Seemingly little decisions can have significant impact.
One of my favorite pastimes is to hypothesize the “what if’s” of history. In the hindsight of events, it is utterly fascinating how seemingly small, mundane decisions can have enormous historical ramifications. It often makes me wonder how my own life would be different today had I just done someone slightly differently years ago. One fateful, yet often overlooked, decision made by one of our former Presidents may very well have completely altered the course of American history over the last sixty plus years.
In the run up to the 1952 Presidential election, the spotlight shined on General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Having conquered the Nazi’s in World War II, he was a hero residing in the orbit of George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant — and both the Republican and Democrat Party wanted to claim him as their own. Eisenhower’s accession to the Oval Office was almost inevitable, and each party wanted to hitch their wagon to Ike’s momentum. It’s strange to think about in today’s purview, but Eisenhower was an unknown political force. Until 1952, which saw his name on the ballot, he had never voted in a presidential election. As a military man, he saw no room for politics. He truly embodied the notion of country over politics, living it out faithfully for the majority of his life. When the time came to choose which party he would be affiliated with, he punched his ticket with the Republican Party. It’s rare to witness someone of such stature, running for the highest office in the country, walk into the contest without party affiliation. With that being said, for the sake of this hypothetical adventure, what if we imagined a world where Eisenhower decided to run as a Democrat in 1952?
First and foremost, I am highly confident that Eisenhower would have run his campaign and governed in the same fashion he did as a Republican. His presidency would have likely remained largely a mirror image of our actual reality. However, the ripple effect it would have created is interesting to ponder. With Ike as a Democrat, there is no Richard Nixon Vice Presidency. This would have deprived Nixon of having the national platform to run for President in 1960, and in all likelihood would not have been elected in 1968. Sure, with his blind ambition he may have found a way to claw to the top, but it can be argued that serving as VP in a time of such stability and growth under Eisenhower is what gave him the credentials necessary to successfully run for higher office.
With no Nixon Presidency there is no Watergate. This scandal inflicted irreparable damage on the office of the President of the United States which has never been repaired. Since that moment in time, American’s have seen their faith in government, in general, wane. We remain skeptical of our leaders and our institutions to this day. It can be argued that this skepticism can be healthy for a nation, which to a degree, I agree with. But skepticism is different from a total lack of faith, which is what Watergate did to our society. The blow to patriotism, as we once knew it, was unquantifiable.
With Eisenhower as the standard bearer for the Democrat Party in the 1950’s, we would, again in all likelihood, not have seen a JFK presidency in 1960. The pendulum of American politics would have swung back to the Republican Party in 1960, as it did in our reality for the Democrats. Eisenhower always saw Kennedy as an unqualified, somewhat surface level politician who didn’t truly understand the depth of responsibility that came with being President. Sure, Kennedy could have still run for President, but would not have received Eisenhower’s endorsement. Instead, we very well could have seen a Lyndon Johnson party nominee. Who knows, JFK could have been his VP.
“Party was secondary to him, and maybe that’s a lesson we should all learn from thinking back to Eisenhower’s presidency.”
This raises the question: what would America look like without a President JFK? The Cold War could have remained cold, rather than heat up to the degree that it did. We have to remember, JFK was much more brash in his rhetoric toward the Soviet Union than Ike. While Eisenhower worked much more tactfully, Kennedy established a stark “us-versus-them” foreign policy approach to combat Moscow. This resulted in the disastrous Bay of Pigs mission in 1961, which then snowballed into the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. This brought us to the very brink of nuclear war, where just one small mistake could have meant disaster. The Cold War could have been much shorter, or at least involve less brinksmanship than it ultimately did.
While Eisenhower did put a few hundred military advisors into Vietnam, he was adamantly opposed to expanding the U.S. military footprint in that country. Again, JFK dramatically increased our involvement in that conflict. Without him as President, it’s possible we don’t see the build up and growth of hostilities in Vietnam, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans under the Johnson and Nixon administrations, as well as the widespread cultural upheaval at home. This is not to place the blame on Kennedy for Vietnam. He was also very concerned about the addition of “advisors” in Vietnam. It wasn’t until after his presidency that the full ramifications of these decisions were revealed.
Compounding on this idea of an Eisenhower presidency blocking a JFK presidency in 1960, comes the understanding that there is no assassination of a U.S. president in 1963. This national tragedy infused a level of cynicism and chaos into American culture that had previously been unknown. Without Kennedy’s horrific death, the culture wars we saw in the 1960’s is either diluted or it never happens. Also, Robert Kennedy doesn’t get gunned down in California in 1968, which further intensified the feeling that America was coming apart at the seams.
Finally, what would our political parties look like in 2018 if Eisenhower had run as a Democrat in 1952? With Ike as the leader of the Democrat party for eight years, we likely see a much less liberal, and much more moderate party. The liberalization of the left was probably inevitable, but it wouldn’t be as far left to the degree that it is today. On the flip side, this could have resulted in a much more radically right Republican party in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
All of this is purely speculative but fascinating to think about. At the time Eisenhower sat down to plan his 1952 campaign, he probably didn’t think about how his chosen political party could alter American history. And why would he? Party was secondary to him, and maybe that’s a lesson we should all learn from thinking back to Eisenhower’s presidency. Maybe the country and world would have been a much more stable place in the long term had Ike been a Democrat. But then again, maybe not. Maybe it would have been worse. Engaging in this game of “what if” can be insightful, or fun if nothing else. But it should remind us that history matters and so does our politics. Little things transpiring in our political universe today, which may seem trivial, could have ripples that touch multiple generations of Americans for years to come.
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