Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Guest Post: Ike Saves the American Dream

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History co-written with Allen W. McDonnell.

January 8, 1956

In a press conference held at Key West, Florida, Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that unfortunately he would not be seeking re-election in the fall. The sad truth was that the poor health of the once-vigorous Five-Star General of the Army prevented him from running a presidential election campaign, and another mission was simply beyond his frail condition.

Ike had initially planned on serving only one term anyhow, but he remained flexible in case leading Republicans wanted him to run again. They surely did, mainly because of the GOP's lack of potential candidates, but all calculations had changed after his serious heart attack on September 24, 1955. Former New York Governor and unsuccessful GOP nominee in 1944 and 1948, Thomas Dewey had been sounded out but refused to make a third run for the White House. With Ike unable to make a full recovery, the decision was taken out of the GOP's hands. However, Eisenhower had one last card to play, and, while controversial particularly with Republicans, it would be taken in the very best interests of all of his fellow Americans.

For his preferred choice of successor, Eisenhower strongly favored his Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert B. Anderson, whom he had recently promoted from Secretary of Navy. Ike described him as "just about the ablest man that I know, he would make a splendid President." However, the problem was that Anderson was a Democrat. Had Ike's health fully recovered, he would have attempted to use his authority to steer Anderson into the slot for his running mate. That of course was only if Vice-President Richard Nixon had accepted Eisenhower's recommendation to leave the vice-presidency to serve as Secretary of Defense. This scenario was no longer the worst case for Nixon, because it was highly unlikely that he would be the GOP nominee. This was because there were too many others seeking the nomination in an open primary.

Unfortunately, Nixon and Ike suffered a like-hate relationship. Eisenhower noticeably failed to publicly endorse Nixon in his announcement. In an even more shocking development, Anderson then announced that he would enter the race himself. He would contest the Democratic Party's nomination alongside Adlai Stevenson, the 1952 nominee, and populist Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver. Nixon would bitterly blame his failure to win the Republican nomination and beat a path to the White House on the "unwarranted influence" of the 34th president. Others argued that Eisenhower was a great son of the Republic who had simply followed in the tradition of Washington, Adams, & company by putting the Office of the Presidency above the petty concerns of party politics.

Anderson would fight his way through a crowded field, defeat the Republican nominee, and, at his inauguration, encourage rock and roll artist Buddy Holly to pay gushing tribute to the outgoing President Eisenhower as a great patriot with his barnstorming hit song "Love's for real not Fade Away!" Calling out "How about General Eisenhower? Come out here, sir!" a smiling Eisenhower had sufficiently recovered to join the Hollies on stage and even break character to play the tambourine alongside the Big Bopper, J.P. Richardson.

Author's Note:

In reality, Eisenhower announced that he would run again after meeting with his closest advisors. The level of campaigning was curtailed out of health considerations, but even so he won by an even larger landslide, with 457 of 531 electoral votes and 57.6-percent of the popular vote.

Provine's Addendum:

Political commentators on the 1956 race between Anderson and Governor William Stratton of Illinois frequently compared the two's similar backgrounds. Stratton had become a Congressman at 26 in 1940 and served stints as the State Treasurer of Illinois both before and after service in the U.S. Navy. Anderson had a busy resume as Assistant Attorney General and member of the House of Representatives in Texas as well as numerous business ventures before becoming a military adviser in the Pacific and ultimately joining Eisenhower's administration. Anderson was criticized as not having been a governor himself, to which he wittily replied that he had already defeated numerous governors in the primary, including Stratton's predecessor, Stevenson.

Anderson's policies laid the groundwork for the next era of the Cold War. Many saw the USSR as a great challenge with the 1955 success of Sputnik and the perception of a major missile gap with Russian superiority in ICBMs. Manned space exploration was massively expensive, and Anderson's treasury mindset saw the Earth's orbit as the farthest a space war could be effective, making a mission to the moon a needless expense. Anderson challenged suspicious numbers from the 1957 Gaither Report about Soviet missiles and did not agree to the suggestion of increasing military spending by half. Instead, Anderson focused on economic warfare through investment. Rather than supporting individual power-hungry men like Fulgencio Batista in Cuba and Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, Anderson's State Department (and covert operations through the CIA) spread the money around to win overall public favor and economic dependence on the United States. The strategy worked in the case of Cuba, where the Popular Socialist Party lost ground as Batista's rivals gained concessions with more local authority.

By 1960, Anderson had split approval ratings with many fearing he was soft on Communism. This would lead to the election of Republican Barry Goldwater, who promised to bolster conservatism in the US again, a wave that would disintegrate as the Civil Rights Movement expanded.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

June 11, 1984 - Walt Disney Company Bought Out by Corporate Raiders

The Walt Disney Company, effectively started in 1923 with young Walt Disney promoting "Alice Comedies" (shorts that blended live action and animation), faced a troubling time six decades later. It had peaked in the 1950s with Disney producing the feature-length cartoons that had brought him fame and fortune as well as live-action television programming and a theme park, Disneyland. Ever the dreamer, Walt Disney announced yet another theme park centered on the "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow" (EPCOT) in 1965, just one year before his death.

Disney's company continued beyond him, first under the leadership of his brother, Roy. Roy retired in 1971 after the launch of Disney World, handing the reins to a series of CEOs and presidents who would oversee numerous projects in film and real estate, such as another Disney theme park in Tokyo. The 1980s were packed with innovation. A cable "Disney Channel" unique from the long partnership with the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Meanwhile, Touchstone Pictures began to produce films and television not suitable for the family-friendly Disney brand.

While the Disney company was truly a mainstay of the American zeitgeist, it had suffered through a rough patch of productions. Disney had released three animated features, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Rescuers, and Pete's Dragon in 1977, but only The Fox and The Hound had been released since, and it was four years later along with the departure of famed animator Don Bluth. The much-anticipated The Black Cauldron faced production issues that delayed it again and again with rewrites and disappointing test screenings deeming it too scary for children. Live-action productions like Condorman and Something Wicked This Way Comes had been box-office flops. One of the most memorable Disney productions, 1982's TRON, was scarcely recognized as a Disney product.

Without a recent big win, Disney threatened to fade away from prominence, yet there were some who saw potential where others saw a has-been. As journalist Peter Behr later wrote in the Washington Post,

"Disney's stock was languishing at less than $60 a share in November 1983. At that stock price, a raider could acquire the entire company for a little over $2 billion. But the pieces of the Disney empire were worth far more than that if sold separately. The Disney theme parks alone could bring $2 billion, experts estimated. The Disney film library of 25 animated classics -- Bambi, Pinocchio, Snow White and the rest -- plus hundreds of live-action films, cartoons and television programs were worth anywhere from $250 million to $1 billion. And that still left the extensive Disney real estate holdings. Disney was a bargain."

Saul Steinberg, who owned 12.2% of Disney's stock, found his numbers knocked down to 11.1% due to Disney issuing more stock to cover the purchase of Arvida, a Florida real estate company. Steinberg sued to stop the stock issuance, saying that it would only add to the company's debt and largely served to keep the jobs of board of directors. Federal court allowed the purchase, as well as another Disney bid to buy Gibson Greetings, so Steinberg made a move to seize Disney. Teaming with other investors such as "movie mogul Kirk Kerkorian... the majority stockholder of MGM-UA," Steinberg's Reliance Holdings announced on June 8 plans to buy up 49% of Disney stock, paying up to $72.50 per share.

Longtime Disney executive Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew who had started at the company as an assistant director for the nature documentary True-Life Adventures, attempted to rally investors to save the company. He had resigned in 1977 feeling that the company was without creative direction under CEO Ron Miller, Walt's son-in-law, but he maintained his seat on the board of directors. Disney's lawyer, Stanley Gold, had warned Roy E. about the undervalued stock and saw potential for a quick profit. Already disillusioned, Roy. E. was happy to sell.

Steinberg's raid went successfully, and he made tremendous moves slimming down the company. Real estate and publishing were quickly spun off, and the true blow came as Walt Disney Productions was purchased by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, who added it to its acquisitions with 20th Century-Fox in hopes it would challenge Universal Pictures' partnerships with Amblin Entertainment. The mediocre box office response to Disney's Mistress Masham's Repose about Lilliputians in England made the studio an easy sale, especially with DIC Entertainment bristling about potential infringement with their The Littles television series on Disney's former ally network, ABC. Within a few years, the "Disney" name would die away, leaving on the tradition with films such as Don Quixote and The Emperor and the Nightingale.

Although the theme parks did well into the 1990s, they stymied under the encroachment of other amusement park brands like Six Flags and Universal Studios. Steinberg had attempted to sell Disney World to Universal, but investors found that without the connection to updated animated features, the parks lost ground. Instead, Fox would purchase the Florida properties, retooling Cinderella's Castle into Anastasia's Castle from the groundbreaking animated film. Many other rides were replaced, such as Splash Mountain becoming the infamous Titanic ride with its cold plunge. EPCOT soon became SFX-laden grounds for X-men and Star Wars franchises. Disney characters, eventually collected by Fox, would be relegated to a corner of the park nicknamed "Yesterdayland."


In reality, Roy E. Disney, Stanley Gold, and others launched the "Save Disney" campaign, buying up shares for their own internal takeover. The board worked out a deal with Steinberg to buy his 4.2 million shares for $70.33 apiece, fifteen dollars above the stock price, as well as $28 million for "out of pocket expenses." Ron Miller was soon replaced by Michael Eisner from Paramount, who brought along Frank Wells from Warner Brothers and Jeffrey Katzenberg to be the new head of Disney Studios. In 1989, the "Disney Renaissance" began with The Little Mermaid, which grossed $235 million on a $40 million budget. Films like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King would do even better.

Behr also wrote that Steinberg's raid may have just been an act, "buying up a company's stock, threatening a takeover and then allowing the company to buy back the stock at a premium in a legal maneuver known as 'greenmail.'"

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Guest Post: JFK and Nixon Presidencies Swapped

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

March 9, 1961 - Pathet Lao Victory Triggers US Intervention

Shocked by the Lao People's Liberation Army's stunning victory on the Plain of Jars, Secretary of State Christian Herter issued a stark warning that the Pathet Lao Communists were on the brink of taking over the Kingdom of Laos.

War hawks in the Nixon Administration led by Secretary of Defense William Knowland called for military intervention , whereas doves led by Herter called for diplomacy, proposing a neutralization agreement with the Soviet Union. President Richard Nixon rejected this "fig leaf" out of hand but was forced to consider the US role in the Laotian Civil War in the broader context of the previous Administration's plans to overthrow the Castros

As turbulent events in Cuba dominated Nixon's early days as president, his closest confidants were CIA Director Allen Dulles and USAF Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay. Meeting in Room 108 of the Eisenhower Executive Building, this inner circle of decision-makers would launch a full US invasion of the island after the Bay of Pigs operation failed ignominiously. The inevitable result of this cabal's secret deliberations in Room 108 was an escalation in the Cold War that would forever be known to alternate history as the Nixon Doctrine.

President Eisenhower's warning of the undue influence of the military-industrial complex was completely disregarded. Instead, the calculated belligerency in Southeast Asia was a dangerous gamble based on the Sino-Soviet split and Dulles' success in resupplying anti-Marxist fighters in Cuba. Although Nixon did successfully manage to avoid direct superpower confrontation, the American public was appalled by the rising death count in proxy wars such as Cuba and Laos. The medium of television began to turn the mood of the nation against the Nixon Doctrine.

Eisenhower had proudly claimed that not a single American soldier died in combat during his presidency. He had very much wanted to end the Cold War, but his scheduled summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was cancelled because of the ill-fated U-2 incident. By 1963, that peace mantle was passed to a new generation led by Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. Still only forty-five years old, he prepared to run for a second presidential race by launching a fateful campaign drive in the South. Meanwhile, the shadowy Committee for the Re-election of the President (CREEP) prepared to expose Kennedy's private indiscretions.

Author's Note:

In reality, upon taking office OTL President John F. Kennedy was surprised to learn that the US had 700 soldiers and CIA operatives in the country. He refused to militarily intervene preferring to negotiate with the Soviet Union to achieve neutralization of Laos so that the pro-Western forces, Communists, and neutralists would all share power there.

Provine's Addendum:

With Nixon handily winning the 1964 election, few at the time imagined that he would not last out the next four years. Journalists uncovered numerous misuses of presidential power, in addition to Nixon orchestrating coverups to prevent his enemies from uncovering more. JFK's political backers cleverly bounced back from the election loss by highlighting Nixon's CREEP actions to defame Kennedy, turning the tables on whom could be trusted. JFK used his charms to rally the Democratic Party for his nomination, setting him in perfect position for victory in the election. Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who had assumed the presidency from the vice-presidency after Nixon's resignation, received scantily few votes.

Kennedy's first term brought an end to the fighting in Vietnam with an American-allied evacuation and Cuba with a firmly entrenched pro-America local government. He opened up diplomacy with China, weakening USSR superiority among the Communist nations, while also overseeing the Moon landing in 1969, which Nixon had promised in his early, more popular days. Kennedy looked to be a shoo-in for the 1972 election, but he was assassinated by radicals seeking vengeance for Cuba. His VP, Hubert Humphrey, assumed the presidency and won in the coming election, saying that Kennedy had "restored the dignity of the highest office in the land." With sweeping social reforms through the 1970s, the Democratic Party remained in power well into the 1980s.

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