Despite his youth, 43-year-old John F. Kennedy captured the Democratic nomination in 1960 and went on to win one of the closest elections in U.S. history.
The 1960 election campaign was dominated by rising Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first manmade satellite to orbit Earth. American leaders warned that the nation was falling behind communist countries in science and technology. Three years later, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet territory and its pilot captured. The incident led to the cancellation of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's planned trip to Moscow and the collapse of a summit meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
In Cuba, the revolutionary regime of Fidel Castro became a close ally of the Soviet Union, heightening fears of communist subversion in the Western Hemisphere. Public opinion polls revealed that more than half the American people thought war with the Soviet Union was inevitable.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy captured the Democratic nomination despite his youth, a seeming lack of experience in foreign affairs, and his Catholic faith. On May 10, he won a solid victory in the Democratic primary in overwhelmingly Protestant West Virginia. His success there launched him toward a first ballot victory at the national convention in Los Angeles—although he did not reach the 761 votes required for the nomination until the final state in the roll call, Wyoming.
After choosing Texas senator Lyndon Johnson as his running mate, Kennedy told the convention delegates that he would get the nation moving again. He declared that the United States would have the will and the strength to resist communism around the world.
The Republican nominee was 47-year-old Vice President Richard M. Nixon. He pointed to the peace and prosperity of the Eisenhower administration and assured the voters that he would maintain American prestige, leadership, and military strength. He chose Henry Cabot Lodge, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as his running mate. Nixon struck many voters as more mature and experienced than Kennedy and led in the polls after the national conventions.
Kennedy then challenged the vice president to a series of televised debates. Many in the Nixon camp, including President Eisenhower, urged the vice president to reject the debate proposal and deny Kennedy invaluable national exposure. But Nixon confidently agreed to share a platform with his rival on nationwide television.
In 1950, only 11 percent of American homes had television; by 1960, the number had jumped to 88 percent. An estimated seventy million Americans, about two-thirds of the electorate, watched the first debate on September 26th.