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Nixon, JFK, and the American Century 

3 February 2023

6 mins

by Tomasz Cendrowski

American Presidential elections are a fascinating topic. Their scale, depth, intrigue and nuance can be overwhelming. I very much enjoyed Dr Matt Adams’ American Century module which I took during my second year at university. It is one of our department’s most popular modules, and rightly so. It teaches students about common themes in twentieth-century American history, but personally I found the 1960 Presidential Election to be particularly interesting.

Who were the candidates?

This significant election was fought between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy. Nixon and Kennedy shaped political discourse even before either became president (Kennedy in 1960, Nixon in 1968). As far as politicians go, Nixon and Kennedy were both giants of the twentieth century. Nixon had gained national fame in Congress due to his successful persecution of a Soviet spy Alger Hiss and in 1952 was chosen by Eisenhower as his running mate. Kennedy, known for his charm and affluence, had a successful Senate career and was a Pulitzer Prize winning author (for Profiles in Courage, 1957).His bid to join the Democratic presidential ticket in 1956 was unsuccessful, however he further learnt how to best handle and exploit media coverage.

In fact, Nixon and JFK were remarkably similar. Nixon was only four years older than Kennedy; both were Second World War Pacific front veterans; and both were elected to the House of Representatives in 1946. They served on the same House Committee, became close friends, and when Nixon campaigned to become a Senator in 1950 Kennedy sent him a sizeable monetary donation. This was a friendship that overcame party politics and between 1952 and 1960 Nixon and Kennedy consistently brushed shoulders as their respective offices in the Capitol faced one another in the hallway. 

Yet this friendship was not to last. Nixon and Kennedy secured their respective party’s presidential nomination in 1960; this was much easier for Nixon than Kennedy, whose nomination story is fascinating on its own. Quickly, their relationship became cold and formal and much more akin to a rivalry. Understandably, when the man opposite your office is also trying to become the President of the United States, social interaction becomes awkward. 

Analysing the result

It was a very close race; Kennedy received a 0.17 percent higher popular vote nationwide and in key states the margin was in the thousands of votes. Upon initial research, I got the impression that it was an election Nixon should not have lost; the past two Presidential elections had been Republican landslides. This was a fair if a very simplistic observation; for instance, other landslide victories like 1928 or 1964 were followed by a reversal in fortune for the incumbent party. There were many factors but two stand out in their contribution to Nixon’s loss. 

The most famous factor is the first presidential debate. Nixon appeared to have lost the debate due to his poor appearance owing to a lack of make-up, bad perspiration, and discomfort from a painful knee infection. It is fascinating if somewhat discouraging that such small factors can shape a voter’s view of who deserves to be president. Yet this showed how well JFK had learnt to adapt to the new media-dominated environment. Whilst Kennedy’s rich father Joseph influenced news coverage of his son, Kennedy was more than willing to play to the journalist’s need for headlines. The Kennedy family was a favourite of tabloids; Kennedy was portrayed as a devoted husband and his infidelity concealed. Despite Nixon having some media loyalists, notable journalists and editors in the country hoped for Nixon to lose and the Vice President was equally hostile in return.

Secondly, Kennedy turned his religion into an advantage. Kennedy overcame anti-Catholic prejudice by famously declaring that “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic” which allowed him to reap large proportions of both Catholic and Protestant votes. 

The lasting significance and legacy of the 1960 election

Arguably, the real importance of the 1960 election lies in its consequences. It cemented the existence of the JFK and “Camelot” mythology; a youthful outsider politician winning against a myriad of party dignitaries to then take America into the exciting new decade with energetic leadership, only to be struck down tragically by an assassin’s bullets. Due to this, JFK has become a martyr for various causes in America, as did other figures assassinated in the 60s; Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, or Kennedy’s brother Robert. 

But for Nixon the loss of the election and the assassination of his one-time close friend were tragedies also; JFK consulted Nixon on foreign policy matters during his presidency and a semblance of a partnership was restored. Upon hearing of Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon was in disbelief and immediately comforted Jackie Kennedy. Nixon could not help think if he had won the 1960 election, then he would have been assassinated instead. Simultaneously, the loss of the election in 1960 in such a close manner can be interpreted as the start of Nixon’s turn towards becoming a much more cynical and Machiavellian politician, a path eventually leading to the drama of Watergate and the only resignation of a president in American history. 

Surely, each election could be argued to be very significant. However, what the American Century module communicated very effectively and what was confirmed by my research was the watershed nature of the 1960 election which preceded the fissure of American society during the 1960s. It was a very close race between two ambitious politicians, but was not moralised as a battle between good and evil. During my ongoing dissertation research on Nixon’s second term in office, I can’t help but return in my thoughts to this moment in American history as a truly underestimated watershed.  


I will graduate from Loughborough University in 2023 with a Politics and History degree. I’ve always had a passion for history, starting with military history and European history, but more recently I have become very interested in modern American political history. In 2022, I organised a local charity event for refugees from Ukraine. I was born in Poland but have lived in England since 2014.

Recommended Further Readings

  • Dallek, Robert, John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life 1917-1963. London: Penguin Books, 2013.
  • Farrell, John A. Richard Nixon: The Life. London: Scribe, 2018.
  • Gellman, Irwin F. Campaign of the Century: Kennedy, Nixon, and the Election of 1960. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press 2021.
  • Hellmann, John. The Kennedy Obsession. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
  • Matthews, Christopher. Kennedy & Nixon. New York: Touchstone, 1996.
  • Nixon, Richard. RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. New York: Touchstone, 1990.
  • Thomas, Evan. Being Nixon: A Man Divided. New York: Random House, 2015.

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

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