Alternate History

In this article from Volokh, a writer considers an alternate universe:

I think the no-third-term amendment was the stupidest thing the Republicans ever did, because the President is a lame duck from the day of his re-election. Moreover, had Ike run for a third term, he likely would have won. Having preached against the military-industrial complex, Ike was smart enough to keep us from getting enmeshed in Vietnam. With only nominal U.S. support, South Vietnam would have given up in 1967.

Staying in this alternate universe for a bit: Tension between Ike and Nixon would have meant a different VP candidate in 1960, who would have succeeded Ike in 64. Nixon would still have run for governor of California and lost to Pat Brown, causing him to pout and languish in obscurity. Ready for a change of party, the country would have elected the moderate Humphrey in 68 and again in 72. LBJ would be remembered for having led the Civil Rights revolution in the Senate, not for the war.

Alternate universes don’t have much to do with the gist of the entry, and usually aren’t very interesting, in fact, and are never, ever useful. But this one had me thinking down paths that I found surprisingly informative.

One thing to notice is that the political world we live in today was very much created in the ’70s by the actions (or lack thereof) of the Carter Administration. -the Shaw of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, embassy hostages, the election of Ronald Reagan and all that. Jimmy Carter was elected primarily because of one reason, and that, of course, is Watergate.

Watergate would not have happened if not for Nixon. That’s an article of faith. Although it was never an inevitable event, Watergate could not have happened without his persona. So although its possible to imagine our world being something like it actually turned out if, say, Vietnam had never happened, it seems pretty clear to me that you cannot say that about Watergate. Without that stupid, stupid event, we would not be concerned today with either Imams or nukes in Iran or the Iraq war or terrorists or Sept. 11 remembrances.

N.B. It sounds like I’m solely blaming the Carter Administration for Sept. 11 – I’m not. I blame Jimmy Carter for disco. It took a lot of separate steps and actions and even understandable mistakes (and evil) by many people to knock down the tallest skyscrapers in the country. But the ripples in the pond were last discerned to be diverted in 1978. After that, the tsunami was almost inevitable.

Back to the point, what if Ike had been allowed to run for a third term (or, almost identically, what if Nixon had been elected in 1960)? Then three or four major things change immediately: both Ike and Nixon would have handled The Bay of Pigs event far better than Kennedy in fact did. Almost anybody would have. Castro in Cuba allowed the Soviets to put their nuclear missiles there, so by 1962 the history of the cold war reads alot differently if Kennedy is not president. Although Kennedy did face down Nikita Khrushchev, he was ousted by a far more shrewd, if more predictable, Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev and the USSR played a large part in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

In 1961, history was leading, not to Vietnam (yet), but to the Kennedy assassination and the landslide election of LBJ. With either Ike or Nixon as president in 1961 it’s likely that the 1964 election would have pitted a very powerful Senate leader, LBJ, (or perhaps a somewhat stronger JFK) against Nixon or a popular Goldwater. Either way, the democrat would have won, most certainly. LBJ was destined to live only through that first term, and it seems very likely that his VP (again, probably Hubert Humphrey) would have been elected in 1968. In yet another alternate path, even if Nixon had been elected in 1960 *and* retained enough popularity to be reelected, then by 1968 the country would have been under a republican president for 16 years, and more than ready to change, if only out of political fatigue.

It does not matter if, in fact, Robert Kennedy had been elected in 1968 or even if Goldwater had been – the point is that Nixon would *not* have been president in the ’70s under any conceivable scenario, except the most unlikely (which was, paradoxically, exactly what happened – the combined effects of two assassinations, massive civil unrest, a badly orchestrated war and a rock concert held on a farm). Would Watergate have happened anyway, in the 60s? Maybe (or not – part of the problem was Nixon’s political arrogance, which was driven in part by his loss to Kennedy in 1960. We’re hypothesizing that that event didn’t happen). Even if it had, the impact of Watergate, which lead to the election of Jimmy Carter and the rise of radical Islam, would have been far, far different. Can’t say that things would have turned out better or worse, because we cannot know what the myriad alternatives would have meant for Vietnam, or for Apollo (the rise of the technology we live with now), or for immigration. We can only say that the world would have been different.

Oh – we can say that the music today would have been better…

The instructive part is that politics in 2007, dominated by war in the mid-east, was determined by the fall of Richard Nixon and the rise of Jimmy Carter. As important as the baby-boomers want the ’60s to be, no one event of that era, not even Vietnam, much affects our world today, except the election of JFK (and not Nixon) in 1960. Everything else has it’s effect in conjunction with everything else that happened, but never alone.

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