Thursday, July 9, 2009

Eisenhower to Guides: "He Warned Us Not to Brag..."

This blog will be devoting a great deal of attention in the days ahead to the role of the 75 American guides who were the heart and soul of the American exhibition in Moscow fifty years ago -- and we at the George Washington University are thrilled that so many former guides and exhibit staff will be able to join on at the "Face-off to Facebook"conference on July 23

Before leaving for Moscow, the newly minted U.S. guides for the 1959 American exhibition at Sokolniki Park were brought down from New York to meet President Eisenhower in the Oval Office. Former guide and retired Berkeley professor Dan Slobin has provided us a witty account of the White House photo-op in his journal of that summer, which is deftly written, wonderfully illustrated with his photos -- in short, thoroughly compelling even half a century after he wrote it. In addition to President Eisenhower, Dan also cites Clarence "Clare" Francis, the then former head of General Foods, who was a leading member of the White House private sector advisory committee for the U.S. exhibition in Moscow and chaired the guides selection panel. We will be drawing from Dan's 1959 journal again, and hope to share it with you in its entirety on this site.

"...Mr. Francis explained the origins of this meeting to us. He had been recently riding with the President up to the Lincoln Center dedication in New York when the conversation turned to Nixon’s forthcoming trip to the Soviet Union for the opening of the American Exhibition. The President expressed his desire to visit the USSR and regretted that he would never have the chance to do so. When Mr. Francis told him that 75 young American guides would have this opportunity, Ike said, “I’d like to meet them!” And so, at a word from the Chief Executive, the arrangements began to bring us to the capital. The simplicity and sincerity of this gesture fitted the impression of the man which I gained from our interview.

He spoke to us kindly, like an old father or grandfather. [2009: This from a third-generation Democrat.] Having entered the Oval Office, I had the impression that the man was kept like some old lion in a cage. He was padded in to meet us, padded out to the Rose Garden with us, and padded back into his cage. The atmosphere of silence and the dignity of the office, the clean rooms and thick rugs, lent a feeling of awe and importance to the event.

We filed in and shook the President’s hand, and then stood in a semicircle around his desk and waited for him to speak to us. He told us he had called for us to see what we were like and to wish us Godspeed. He looked amazingly like the Herblock cartoons—old, tired, the wrinkled face with a broad smile. He warned us not to brag—that we should realize that we do not represent a perfect society. And then he said that he had also called us all together because he had never seen so many people in one room who all spoke Russian. Then he singled out the four Negroes in our group, whom he had greeted especially warmly when we had entered, and asked each one how he had come to study the Russian language. Then, referring to the range of sizes of the guides, he remarked on a man of over six feet who weighed, “let us say 200,” and “a little girl of maybe 90 pounds.” He called her forward and asked her how much she weighed!

The President seemed rather embarrassed about the “mementos” which he gave to us: wallet-size pictures of himself that were wrapped in plastic “so they won’t wear out in your wallets—but you can throw them away if you like.” Then he invited us to come out into the Rose Garden to be photographed with him—giving “rabid Democrats” the opportunity to stay behind.

(c) 2009 by Dan I. Slobin

1 comment:

  1. Some of my pictures from the 1959 Exhibition are at:

    - Peter Maggs