When the Russians liked Ike
This wasn’t the first time Moscow stirred the presidential election pot
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.”
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.