Teaching With Documents, Volume 1


State Department Briefing Notebook for President Eisenhower

Jet travel has transformed visits of heads of state to other countries into commonplace events. However, trips like those of President Nixon to China or Egypt’s President Sadat to Israel have special significance. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United States in 1959 was both unique for its time and significant because of the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union in Berlin. The document reproduced here is two pages of a five-page State Department briefing notebook prepared for President Eisenhower to outline the issues to be raised with the Soviet leader, including analysis of the latter’s point of view and suggested tactics for the President to use in conveying positions of the United States.

On August 3, 1959, President Eisenhower announced that Nikita Khrushchev would visit the United States in September. In preparation for the Khrushchev visit, Eisenhower took a trip to reassure the leaders of France, Germany, and Great Britain that the Soviet leader’s visit would not result in unacceptable commitments. The NATO leaders were especially wary of the Soviets’ intentions because of the breakdown of the talks of the foreign ministers in March and the Soviet ultimatum regarding Berlin the preceding year.

In November 1958, the Soviet Union had demanded the departure of the allied forces from Berlin in six months. If the Western powers did not leave, Khrushchev threatened to recognize the government of East Germany, thereby formally partitioning the territory of Germany, and to restrict Western access to Berlin. When the six months had elapsed, the Soviets did not act, but unhappy memories of the Berlin airlift ten years before came into sharp focus. In this tense international climate, Nikita Khrushchev arrived in Washington, DC, to visit the United States for twelve days.

Khrushchev’s itinerary was a full one. After his welcome to the United States with the usual formal exchange dinners at the White House, the Communist Party Chairman set off to see this country under the able guidance of the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge. Khrushchev and his family visited New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Des Moines, and Pittsburgh. As planned, Khrushchev saw a substantial segment of the American people and they saw him. However, the trip was not without its misadventures. In Los Angeles, the Chairman expressed shock at the "immoral" clothing of the dancers in Can-Can and rage at being denied a visit to Disneyland for security reasons. Perhaps the most enduring image of Khrushchev was that of the Party Chairman amidst the corn on a farm in Iowa, a scene captured in hundredsof photographs.

On September 27, Khrushchev arrived back in Washington and retired to the presidential retreat at Camp David for talks with President Eisenhower. The State Department memorandum suggested a theme for the discussions:

The major task of modern statesmanship is to find a way to relieve the threat of destruction which weapons of mass destruction have hung over mankind. Khrushchev can make a great contribution to this task and will be so judged by history, not by how much power he can amass and wield, Continued Soviet pressures will, of course, meet our determined resistance and the risk of war will remain and probably increase.

To Eisenhower’s delight, Khrushchev agreed, as a result of the talks at Camp David, to relax the Berlin ultimatum. On the Chairman’s return to the Soviet Union, simultaneous announcements were made withdrawing the ultimatum entirely. The two superpowers had faced off and withdrawn without serious consequence, and Eisenhower had shown to the allies that he could be a diplomat as well as a general. At home, Eisenhower’s popularity rose to its highest point since his re-election three years earlier.

This spirit was not to last, however, for in May 1960 the Soviets announced that they had shot down an American U-2 spy plane and were holding the pilot, Francis Gary Powers. As a result, Eisenhower’s trip to the Soviet Union was canceled, and tensions between the nations escalated again.

The document is from the Khrushchev Visit Sept. ’59 (2) File, Box 48, International Series, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Papers as President, 1953-61, Dwight David Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Kansas.

Teaching Activities

1. Introduce the document by placing it in context for the students. Tell them who wrote the memorandum, to whom it was written, when it was written, and for what purpose. Explain "the present situation" referred to in the document. Discuss with students the "dangers" implicit in the situation and the strategies that the memorandum outlined for the President. Students should then restate Khrushchev’s probable points in their own words.

2. Many terms mentioned in this document need to be identified for students. Ask the students to locate the following terms in the memorandum: balance of power, Soviet bloc, arms limitation, peaceful co-existence, "Foreign Affairs," bilateral relations, re-militarization, summit conference, and Camp David. Using the resources in the classroom (textbooks and reference books), ask students to explain each term.

3. Discuss with students the elements of competition. You might use sports as a frame of reference, keeping in mind that there are differences as well as similarities in an analogy. Direct students to apply these elements to U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations in the 1950s and early 1960s. They should consider: the goals and objectives, the ground rules, the areas of competition, the strategies, the victories and defeats for both sides, and the consequences of competition. They should discuss how these considerations affect foreign relations.

4. Develop a definition of "agenda" with the students. What is the purpose of an agenda? Who frequently uses an agenda? Why is an agenda useful? Direct students to attend a meeting where an agenda is used. Give students the worksheet to complete.

5. After researching the situations in Berlin and Laos in the late 1950s, students should write a summary of the events preceding Khrushchev’s visit to the United States. They should then discuss the United States’ commitments to Berlin and Laos mentioned in the document, and the changes in United States policy toward the Communist world as defined by Secretaryof State John Foster Dulles. Students might mention some additional examples of "honoring our commitments" in the world (e.g., Vietnam, Grenada). As a follow-up to Activity 5, ask the students to look again at page 1 of the document, item II-A. Examine with them the language of the item and the implications of phrases like "to make Khrushchev understand," "the risks of war," "we intend to honor our commitments," and "forced to intensify."

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Click the image to see a printable, full-page version of this teaching activity

6. In a 1959 article which appeared in Foreign Affairs, Khrushchev defined peaceful co-existence as "peaceful competition for the purpose of satisfying man’s needs in the best possible way." Divide the class into small groups to make lists of ways countries of such differing systems as capitalism and communism can compete without resorting to arms. Recognize the group with the best list.

7. Ask the librarian or media specialist for photographs, films, or written descriptions of the two world leaders. Using the material available, ask students to (a) study the examples for mannerisms, voice quality, and other clues to personality, (b) carefully read the document again for the tactics outlined for Eisenhower and the positions expected from Khrushchev, and (c) choose a partner and role-play the initial conversation between the two leaders.

Note: Learning Corporation of America has published a film entitled "Khrushchev: The Bear’s Embrace" as part of a series, Leaders of the Twentieth Century: Portraits of Power. Other useful sources of information for this activity are students’ parents and other adults.


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Chicago: "State Department Briefing Notebook for President Eisenhower," Teaching With Documents, Volume 1 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989), 197–202. Original Sources, accessed December 7, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=5SK8A3U8AZRW1LX.

MLA: . "State Department Briefing Notebook for President Eisenhower." Teaching With Documents, Volume 1, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Vol. 1, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989, pp. 197–202. Original Sources. 7 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=5SK8A3U8AZRW1LX.

Harvard: , 'State Department Briefing Notebook for President Eisenhower' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 1. cited in 1989, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board, Washington, D.C., pp.197–202. Original Sources, retrieved 7 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=5SK8A3U8AZRW1LX.