When the Rus­sians liked Ike

This wasn’t the first time Moscow stirred the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion pot

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Thomas V. DiBacco Thomas V. DiBacco is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

Mired as the na­tion is today in de­bate over Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment in the 2016 Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, his­tory pro­vides an in­ter­est­ing in­sight into Moscow’s views of the 1960 race for the White House. To be sure, it wasn’t a Page One story, but on Jan. 12, 1960, months be­fore the Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial pri­maries be­gan, Moscow-based Priscilla John­son, a re­porter for the Amer­i­can News­pa­per Al­liance, wrote a story that ap­peared in West Vir­ginia’s Charleston Gazette un­der the ti­tle “Eisen­hower Can­di­dacy Fa­vored by Rus­sia.” John­son’s main point in the ar­ti­cle was that or­di­nary Rus­sians as well as high of­fi­cials couldn’t un­der­stand why the like­able Ike couldn’t run again for the White House. As one Moscow cab driver put it: “If the peo­ple want him, why can’t he run for a third?” Ex­plain­ing the 22nd Amend­ment’s lim­i­ta­tion on pres­i­den­tial terms didn’t help the mat­ter be­cause in the Soviet Union giv­ing up the pre­mier­ship po­si­tion was ex­ceed­ingly rare.

Ike was liked be­cause the sum­mit be­tween him and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Septem­ber 1959 seemed to quiet Cold War ten­sions (It was a far cry from the heated “Kitchen De­bate” over cap­i­tal­ism and com­mu­nism be­tween Vice Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon and Khrushchev at the open­ing of the Amer­i­can Na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion in Moscow in July 1959).

I was a young, re­cently mar­ried grad­u­ate stu­dent in Wash­ing­ton at the time of the open-car drive of the two lead­ers, and I can re­call stand­ing with my wife ad­ja­cent to the Trea­sury Depart­ment watch­ing what both of us mar­veled was a break­through in the Cold War. In­deed, Khrushchev spent 12 days in the United States, and the press largely agreed that the two na­tions had made gi­ant steps to­ward normalizing re­la­tions af­ter 15 tense years. And Eisen­hower planned an­other meet­ing the fol­low­ing year, this time in Moscow.

It was clear through the lens of re­porter John­son’s ar­ti­cle that Ike was fa­vored by the Rus­sians be­cause the likely nom­i­nees for his post were down­right of­fen­sive. Pravda, the of­fi­cial news­pa­per of the Com­mu­nist Party, was cited as charg­ing New York Gov. Nel­son Rock­e­feller with likely us­ing his oil com­pa­nies to de­cide State Depart­ment poli­cies. And Rock­e­feller’s wealth could lit­er­ally buy the top post in his land. Pravda also noted that Rock­e­feller wouldn’t run for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion be­cause Khrushchev had been so ef­fec­tive in calm­ing Cold War fears that Rock­e­feller couldn’t ex­ploit them.

The real bane of the Rus­sians, ac­cord­ing to John­son, was Nixon. One Moscow daily dubbed him “the only Amer­i­can politi­cian smart enough to have won a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing both for and against the re­lax­ation of ten­sion.” That same or­gan was well-read in terms of Amer­i­can news­pa­pers, in­clud­ing the not-so-well­known Cap­i­tal Times of Madi­son, Wis., that noted that not only could the vice pres­i­dent walk both sides of the po­lit­i­cal street, but “if the street were three-sided, Nixon would walk on all three sides.”

Izves­tia, the of­fi­cial or­gan of the Soviet govern­ment, had a slightly dif­fer­ent take on Nixon. It saw him, ac­cord­ing to re­porter John­son, as ded­i­cated to back­ing Amer­i­can firms cap­i­tal­iz­ing on big govern­ment mil­i­tary con­tracts that kept the Cold War alive.

All other likely can­di­dates for the White House couldn’t com­pare with Ike. John F. Kennedy was op­posed by Rus­sians, not be­cause of his Catholi­cism, but his money. Min­nesota Sen. Hu­bert Humphrey blew his chances for re­spect from Moscow be­cause, al­though he had an eight-hour meet­ing with Khrushchev, he dis­torted to the press what the two men talked about. Lyn­don Baines John­son, the Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader, was given short shrift.

What sur­prised re­porter John­son the most was that even though the pres­i­den­tial pri­maries hadn’t even be­gun, “one might think that the Rus­sians would lose their way in the com­pli­cated labyrinth of two-party pol­i­tics.”

They didn’t.

But even Eisen­hower lost his lus­ter when the Sovi­ets shot down the Amer­i­can U-2 spy plane in May 1960 over their ter­ri­tory. Ike de­nied that the U-2 had been spy­ing. The Sovi­ets had ev­i­dence to the con­trary. Khrushchev de­manded an apol­ogy. Ike re­fused. Khrushchev with­drew his in­vi­ta­tion to Eisen­hower to visit the Soviet Union.

And the rest, as they say, is Cold War his­tory.

Even Eisen­hower lost his lus­ter when the Sovi­ets shot down the Amer­i­can U-2 spy plane in May 1960 over their ter­ri­tory.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY GREG GROESCH

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