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An Immodest Proposal: Nikita To Adlai

July 2024
5min read

In early January, 1960, Adlai E. Stevenson received a puzzling telephone call at his Chicago law office from Mikhail A. Menshikov, the Soviet ambassador to the United States. Stevenson, who had been the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for President in 1952 and 1956 and was still titular head of the Democratic party, had stated more than once—although some of his friends were not convinced—that he did not intend to run for the Presidency a third time, in 1960.

As John Bartlow Martin reports in the final volume of his biography of Stevenson, Adlai Stevenson and the World , which Doubleday & Company will publish in October, Menshikov said that he had gifts and messages that Premier Khrushchev had sent to Stevenson via the embassy, and asked if he might come to Chicago to deliver them personally. Stevenson replied that he would instead call on the ambassador. The story of this peculiar, intriguing incident, which has never before been revealed, continues as told in Mr. Martin’s forthcoming biography:

On January 16, Stevenson was in Washington, and he paid his promised call on Ambassador Menshikov at the guarded, forbidding Soviet embassy. Stevenson and Menshikov had met several times before. The ambassador was an outgoing man, given to diplomatic courtesies as some Russian emissaries were not. The two men exchanged pleasantries; Menshikov offered caviar, fruit, other delicacies, and drinks. Then at last he came to the point. He carefully withdrew from his pocket a folded sheaf of notes written in ink on small sheets of paper and began to speak, obviously under tight instructions. Stevenson “hesitated for a week before making any record of this curious conversation,” and then dictated the following memorandum:

“Before returning last week from Moscow, he [Menshikov] had spent considerable time alone with Premier Khrushchev. He [Khrushchev] wishes me [Menshikov] to convey the following: When you met in Moscow in August, 1958, he [Khrushchev] said to you that he had voted for you in his heart in 1956. He says now that he will vote for you in his heart again in 1960. We have made a beginning with President Eisenhower and Khrushchev’s visit to America toward better relations, but it is only a beginning. We are concerned with the future, and that America has the right President. All countries are concerned with the American election. It is impossible for us not to be concerned about our future and the American Presidency which is so important to everybody everywhere.

“In Russia we know well Mr. Stevenson and his views regarding disarmament, nuclear testing, peaceful coexistence, and the conditions of a peaceful world. He has said many sober and correct things during his visit to Moscow and in his writings and speeches. When we compare all the possible candidates in the United States we feel that Mr. Stevenson is best for mutual understanding and progress toward peace. These are the views not only of myself—Khrushchev—but of the Presidium. We believe that Mr. Stevenson is more of a realist than others and is likely to understand Soviet anxieties and purposes. Friendly relations and cooperation between our countries are imperative for all. Sober realism and sensible talks are necessary to the settlement of international problems. Only on the basis of coexistence can we hope to really find proper solutions to our many problems.

“The Soviet Union wishes to develop relations with the United States on a basis which will forever exclude the possibility of conflict. We believe our system is best and will prevail. You, Mr. Stevenson, think the same about yours. So we both say, let the competition proceed, but excluding any possibility of conflict.

“Because we know the ideas of Mr. Stevenson, we in our hearts all favor him. And you Ambassador Menshikov must ask him which way we could be of assistance to those forces in the United States which favor friendly relations. We don’t know how we can help to make relations better and help those to succeed in political life who wish for better relations and more confidence. Could the Soviet press assist Mr. Stevenson’s personal success? How? Should the press praise him, and, if so, for what? Should it criticize him, and, if so, for what? (We can always find many things to criticize Mr. Stevenson for because he has said many harsh and critical things about the Soviet Union and Communism!) Mr. Stevenson will know best what would help him.

“The presentation concluded with questions about ‘Mr. Stevenson’s rival,’ meaning Vice President Nixon, and repeated declarations of desire not ‘to interfere in an American election,’ together with many sober statements about the profound ‘interest’ of the Soviet Union, and of all countries, in the American election. The protestations about non-interference were interspersed throughout the presentation, which I did not interrupt. The distaste and mistrust of Nixon was expressed cautiously but clearly. The Ambassador made a gesture of sad resignation about the Khrushchev-Nixon altercation in the model kitchen at the Trade Fair in Moscow, if not saying, at least implying, that Khrushchev had not realized that such an irrelevant dialogue recorded on television would be shown and taken seriously in the United States, to the great political advantage of Nixon.

“While it was not included in the formal presentation of Mr. Khrushchev’s message, it was apparent that they were quite aware of the effect on the Presidential election of the [forthcoming] Summit Conference and Eisenhower’s visit to Russia; that a ‘success’ would redound to the benefit of the Republican candidate which seems to leave them in some dilemma. [This summit conference, scheduled for the coming May in Paris, was cancelled by the Russians after they shot down an American U-2 spy plane over their territory.]

“Mr. Menshikov concluded by saying that this interview was the best evidence of the confidence reposed in me by the Premier and his colleagues and that he had no misgivings about my keeping it in confidence.

“At the conclusion, I made the following points:

(1) My thanks for this expression of Khrushchev’s confidence.

(2) My thanks for this proffer of aid.

(3) However, I was not a candidate for the nomination and did not expect to be a candidate for the Presidency in 1960.

(4) My grave misgivings about the propriety or wisdom of any interference, direct or indirect, in the American election, and I mentioned to him the precedent of the British Ambassador and Grover Cleveland. (He in turn implied that President Eisenhower was not above intervention in the British election last fall; nor Dulles in behalf of Adenauer vs. the Social Democratic party in Germany.)

(5) Finally, I said to him that even if I was a candidate I could not accept the assistance proffered. I believe I made it clear to him that I considered the offer of such assistance highly improper, indiscreet and dangerous to all concerned.

“In thanking Khrushchev for his expressions of respect for my ‘realism and understanding of the Soviet Union’ I said that I hoped that I did have some understanding beyond the ordinary, and that I was sure Menshikov and Khrushchev had come to understand the U.S. much better, about which I found so much ignorance in the Soviet Union.

“I said that I was aware of some of the difficulties of the Soviet Union, especially with respect to China. At this point, Menshikov said with a wry smile: ‘Yes, we may be allies again.’

“His manner was extremely amiable but very serious during his presentation of Khrushchev’s message, which was done in a low voice, in a parlor adjoining the family dining room on the third floor. On two occasions when a waitress appeared with food, etc., he interrupted his conversation.

“On January 22, 1960, I wrote Mr. Menshikov the attached letter:

‘“I am most grateful to you and Premier Khrushchev for the splendid gift you delivered to me at the Embassy in Washington last week. So much delicious Russian caviar and wine may not be good for me—but I like it! I hope you will extend my very warm thanks to Premier Khrushchev, and also my best wishes for his health and happiness in the New Year and the New Decade. That the year and decade will see ever closer and constantly improving relations between our great countries is my highest hope, and I am sure you and Mr. Khrushchev have similar sentiments about our common future.

‘“The confidence expressed in me during our conversation and Premier Khrushchev’s interest in my views were flattering and I wish I could thank him in person. But I must repeat that I will not seek the nomination for President again and that I do not expect to be a candidate of the Democratic party this year. Even if I was, however, I would have to decline to take advantage in any way of the confidence and good will I am happy to enjoy among your compatriots. I am sure you and Premier Khrushchev will understand, and I hope respect, my feelings about the proprieties in the circumstances we discussed, and I trust that my reaction will not be misconstrued as discourteous or ungrateful.

‘“With renewed thanks to you and the Premier, together with my hope that we may have further talks from time to time, I am


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