Voorhis. He then demonstrated his political skills by leading the successful Congressional investigation of alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss in 1948. Nixon then earned the nickname “Tricky Dick” by running a harshly negative, yet victorious, campaign for a California US Senate seat in 1950. After using his conservative credentials to get on the Republican ticket as Ike’s veep in 1952, he’d delivered a clever speech that deftly deflected accusations that he had taken improper political donations (see Episode 7). Nixon was by now justifiably confident in his own political abilities, & he wanted to get out from under Eisenhower’s shadow. The veep reciprocated the outgoing president’s lack of enthusiasm for his campaign by doing little to convince Eisenhower to become more involved; Nixon gave the cold shoulder to a chief executive who had never been much of a mentor for him. Smith claims that for the most part, the president’s (quote) “advice was not sought [by Nixon], & when offered [it] was rarely heeded” (close quote).
According to Smith, one piece of advice that Ike did share was that he thought it was a bad idea for Nixon to engage in the famous series of televised debates with Kennedy. Eisenhower believed the vice-president had a higher political profile than the young upstart from Massachusetts, & that sharing a stage with the lesser-known Kennedy would seem to put him on the same level with Nixon. Essentially, he worried that the TV debates would give JFK free exposure that could allow the American people to get more comfortable with the idea of voting for him. Smith writes that (quote) “Nixon rejected the advice on the grounds that he was a much better debater than Kennedy” (close quote). He ended up paying a heavy price for this intellectual arrogance. Historians Henretta, Brody, & Dumenil report that image & charisma may have played a more important role than arguments during the televised debates; (quote) “Nixon, far less photogenic than Kennedy, looked sallow & unshaven under the intense studio lights. Polls showed that . . . voters who listened to the 1st debate on the radio concluded that Nixon had won, but those who viewed it on television judged in Kennedy’s favor” (close quote). This famous moment in media history certainly was not the sole factor that allowed Kennedy to overtake Nixon in the presidential race, but every small contributing factor would prove important in what turned out to be an incredibly close election.
In order to maximize his national appeal, Nixon took a similar approach to Kennedy in selecting a running-mate. He also chose someone from the opposite wing of his party in order to ensure a balanced & unified ticket. The conservative Westerner picked former Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Junior, a patrician WASP from the Northeastern Moderate Republican faction, as the GOP vice-presidential nominee in 1960. This selection was designed to allay concerns that Nixon was to the Right of mainstream views in the mid-20th Century United States. Emphasizing his service in the Eisenhower Administration also helped Nixon position himself in the center. Despite Ike’s lack of involvement with his campaign, Nixon nevertheless tried to ride the political coattails of the popular President he had served. Henretta, Brody, & Dumenil note that Nixon (quote) “campaigned for an updated version of Eisenhower’s policies” (close quote). Meanwhile, according to Murrin & his co-authors, Kennedy argued that Ike’s fiscal policies had been too timid, so he (quote) “advocated tax cuts & deficit spending to stimulate the economy.” Kennedy also (quote) “criticized Eisenhower for failing to rid the [Western] hemisphere of [Fidel] Castro in Cuba & for allowing a ‘missile gap’ to [allegedly] develop in the arms race with the Soviet Union. By spending more on defense, Kennedy claimed, he would create a [so-called] ‘flexible response’ against communism, especially in the Third World” (close quote). Criticizing Eisenhower was risky, given that the ex-general was still widely viewed as an American hero. However, because of the growing unease in the country following the 1958 recession, the Cuban Revolution, & the U-2 incident, Kennedy felt it was safe to attack some of President Eisenhower’s policies, so long as he always demonstrated personal respect for the man & his many accomplishments.
The religion issue remained one of the biggest political obstacles for Kennedy. According to JFK biographer Robert Dallek, the Massachusetts Senator’s Catholic faith was a concern not only for conservative Protestant Americans, but also for some (quote) “progressive Democrats who regarded [the Church] as an authoritarian institution intolerant of ideas at odds with its teachings” (close quote). Patterson reports that JFK helped neutralize these concerns by giving an address at a gathering of Protestant clergy in Houston, Texas. In his speech, he declared that in the USA (quote) the “separation of church & state is absolute,” & he promised in no uncertain terms that he would not let Catholic church leaders tell him what to do as president. He also eventually won over the endorsement of President Truman, who had initially been uneasy with Kennedy’s Catholicism. This prejudice was perhaps a result of Truman’s small-town Baptist upbringing. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, still a trusted Truman adviser, helped to change the ex-president’s mind on the issue. According to Walter Isaacson & Evan Thomas, Acheson wrote the following to Truman: (quote) “Do you really care about Jack’s being a Catholic? I never have . . . Furthermore, I don’t think he’s a very good Catholic.” Indeed, although JFK attended Mass & was proud of his Irish Catholic heritage, he was not a deeply religious man. His wife Jackie once reportedly told a journalist (quote) “It’s so unfair of people to be against Jack because he’s Catholic. He’s such a poor Catholic” (close quote). It’s interesting to note that during the 20th Century, reporters seemed concerned that a presidential candidate’s religion would unduly interfere with his performance in office, but here in the 21st Century, candidates often seem to get more scrutiny for not being religious enough. For example, the current Catholic President here in 2021, Joe Biden, has been criticized by some Catholics & even by conservative Protestants because he has not slavishly followed the doctrines of the Vatican on issues like abortion. Meanwhile, virtually no one has accused Biden of being a puppet of the Pope.
One key inflection point of the race between Kennedy & Nixon occurred in October 1960, when Martin Luther King, Junior was sentenced to jail time. According to Robert Dallek, MLK was arrested at a sit-in at an Atlanta department store & then was (quote) “sentenced to a 4-month prison term at hard labor for violating his probation on a minor, trumped-up traffic violation . . . King was sent to a rural Georgia prison. His wife, who was 5 months pregnant, feared for his life,” (close quote). When this made national headlines, Vice-President Nixon failed to take action. Senator Kennedy had a mixed record on civil rights up to that point, & he was not known for discussing racial justice issues on the campaign trail, but in this key moment, JFK called Dr. King’s wife & offered support. Then his tenacious brother Bobby Kennedy (who was Jack’s campaign manager) interceded with the judge & managed to convince him to release Martin Luther King Junior. This rescue of the civil rights leader from legal peril helped to persuade MLK’s father (who was also a powerful & influential black pastor) to publicly endorse John F. Kennedy in the presidential race. In the mid-20th Century, Northern Blacks were a key political swing constituency; they had divided their votes fairly evenly between Eisenhower & Adlai Stevenson in 1956. The Kennedys’ assistance to Martin Luther King Junior, along with Martin Luther King Senior’s endorsement of JFK, helped the Democratic ticket make significant gains with black voters in the election of November 1960. However, historian Raymond Arsenault notes that the many African Americans who rallied to Kennedy’s cause were soon disappointed with the Massachusetts Democrat’s lack of interest in civil rights during the first year of his presidency.
The Nixon vs. Kennedy contest turned out to be a real nail-biter. Henretta, Brody, & Dumenil report that when all the votes were counted on Election Day, (quote) Kennedy “won only the narrowest of victories, receiving 49.7% of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.5% . . . [Under] 120,000 [popular] votes separated the 2 candidates & the shift of a few thousand votes in key states . . . would have reversed the outcome” (close quote). Kennedy narrowly won the White House by reuniting the New Deal coalition of Northern Blacks, Southern Whites, & so-called “white ethnic” voters (who were groups such as Irish Catholics, Poles, Jews, & Italians). The Nixon-Lodge ticket won a majority of Protestants & did well in the Far West (where Nixon’s home state of California was his top prize), the lower Midwest (where Ohio was his biggest win), & the Upper South (where Republicans won the traditionally Democratic state of Virginia). Meanwhile, JFK captured key heavily-populated states in the Northeast such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, & New York, & he also triumphed in important Midwestern locales such as Michigan, Missouri, & Minnesota. The Kennedy-Johnson ticket also dominated the Deep South, narrowly winning LBJ’s home state of Texas, & losing only Florida to Nixon. Neither major-party candidate won in Alabama & Mississippi; those states went rogue because their political leaders believed that both Kennedy & Nixon were too progressive on civil rights. They instead pledged their electoral votes to segregationist Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia, which was a troubling sign of things to come for Democratic Party liberals. Still, although Nixon won slightly more states than Kennedy overall, the Democrats won most of the big states that had large numbers of electoral votes, which proved to be decisive in 1960.
According to Henretta, Brody, & Dumenil, there were some confirmed cases of voting fraud in Illinois during 1960, which helped establish the legend that JFK stole the election. Richard Daley, the Irish-American mayor of Chicago, was a fervent Kennedy supporter who leaned on his powerful political machine to produce votes for the Democrat. JFK biographer Robert Dallek argues that (quote) “Daley’s machine probably stole Illinois from Nixon . . . but Jack would have won [the national election] even without Illinois” (close quote). A vast national conspiracy seeking to fraudulently elect Kennedy has never been established, & the widespread pop-cultural myth that JFK’s presidency was singlehandedly rigged into existence by the Mafia is unverifiable & is almost certainly wrong. Although the popular vote margin between Nixon & Kennedy was just 0.17%, smaller than even the razor-thin margin for the 2000 Election between George W. Bush & Al Gore, it is important to remember what Americans have learned over the past 25 years: it is the Electoral College alone that decides the outcomes of presidential contests. Kennedy won the Electoral Vote by a score of 303 to 219, so even if it could be proven that Richard Nixon would have won the 27 electoral votes from Illinois were it not for shenanigans by the Democratic machine in Chicago, JFK still would have defeated him in the Electoral College by a margin of 276 to 246 electoral votes.
According to Murrin & company, (quote) “Many Republicans urged Nixon to challenge Kennedy’s triumph in Illinois as fraudulent, but the Vice-President chose to accept the disputed result” (close quote). This concession was one of Nixon’s finest hours as a politician, a rare time when he seemingly put the national common good ahead of his own political self-interest. He congratulated JFK & recognized him as the president-elect, & he didn’t do anything crazy like, say, ask Nixon fans to storm the US Capitol & stop Kennedy’s inauguration. This was not because Nixon was someone who tended to let bygones be bygones without holding a grudge – he was quite bitter about his defeat in the 1960 election & he was always a man who nursed grudges. But Nixon understood the political & ideological climate in the US at mid-century, which in many ways was very different from the atmosphere of bitter partisanship that we live within today. Most American voters back then knew friends & neighbors who had voted for the opposite candidate from themselves, but that didn’t seem like any big deal, because both parties were diverse coalitions that weren’t all that far apart ideologically. Richard Nixon knew that an attempt to challenge the election results would likely fail, & that doing so would only make him appear to be a fanatical partisan & a sore loser. On the other hand, by behaving with graciousness & dignity, he correctly presumed that if he played his cards right in the upcoming years, he would get another chance at the White House.
Once JFK had secured victory, Patterson notes that (quote) “liberals . . . were pleased that Nixon had lost & that the voters had returned Democratic majorities to Capitol Hill: [with margins of] 65 to 35 in the Senate & 263 to 174 in the House” (close quote). The Democrats had picked up a limited number of new seats, but the tremendous gains that they had made in the 1958 midterm elections (see Episode 13) had remained intact. The big Democratic Party advantage in Congress can be a bit deceptive; it is important to remember that a significant minority of Democrats were conservative Southerners. Still, there were enough progressive-leaning Dems that they could plausibly partner with moderate-to-liberal Northeastern Republicans in order to pass reforms that had not been feasible for over a decade. Whether this alliance would succeed depended upon presidential leadership, & it was unclear how progressive the Kennedy-Johnson administration would be. Although JFK certainly was more left-liberal in his plans for domestic spending than Eisenhower & Nixon had been, he was considered more moderate than Hubert Humphrey & other leading lights of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Patterson argues that (quote) “Kennedy had run a pragmatic, centrist campaign in which he promised to wage the Cold War more vigorously than ever . . . There seemed little reason to anticipate that the political center would shift very much in the days to come” (close quote). Furthermore, it appeared that Kennedy’s main focus & interest in his first years as President was upon foreign policy challenges, not upon domestic reforms.
Immediately after his victory, JFK began putting together his foreign policy team. He wanted support from the previous generation of Cold Warriors within the Democratic Party, including the so-called “Wise Men,” that tight-knit group of patrician elites who had guided the Truman Administration. Kennedy held meetings with former Secretary of State Dean Acheson & he became especially close with former Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett. In their book about the Wise Men, Walter Isaacson & Evan Thomas recall that (quote) “John Kennedy . . . had more admiration for the cool toughness & unflinching pragmatism of Lovett & Acheson than he did for his more liberal advisers . . . whom he considered [overly] idealistic” (close quote). JFK tried to get Lovett to join his Cabinet, but the older man declined due to health problems. Lovett recommended that Kennedy select Dean Rusk of Georgia, who was a former protégé of George C. Marshall, as his Secretary of State. According to Isaacson & Thomas, (quote) “Kennedy & Lovett agreed that [Ike’s Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles had been given too much [decision-making] license by Eisenhower. Kennedy said that . . . he [truly] wanted to make foreign policy [for] himself . . . Then Rusk would be perfect, said Lovett. He was the ideal staff man [to serve as a second fiddle]” (close quote). JFK picked Rusk to helm the State Department, & (also upon Lovett’s advice) chose a brilliant statistician named Robert McNamara as his Secretary of Defense. McNamara had ably served in World War II & was currently President of the Ford Motor Company. Journalist David Halberstam famously dubbed Kennedy’s team as (quote) “the best & the brightest.” JFK attempted to staff his administration with tough-minded realists who had powerful intellects & considerable experience serving in America’s top institutions. Tragically, this talented group proved unable to keep the United States from entering into multiple international fiascos during the 1960s, above all the Vietnam War.
We cannot conclude our 1960 episodes without mentioning an important social development that received less media coverage than civil rights demonstrations & political races, but which nevertheless proved highly consequential. Historian James T. Patterson notes that, during the year 1960, the Food & Drug Administration gave its approval to (quote) “the sale by prescription of Enovid, the 1st oral contraceptive for women.” This drug became widely known as the “birth control pill,” and it “promised to save [women] from unwanted pregnancies” & it would serve as a “boon for sexual liberation in the United States” (close quote). Indeed, the widespread accessibility of the Pill eventually spurred new social changes that made the “sexual revolution” of the mid-to-late Sixties possible. Patterson reports that by the end of 1962, 2.3 million women were using the Pill. However, its adoption was gradual, and many local governments still had laws restricting birth control on the books. These would soon be invalidated by a 1965 ruling of the US Supreme Court in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut, which stated that anti-contraception laws violated the right of married couples to make their own private reproductive decisions. Still, the social norms emphasizing keeping unmarried young men & women separated until marriage were not going to change overnight. According to Patterson, (quote) “Many institutions tried hard to hold a line: all but a few universities maintained restrictive parietal rules [for student housing] until the late 60s. Their efforts suggested that parents still expected their children to conform to older norms of sexual behavior” (close quote). Patterson also suggests that the (quote) “baby boom did not slow until 1958, after which it declined only gradually through 1964” (close quote). Still, the Pill eventually had a revolutionary impact on women, providing them with much greater reproductive freedom of choice, which allowed them to set their life plans with less fear of an unexpected pregnancy.
This episode has primarily focused upon the seeds of change that would allow the Sixties to be fundamentally different from the Fifties, but I want to conclude this episode by emphasizing some elements of continuity between the late 50s & early 60s. Some historians identify a bloc of time that they label the (quote-unquote) “long 1950s,” which stretched from 1948 to 1962, from the start of the Cold War to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Indeed, the pace of change remained gradual through the Kennedy presidency, & then quickened dramatically in the period that followed in its aftermath. During the early Sixties, youth experimentation with illegal drugs was still relatively rare, rock music remained relatively tame, television was still in black-and-white, women still generally wore dresses in public & men usually wore collared shirts (& sometimes ties) even to baseball games. So, we will not reach the rise of the counterculture & other revolutionary social changes we commonly associate with “the Sixties” for a few more episodes. However, with the revitalization of the civil rights movement, the Democrats’ recapture of the White House, & the debut of the birth control pill, the United States has during 1960 adjusted its historical trajectory & is now fully on course to arrive at the upcoming chaotic era of youth revolt & urban unrest. We will finally reach that destination around 1965; thank you for joining us on that journey. Please remain seated with seatbelts fastened as we begin our descent into the Vietnam conflict & the antiwar movement. In our next episode, we will foreshadow one key element of late 60s political unrest: the backlash against aggressive US foreign policies in the Third World during the Cold War. JFK entered the presidency determined to establish himself on the world stage as a tough Cold Warrior, but during his first year in office he encountered many more international obstacles than expected. We will learn how Kennedy’s grand plans to defeat the Communists struggled to get off the ground in our next full-length episode, as we explore the year 1961.
The “From Boomers to Millennials” podcast is co-produced by Erin Rogers & Logan Rogers. Our show is written & narrated by Logan Rogers. If you have comments or suggestions about this episode, we would really like to hear from you. Please send us an e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Here at “From Boomers to Millennials,” we know that the real version of ‘the best & the brightest’ is our listeners, who (unlike Kennedy’s team) would never get anyone into a political quagmire or a land war in Asia. So, thanks once again for listening!