10/30/12 - the crowd spits on nixon

In today's selection -- in 1958, the U.S. White House overestimated its esteem in Latin America, and sent Vice President Richard Nixon to tour several Latin American countries -- with disastrous consequences. The central complaint of Latin Americans was that the U.S. supported harsh, dictatorial regimes simply because they claimed to be anticommunist:

"Latin America had a special place in the Eisenhower White House. Ike's brother Milton was an expert on the region, and his trip soon after Ike's election had greatly gratified American allies in the hemisphere. By 1958, there were hopeful signs in the region: Argentina had at last disposed of Peron and elected a leader, Arturo Frondizi, with whom the administration believed it could cooperate. Similarly, Colombia had cast off Gustavo Rojas Pinilla and elected Alberto Lleras Camargo, whom Nixon regarded as 'an enlightened and dedicated statesman.' With so much changing in the region, Eisenhower believed a high-level visit was in order. The midterm elections were approaching, so he tapped Nixon for the duty. Nixon, though he felt he would be better used at home and feared that the two-and-a-half-week excursion would be ponderously boring, nev­ertheless reluctantly agreed.

"Accompanied by his wife, Pat, Nixon left on April 27. At first, the trip was uneventful. The Nixon party stopped in Trinidad to refuel and was greeted warmly in Uruguay. The vice president dropped in unannounced at a university in Montevideo, where he charmed all but his most hardened critics. In Argentina, Nixon conferred with leaders, threw the switch at a new nuclear power plant, and suffered through a gaucho barbecue; he attended Frondizi's inauguration but got there late -- traffic delayed him, and the ceremony started four minutes early. He then visited Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru, where he faced an unruly, rock-throwing crowd at San Marcos University. As Nixon was returning to the hotel, a protester man­aged to squeeze close to the vice president and spit directly in his face. 'I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to tear the face in front of me to pieces,' Nixon wrote later. He maintained his composure, however, and earned Ike's praise for his 'courage, patience and calmness.'

"After uneventful stops in Ecuador and Colombia, the entourage arrived in Caracas, Venezuela, where the government assured Nixon it could con­trol trouble despite reports of demonstrations being planned to greet the Americans. From the moment Nixon disembarked the airplane, it was obvious that the government overestimated its abilities. Dick and Pat Nixon stood politely for the playing of the Venezuelan national anthem while, from an observation deck above them, a crowd cursed and spit on them. Pat's red suit was mottled with chewing tobacco stains. The Nixons, flanked by the Secret Service, pushed through the crowd and into two waiting cars, Dick in the first, Pat in the second. They left the airport and headed for the center of the city. Stores were shuttered and sidewalks empty, but traffic seemed heavy. Then, suddenly, the car pulled to a halt, blocked by a dump truck that created a blockade. A mob descended on Nixon's car, ripping the flags from the front bumper and hurling rocks. The driver finally pushed through, only to hit a second blockade and then a third.

"Here they come," a passenger in Nixon's car said. And with that, a crowd of several hundred descended on the two vehicles. One rock shat­tered Nixon's windshield, scattering glass. Demonstrators pummeled both vehicles with metal bars and sticks. Then the crowd around Nixon's car began to rock it back and forth, attempting to flip it. 'For an instant, the realization passed through my mind -- we might be killed,' Nixon said. Members of the Secret Service reached for their guns, but just as a riot seemed inevitable, the press truck traveling in front of the Nixon cars plowed through the mob and cleared a path for Nixon's driver to follow (in all his years of sparring with the press, that may have been the most appreciative Nixon ever was for a group of reporters). Pat and Dick escaped unharmed, though deeply shaken. Nixon's experience in Caracas was one of the most frightful of his life, and he later dedicated a chapter to it in his memoir, Six Crises.

"Two days later, the Nixons returned to Washington, where Ike and Mamie greeted them at the airport. Ike brought Nixon's two daughters, Julie and Tricia, with him to welcome their parents. When the plane landed, he let the girls rush to meet it, rather than standing on protocol. Julie never forgot the courtesy. 'He had the biggest smile, the brightest blue eyes,' she recalled of Eisenhower.


Jim Newton


Eisenhower: The White House Years




Copyright 2011 by Jim Newton


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