Russian Missiles and Michigan Politics
Harmon, Charles E., Michigan History Magazine
At 7 o'clock on the evening of Monday, October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy went on national television and revealed to the American public the existence of Russian missiles in Cuba. The Cuban missile crisis, later known as "The Thirteen Days," brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear holocaust. But did it influence a Michigan election?
Until October 22, the only Americans aware that a crisis was brewing were a handful of key presidential advisors. Kennedy had ordered that discovery of Russian missiles in Cuba be kept secret. Among those in the dark were Michigan's gubernatorial contestants: incumbent Democrat John Burley Swainson and challenger Republican George Wilcken Romney. Both were at a reception at Cobo Hall, awaiting the annual banquet of the Automobile Manufacturers' Association at the Detroit Auto Show. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, for reasons unclear until that moment, had cancelled a banquet appearance.
The election was only two weeks away. A public opinion poll published the day before by The Detroit News had shown Romney increasing a narrow lead to nearly five percentage points. The sudden confrontation in the far-off Caribbean had an immediate impact on the course of the state campaign, leaving the outcome more in doubt than before. One observer noted it was no longer "politics as usual." While there had been crises in past state political "none compare with the present emergency."
The Swainson-Romney campaign forty years ago was one of the hardest fought of the twentieth century, bringing into conflict two candidates who could hardly have been more dissimilar--one a professional politician, the other a successful businessman.
The incumbent was finishing his first two-year term as governor and at age thirty-seven was young enough to be his opponent's son. He was a man of great ambition and courage. Born in Windsor, Ontario, Swainson had moved to Port Huron as a child. Entering the U.S. Army in 1943, he lost both of his legs to a land mine in Europe in World War II. Swainson returned home to rehabilitate and to study at Olivet College. He then earned a law degree from the University of North Carolina. Entering politics in Detroit, Swainson was elected to the State Senate in 1954 at age twenty-nine. Four years later, he became lieutenant governor. On January 1, 1961, when Swainson was sworn in as governor, he became, at thirty-five, Michigan's youngest governor in the twentieth century.
Swainson had succeeded the extremely popular fellow Democrat G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams, elected six times before leaving to join the Kennedy administration. Swainson's two years in the governorship had been tough years. In the opinion of one member of his cabinet, they were "the tail end of the Williams' era."
Fifty-five-year-old George Romney brought to the race an unusual combination of business and public success. One national columnist called him "a born salesman, with a square jaw and piercing eyes." Another claimed he was "a little larger than life." A devout Mormon, Romney lived his religion's tenets and brought a religious fervor and a get-things-done approach to every challenge. He was unlike any candidate fielded by the Michigan GOP in the memory of political onlookers.
Born in Mexico of dirt-poor American parents, Romney was raised in Idaho and Utah before moving east. After several years in Washington, DC, Romney moved to Detroit in 1940 with the Automobile Manufacturers' Association. In 1954 he became president of American Motors Corporation and was credited with saving the company financially. In 1959, Romney also helped found the nonpartisan Citizens for Michigan, an organization committed to tackling the state's mounting fiscal and political problems.
One of the recommended solutions was a massive revision of Michigan's constitution. Citizens for Michigan led the drive for the …
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Publication information: Article title: Russian Missiles and Michigan Politics. Contributors: Harmon, Charles E. - Author. Magazine title: Michigan History Magazine. Volume: 86. Issue: 5 Publication date: September-October 2002. Page number: 28+. © 2008 State of Michigan, through its State Administrative Board and Department of History, Arts and Libraries. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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