We celebrate another anniversary of the Kennedy-Nixon debates. The first of the debates was on this day in 1960. It was the first time that two presidential candidates had debated on TV, the new medium.
Kennedy won the 1960 election by 114,000 votes out of more than 70 million. It was close, very close!
According to news reports, Nixon won the audio and Kennedy won the video:
“According to the Museum of Broadcast History, radio listeners considered Nixon’s answers to questions to be more substantive and gave Nixon the advantage over Kennedy after the first debate. By contrast, television viewers gave Kennedy the edge, as their impressions were based on how the candidate looked as much as what he said.”
We did not have another debate until 1976, when Governor Carter challenged President Ford.
In the second debate (October 7, 1960), Cuba became a very hot topic:
“The reporters are: Paul Niven of CBS, Edward P. Morgan of ABC, Alvin Spivak of United Press International, and Harold R. Levy of Newsday. Now the first question is from Mr. Niven and is for Vice President Nixon.
MR. NIVEN: Mr. Vice President, Senator Kennedy said last night that the Administration must take responsibility for the loss of Cuba. Would you compare the validity of that statement with the validity of your own statements in previous campaigns that the Truman Administration was responsible for the loss of China to the Communists?
MR. NIXON: Well first of all, I don’t agree with Senator Kennedy that Cuba is lost and certainly China was lost when this Administration came into power in 1953. As I look at Cuba today, I believe that we are following the right course, a course which is difficult but a course which under the circumstance is the only proper one which will see that the Cuban people get a chance to realize their aspirations of progress through freedom and that they get that with our cooperation with the other organi- of the states in the Organization of American States. Now Senator Kennedy has made some very strong criticisms of my part – or alleged part – in what has happened in Cuba. He points to the fact that I visited Cuba while Mr. Batista was in power there. I can only point out that if we are going to judge the Administrations in terms of our attitude toward dictators, we’re glad to have a comparison with the previous administration. There were eleven dictators in South America and in Central America when we came in, in 1953. Today there are only three left including the one in Cuba. We think that’s pretty good progress. Senator Kennedy also indicated with regard to Cuba that he thought that I had made a mistake when I was in Cuba in not calling for free elections in that country. Now I’m very surprised that Senator Kennedy, who is on the Foreign Relations Committee, would have made such a statement as this kind. As a matter of fact in his book, The Strategy for Peace, he took the right position. And that position is that the United States has a treaty – a treaty with all of the Organization of American States – which prohibits us from interfering in the internal affairs of any other state and prohibits them as well. For me to have made such a statement would been in direct uh – opposition to that treaty. Now with regard to Cuba, let me make one thing clear. There isn’t any question but that we will defend our rights there. There isn’t any question but that we will defend Guantanamo if it’s attacked. There also isn’t any question but that the free people of Cuba – the people who want to be free – are going to be supported and that they will attain their freedom. No, Cuba is not lost, and I don’t think this kind of defeatist talk by Senator Kennedy helps the situation one bit.
MR. McGEE: Senator Kennedy, would you care to comment?
MR. KENNEDY: In the first place I’ve never suggested that Cuba was lost except for the present. In my speech last night I indicated that I thought that Cuba one day again would be free. Where I’ve been critical of the Administration’s policy, and where I criticized Mr. Nixon, was because in his press conference in Havana in 1955, he praised the competence and stability of the bicta- bict- Batista dictatorship – that dictatorship had killed over twenty thousand Cubans in seven years. Secondly, I did not criticize him for not calling for free elections. What I criticized was the failure of the Administration to use its great influence to persuade the Cuban government to hold free elections, particularly in 1957 and 1958. Thirdly, Arthur Gardner, a Republican Ambassador, Earl Smith, a Republican Ambassador, in succession – both have indicated in the past six weeks that they reported to Washington that Castro was a Marxist, that Raul Castro was a Communist, and that they got no effective results. Instead our aid continued to Batista, which was ineffective; we never were on the side of freedom; we never used our influence when we could have used it most effectively – and today Cuba is lost for freedom. I hope some day it will rise; but I don’t think it will rise if we continue the same policies toward Cuba that we did in recent years, and in fact towards all of Latin America – when we’ve almost ignored the needs of Latin America; we’ve beamed not a single Voice of America program in Spanish to all of Latin America in the last eight years, except for the three months of the Hungarian uh – revolution.”
My father, like many other Cubans, followed this debate with incredible interest. It was clear by the fall of 1960 that Castro was not going to hold elections or follow up all of those promises about “pluralism”:
“Doctor” Castro? Did he say “Adam and Eve”?
Cubans in the island, and those preparing outside for the liberation of Cuba, must have been very impressed by the comments that they heard in this debate. It’s obvious that both candidates in 1960 communicated their concern for the communist dictatorship forming in the island.
Sadly, it all fell apart 6 months later at The Bay of Pigs!
P.S. For a little history, click here for the Bay of Pigs’ 50th anniversary show with our dear friend Humberto Fontova.