During the 1960s, new international difficulties arose, this time in the American hemisphere itself and indeed in the immediate vicinity of the United States. On the island of Cuba, where a revolution led by Fidel Castro had overthrown the reactionary dictatorship of F. Batista, the new government advanced very radical resolutions to face the serious economic and social conditions of the country, combined with violent hostility towards the USA accused by Castro of enslaving Latin America to the interests of North American capitalism. Harsh confiscation measures thus affected the huge American real estate or commercial properties existing on the island, while the Castro flaunted his will to lean on the USSR against the USA.
Massive problems also created Africa’s rapid emancipation from European colonial rule. The bloody troubles in the ex-Belgian Congo were added to the guerrilla warfare raging for years in Algeria against the French (see Congo, in this App.). This offered the USSR the possibility of new initiatives, aimed at putting the USA and their allies in difficulty, while the international weight of the Afro-Asian countries grew. Particularly important, in the climate of the Congolese crisis, took a UN assembly, in September-October 1960, with the personal intervention of Khrushchev and a number of statesmen from every country of the world, in which the USSR manifested its will to achieve a reform of the UN itself, in a sense more favorable to its interests, as well as to attract the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. On the whole, the Soviet initiative did not reach decisive results, but it did increase the difficulties and concerns of the United States.
This international climate greatly influenced the presidential elections of November 1960. An innovative body had already emerged in the Republican party, personified by the governor of the state of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, of ancient and very rich family, but of “liberal” ideas. However, he refrained from competing for the candidacy, which therefore fell to Vice President Nixon, supported by Eisenhower himself. There was, however, an effort by the Nixon to win over the “liberals,” showing willingness to accept many of the Rockefeller views. Overall, however, his campaign insisted on the need to continue the previous policy, facing the USSR mainly on the ground of military power; also exalted the prestige and well-being achieved by the United States.
The Democratic candidate was Senator John F. Kennedy, a “liberal” exponent and supported by a group of progressive intellectuals, airy the one who had once joined Roosevelt. Instead, a moderate member of the conservative Southern Democrats, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, was running for vice president. Kennedy vigorously advocated the need for a political change, asserting that the international prestige of the USA was in decline and that the country needed to prepare for a period of sacrifice and hardship to regain lost ground. He also declared that the USSR had to be faced on the economic-social ground, rather than on the purely military one, by means of a gigantic world offensive against misery, also hoping that the USA, while not deflecting from defensive measures, seized every opportunity for negotiations aimed at procuring a stable peace for the world and ending the “cold war”. In domestic politics, where the problem of unemployment was already becoming serious, he advocated a daring program of social reforms in favor of the less well-off, as well as federal intervention in the school field.
The political alternative thus presented to the electorate was underlined by the fact that both candidates were relatively young and of recent political notoriety. There was therefore no personal factor comparable to the immense prestige with which Eisenhower had dominated the previous elections. However, a personal factor appeared during the campaign, being the Kennedy Catholic, while there had never been a president of the USA belonging to the Catholic minority rather than the Protestant majority.
Kennedy had already shown himself opposed to granting subsidies to Catholic schools or to sending an ambassador to the Holy See. He also energetically affirmed his independence from sectarian pressures and his decision to maintain the separation between church and state, sanctioned by the constitution. Finally, while the Catholic hierarchy remained neutral between the two candidates, authoritative Protestant leaders condemned any discrimination against the Kennedy for sectarian reasons and openly supported him. However, the problem was largely raised against the democratic candidate, especially to break the compactness of the South, the traditional stronghold of both the Democratic Party and the more conservative Protestants. On the other hand, this led, in reaction, to the strong Catholic electorate of East to take sides for the co-religionist. The campaign had highly dramatic moments and the outcome remained uncertain until the end: there was also the highest turnout ever in America. Eventually the Kennedy won with 338 electoral votes, against 191 to his opponent. In addition to the South, which generally remained loyal to the Democrats, the first were the large industrial centers with strong masses of workers and considerable numbers of Catholics, Jews or Negroes. The Middle West and the north-central rural areas with the exception of Illinois voted second. The hard resistance encountered by the Kennedy was also revealed in the slightest gap with which the Nixon was defeated in the popular vote on a national scale (33,593,374 against 33,304,645).
The Democrats also confirmed their majority in the chambers: thus ended the paradoxical situation that existed during the presidency of Eisenhower, in which the president was faced by a parliamentary majority belonging to the opposite party. Furthermore, in the elections for the Senate, the House of Representatives and the various posts of governor, there was a significant rise of the “liberals” not only within the Democratic party, but also in the Republican one.