From reading press accounts of Senator Kennedy’s legislative career, one might think that RN’s 1971 launch of the War on Cancer was simply a response to Kennedy’s initiatives.  Indeed, their political rivalry did play a role.  In politics, as in the marketplace, competition can produce socially beneficial results.  In this case, the product was an increase in cancer research.   If people are alive today because Nixon and Kennedy tried to one-up each other … well, that’s cool.
But it is a mistake to reduce the War on Cancer just to Nixon’s desire to co-opt a political opponent.  Nixon was already acting on cancer before 1971, the year Kennedy assumed the chair of the Senate’s health subcommittee.  In his budget message of February 2, 1970, RN recommended “substantial increases in research on cancer, heart disease, serious childhood illnesses, and dental health–where current findings promise significant advances in the future.”  The increase was not just talk.  The fiscal 1971 appropriation for the National Cancer Institute — passed in 1970 — was 22 percent higher than the figure for the previous year.