John P. Rossi

is emeritus professor of history at La Salle University

Amid all the stories about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it's interesting to consider what would have happened if Richard Nixon had been elected president in 1960.

The idea is not that farfetched. Kennedy's margin of victory was one of the narrowest in the popular vote in American history. The shift of a few thousand votes in a couple of states, Texas and Illinois in particular, would have thrown the election to Nixon. He was encouraged by his advisers to challenge the outcome but refused to do so.

A growing field in historical studies called "counterfactuals" tries to carefully consider what might have been. For instance, what if Robert E. Lee had won the battle of Gettysburg? History is rife with these tantalizing possibilities.

Applying the concept to the Kennedy-Nixon election yields some interesting "what ifs." How would a Nixon presidency have dealt with, for example, the Bay of Pigs, the erection of the Berlin Wall, or U.S. intervention in Vietnam?

Less than three months in office, Kennedy presided over a disastrous attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro's government by landing Cuban forces at the Bay of Pigs. He inherited the plan from the Eisenhower administration, but Kennedy modified it in a significant way. To shield American involvement, he withdrew U.S. air support for the invaders, which doomed any chance of success.

As Ike's vice president, Nixon knew of the original plan, and he was close to the military and CIA people who had developed it. There is a strong case to be made that he would have allowed U.S. air support. If that had occurred, the Cuban rebels might have toppled Castro.

One by-product of the Bay of Pigs was the decision of the Soviet Union, angered by the U.S. action, to move missiles into Cuba, which led to the missile crisis of October 1962, Kennedy's greatest challenge and diplomatic victory. A Nixon success at the Bay of Pigs would have rendered that Soviet action unlikely.

In the case of the Berlin Wall, both men were considered "realists" in diplomatic matters. However, the Bay of Pigs had convinced Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that Kennedy was weak and unsure of himself. A meeting with JFK in Vienna after the Bay of Pigs confirmed that view and led the Soviets to believe they could act with impunity in Berlin. The Soviets might have been cautious about such an action had a President Nixon been successful at the Bay of Pigs. One thing we can be sure of, though: If a wall had been erected, it is doubtful that Nixon, who was no great phrasemaker, would have offered a line as memorable as Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner."

Vietnam presents an interesting paradox. When Kennedy was elected president, there were about 800 U.S. "advisers" there. Kennedy, with his call for more "vigah," and for America to meet any challenge and any foe, had campaigned for a more aggressive foreign policy. During his three years in office, the number of advisers in Vietnam grew to 16,000. At the time of his assassination, the United States was considering whether to escalate further. We know what happened. Within two years, a half-million Americans were in South Vietnam, and the United States was trapped in a bloodbath we struggled to get out of. We don't know what Kennedy would have done - the evidence is inconclusive - but we know what his successor did.

Would Nixon have deepened involvement in Vietnam? It is possible, but a case can be made that he would have followed Eisenhower's lead - economic and military aid, but no American soldiers. Later, after being elected president in 1968, Nixon's approach in his dealings with the Soviet Union and China showed a solid grasp of diplomatic realities. It is possible, perhaps likely, that, in the early 1960s, he would have backed off from escalating our involvement in Vietnam and thus saved the nation from a wound that was difficult to heal.

"Counterfactual" history can never be conclusive, but it can provide an interesting way to view the past. By looking at the "what ifs," perhaps we can learn how to avoid similar blunders in the future.