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Fifty years ago it was the picture heard around the world.
The young Vice President of the United States standing up to the bullying Russian tyrant, his right index finger literally poking Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in the chest.
For the rest of his political career, the photograph — and the incident that prompted it — would visually enshrine the world’s view of Richard Nixon as the American politician who would quite literally never blink when it came to standing up to America’s enemies.
In the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s timid performance when face-to-face with Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez — who has cast the United States as, among many things, an “imperialist monster” even as he goes about systematically repressing his own people and making alliances with American enemies — it is worth recalling just what happened when Nixon found himself in a similar situation.
The date: July, 1959. The background: The Cold War between the Soviets and the United States was ratcheting up almost daily, as it had since the close of World War II. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already coined the term “Iron Curtain” to describe the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. In 1949 President Harry Truman had set in motion the Berlin Airlift to overcome Stalin’s blockade of railway and highway entrances into West Berlin, the sector of the once-and-future German capital controlled by the allies — in the heart of the Soviet-controlled East Germany. Every day for almost a year the United States had fought the Soviet blockade by airlifting 4,000 tons of food a day — a day! — into West Berlin, finally humiliating the Soviets and breaking the back of the blockade. Then came the Russian announcement they had exploded their first nuclear weapons, next the Korean War, followed by more Russian threats on Berlin.
By 1959, tensions were still high and going higher. The following year would be President Dwight Eisenhower’s last in the White House, and Nixon — a youthful 46 - was the presumed frontrunner for both the Republican Presidential nomination and the presidency itself. His strongest selling point was his experience as Ike’s vice president, specifically his foreign policy experience.
Sitting in the Kremlin was Stalin’s successor, Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev. A wily, blustering brutal totalitarian, by 1959 he had consolidated his power over his Kremlin rivals, earning a reputation as a bullying murderer who never hesitated to have competitors shot. It was Khrushchev who had ruthlessly suppressed the people’s revolt against Communists in Hungary in 1956. So too was it Khrushchev who began the massive Soviet nuclear build-up, launching what would become known as the “arms race.” Likewise it was Khrushchev who began the Soviet offensive in the so-called “developing world,” beginning with an attempt to take over the Congo in Africa.
In July of 1959 it was announced that Vice President Nixon would make a thirteen-day “good-will” tour of the Soviet Union in connection with the opening of an American Exhibition in Moscow. His assignment from Eisenhower: meet with Khrushchev and make it clear that the United States had no intention of abandoning West Berlin. Period. As part of his extensive preparations, Nixon spent time in Walter Reed hospital, visiting the dying and just-resigned Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Dulles, a man with much experience of the Soviets and life, at the end of his own life (he would die within days), spent hours with the young Nixon. Sucking on ice cubes to relieve the agonies of a burning throat, physically wasted, Dulles was still sharp of mind. Never give Khrushchev an opening for a single moment, Dulles warned, or he will take advantage of it. Never be taken in by a show of innocence. Always bring him back to the actual record of the Soviet Communists. Do not ever let him get the upper hand.
After a final briefing with Eisenhower, and extensive preparation, Nixon left Washington in a brand new kind of airplane, a jet called the Boeing 707. So significant was the trip believed to be that Nixon was accompanied by a retinue unheard of for a vice president: thirty staff members and seventy journalists. Without knowing it, Nixon was establishing a pattern of travel for the modern presidency Americans know today — the glistening military jet and the herd of hundreds of staff and media. With American communications satellites still a thing of the future — the near future — there would be no “live” television coverage of his trip. Instead there would be still pictures, newsreels and film.
In this tense and highly visible atmosphere, the young Vice President touched down in Moscow on July 23rd for the “official” purpose of his trip: the July 24th opening of the first American Exhibition ever held in the Soviet Union. The exhibition of life in the United States had been allowed as part of Eisenhower’s 1955 “Spirit of Geneva” negotiations with the Soviets. A reciprocal Soviet exhibition had already opened in New York, heavily tilted towards displays of Soviet military might. The US exhibits in Moscow, on the other hand, were designed to display American consumer goods.
Nixon’s airport reception was cool. Correct. Whisked off after the official greetings, the streets of Moscow were empty. Once at the American Embassy he would find that Khrushchev, just returned from a trip to Soviet-controlled Poland, had been giving a bellicose speech at the Moscow Sports Arena ripping into the United States in general and Nixon in particular for the passage of the “Captive Nations Resolution” by the U.S. Congress the previous week. What angered Khrushchev? The resolution called for prayers for those trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
In this atmosphere Nixon began his visit with his first-ever call on a Soviet leader in the Kremlin itself. As Nixon entered the Russian’s office, with photographers present, Khrushchev was conspicuously toying with a baseball-sized object: a model of the Soviet moon satellite Lunik, launched just months earlier. Cameras clicked as the two shook hands, with Nixon presenting a personal letter from Eisenhower. In a blink, Khrushchev ordered the press to leave the room. Gesturing to a conference table and taking a seat, the Soviet leader immediately turned what was booked as a mere beginning courtesy call into one of substance. He yelled. He pounded the table with his closed fists. All the while he kept examining Nixon, looking him over literally from head to toe. He railed against the Captive Nations Resolution, furious at the resolution language that referred to the “enslaved peoples” behind the Iron Curtain. “This resolution stinks!” Khrushchev yelled, pounding the table again. He finished with a string of barnyard epithets that literally made the translator blush.
Nixon, exposed to all of this for the first time, was shocked at Khrushchev’s vehemence and language. Abruptly, the Soviet leader ended the meeting, signaling that it was time to tour the American exhibition. The two departed the Kremlin in separate cars, Nixon hastily consulting with the American Ambassador. Since this was an American exhibition, technically, in spite of being in Moscow, Nixon was to be the host at this walk-through the day before the exhibit opened to the Russian public. To complicate matters, Nixon was vice president — not president. Meaning in the acutely important world of diplomatic protocol he was inferior in rank, a number two speaking with a head of government.
The two men arrived, with Nixon sliding into the role of tour guide. He had, he said later, absolutely no idea what to expect. It didn’t take long to find out what was coming. Surrounded now by cameras and reporters as they walked, Khrushchev picked up where he left off at the private meeting in the Kremlin.
He was by turn belligerent, rude, aggressive, forceful. His veins purpled and bulged in his face and neck. He cast a jaundiced eye at the exhibits of American consumer goods, berating America for its inability to trade. Next he was boasting the Soviets were prepared for war. Then it was back to the economy, braying that the Soviets would surpass the United States in seven years. Spotting a Soviet workman he pointed and caustically demanded of Nixon and the press, referring to the Captive Nations Resolution again, whether the man at hand looked like a slave laborer. On the two walked, with Khrushchev needling and needling, abundantly conscious of the presence of the cameras. Nixon felt as if he were letting himself and hence the United States be put on the defensive under this relentless and quite public assault of insults and blunt language.
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