Castro at the Lincoln Memorial

Between April 15 and April 26 1959–a few months after he took power in Cuba–Fidel Castro went to the United States, invited by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In one of those forgotten episodes of the Cold War, Castro went to the US for loans. Castro hired one of the best public relations firms to present his new government. Castro answered impertinent questions jokingly and ate hot dogs and hamburgers. His rumpled fatigues and scruffy beard cut a popular figure easily promoted as an authentic hero.

However President Eisenhower did not believed Castro’s talk of neutralism in the Cold War. Instead of meeting Castro, Eisenhower left Washington to play golf. Vice President Nixon met Castro in a 3-hour long meeting. Nixon asked about elections, and Castro told him that the Cuban people did not want elections. Nixon complained that Castro was “either incredibly naive about communism or under communist discipline.” His guess, he said, was the former.

Fidel Castro laid a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial–where the moment was immortalized by his photographer Alfredo Korda–and he met the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and told them that he would not expropriate the property of Americans and that he was against dictatorships and for a free press. He went back to Cuba denying that he was a communist because communism was the dictatorship of a single class and meant hatred and class struggle. After his visit to the United States, he would go on to join forces with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, signing into law many Communist-inspired laws starting the next month.

Fidel Castro remained an admirer of Abraham Lincoln for the next half a century. He had a bust of Lincoln in his office, and wrote that Lincoln was devoted “to the just idea that all citizens are born free and equal”, and once even saying, “Long Live Lincoln!”

In Lincoln Memorial

french-and-work-crew

This 1922 National Archives photo show the Georgian marble statue inside the Lincoln Memorial being assembled. It was made by Daniel Chester French, who incorporated the American Sign Language symbols, ‘A’ and ‘L’ to the President’s hands out of gratitude for the late president’s founding of Gallaudet University for the Deaf–something French’s hearing impaired daughter greatly benefited from.

Although a monument to honor the nation’s murdered (and martyred) president was granted by the United States Congress in 1867, a site was not chosen until 1902 in a campaign spearheaded by Teddy Roosevelt. The site, directly facing the Washington Monument, was originally a swampland. Surprisingly, it was an extremely divisive project–too many Confederate soldiers, and their families opposed the idea of a tribute to emancipation. 

The dedication ceremony on May 30th 1922, led by Former President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft and attended by Lincoln’s only surviving child, Robert Todd Lincoln, proved to be equally divisive. Although the blacks were emancipated, Washington D.C. was still officially segregated. Black attendees were shoved to the back and to add insult to injury, their cause was demeaned on the podium where President Harding noted emancipation was sought only as a means to “union and nationality.”

 

Deng Xioping at Lincoln Memorial

During his visit to Washington D.C in 1979, Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping is photographed in front of the Gettysburg Address engraved on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial (31st January 1979). Two days before on 29th, he met President Carter, and signed historic accords which led to the United States granting full diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China later that year. During his visit, the diminutive Chinese leader charmed the Americans; from laying wreaths at the Lincoln Memorial to kissing children to posing with the Harlem Globetrotters, he did everything the Americans expected of a visiting dignitary.

However, the appearances can be deceiving. At home, despite having a lowly title of ‘vice premier’, Deng was a de facto ruler of China. Deaths in 1976 of Mao Tse-Dong and Zhou Enlai led to Deng being re-instituted as vice Premier and his authority eclipsed that of Premier Hua Guofeng. In 1989, he would be solely responsible for the Tiananmen Massacres. Even well into his retirement, he was a shadow influence his successors’ policies and he remained so until his death in 1997. In this new aspect, his diminutive standing in front of the immortal words of Gettysburg Address seemed both symbolic and ironic.