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.
As if in an answer to his dilemma, the two rounded the corner and came upon an exhibit of a modern American kitchen. Nixon tried to steer the conversation to washing machines. Khrushchev charged that only the rich in America could afford something like this kitchen. Not so, Nixon replied calmly. The cost of the kitchen was $14,000 and it was the kind many American veterans of World War II would now have in their homes. The answer infuriated the Russian and he let loose yet again, cameras clicking like crazy. He fulminated against capitalism, the rich, the hint of a suggestion that Russians could not have kitchens like the one they were seeing. He jammed his thumb into Nixon’s chest, ranting angrily, shouting now about rockets and generals.
Nixon, remembering his brief from Dulles, realized the moment had arrived. He had to act — right now.Writing in his first book Six Crises, he said later that as he listened to the translation of what was being said by the red-faced Khrushchev, “I knew that now was the time to strike back. Otherwise I would leave the impression to the press and through them to the world that I, the second-highest official of the United States, and the government I represented were dealing with Khrushchev from a position of weakness — militarily, economically and ideologically. I had to be firm without being belligerent, a most difficult posture to preserve.”
With that, Nixon stuck his own finger in Khrushchev’s chest. The Russian narrowed his eyes, jutting his chin forward. The cameras went crazy all over again. Nixon, finger in the Soviet leader’s chest, was leaning into his adversary, staring, unblinking. His voice rose. “No one should ever use his strength to put another in the position where he in effect has an ultimatum….If war comes, we both lose.” Nixon was off and running now, determined to make the American case. He hoped, he said, that Khrushchev understood the implications of what he, Khrushchev, had been saying. Forcing a powerful nation to fight was playing with “a very destructive thing.” Khrushchev’s words and actions were “very dangerous. When we sit down at a conference table it cannot be all one way. One side cannot put an ultimatum to another. It is impossible.”
Now the two men were “going at it” toe-to-toe. Some thought Nixon had lost his own temper, which he denied. He knew, to the contrary, it was critical to keep his temper. To stay cool. To think on his feet quickly and respond firmly. Remembering Dulles’ advice, he had no intention of letting the Russian think Nixon could somehow be pushed around. Suddenly, Khrushchev stopped, seemingly cooling off. Nixon smiled. Putting his hand on Khrushchev’s shoulder, only then did he say, “I’m afraid I haven’t been a good host.” The Russian turned to the American guide standing, astonished, in the model kitchen, and thanked him for his time. The guide, an American PR agent named William Safire, was so impressed with Nixon’s toughness he made the decision on the spot to work for him. A decade later Safire was ensconced in the White House as a Nixon speechwriter and later became a columnist for the New York Times. At the time, the picture of a no-nonsense Nixon jabbing his own finger right back at Khrushchev was captured by an AP photographer. The Russians, no fools, embargoed the photos and an inventive Safire smuggled the AP photographer’s negative out of the Soviet Union — in his socks. It became one of the most famous photos of the day.
The Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen debate” was an iconic moment in the history of the Cold War.
What should Obama have learned from this episode before he placed himself in the same room with the bullying, boasting Chavez, the Venezuelan tyrant not so unlike Khrushchev?
That if you are an American leader, it is a mistake of magnitudes to let tyrants make a fool of you period, whether in private but especially in public. The photo of a grinning Obama yukking it up with Hugo Chavez, unchallenging as he accepts a book glorifying socialism, is surely being closely studied by less than scrupulous men from Tehran to Afghanistan, from Beijing to Moscow to Havana. Chavez self-evidently sought to publicly tweak the President, to pull his chain, and see what resulted. Just as Khrushchev tried the same with Nixon fifty years ago this July. Chavez got a notably different response from Obama than Khrushchev did from Nixon. For that there will, almost certainly, be repercussions.
As for Richard Nixon, for the rest of his active political life he was cast as the tough-as-nails anti-Communist, a perception that worked to America’s advantage. It gave totalitarians pause in dealing with him when he finally did become president, and Americans a feeling of reassurance that if Nixon was in charge it was a safer world for negotiations with the Russians or the Chinese or, for that matter, any would-be adversary. Khrushchev would later boast that he had done everything he could to undermine Nixon’s 1960 race against John F. Kennedy.
JFK, as it turned out, sent his own messages to Khrushchev with less success than Nixon. In 1961, he botched the Eisenhower-planned “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba, choosing neither to cancel it nor to support it but rather to let it proceed without serious American backing. The resulting failure emboldened Khrushchev, who proceeded to assess Kennedy at their 1961 Summit as a weak president — and shortly began building the Berlin Wall. When Kennedy allowed the wall to stand, the next challenge was to put nuclear missiles in Cuba, which JFK, hardened finally by experience, managed to remove. Even so, the perception of weakness by Khrushchev almost brought about nuclear war.
If anything, the horrific results of Nixon successor Jimmy Carter confirmed the need in many minds of Nixon’s insistence on strength in dealing with tyrants. Carter took precisely the opposite approach of Nixon, and Nixon made himself known on the subject. While Nixon’s focus was on Carter’s dealings with the Soviet Union, his thoughts would be well taken when dealing with any tyrant. Like, say, Hugo Chavez:
[T]o apply the Golden Rule to our dealings with the Soviets is dangerously naïve. President Carter, with the best of intentions, tried unilateral restraint in the hopes the Soviets would follow suit. The result was disastrous.
President Obama, finding himself in a Nixon-Khrushchev-style match-up with Hugo Chavez, took the Carter route, ignoring the Nixon lesson. Time will tell just what the image of the Obama-Chavez encounter means to the bad guys of the world. Somewhere down the line, Americans will find out. But in 1959, a young American Vice President sent a different image altogether, up close and personal. It was the picture heard around the world.
America — and the world — were better for it.