Vice President Richard Nixon arrives in Ceylon, Sri Lanka in October 1953.

In October 1953, Vice President Richard Nixon embarked on a precedent-setting tour of the countries of South and South East Asia. The newly elected Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, reinvented the office of the Vice Presidency by elevating it from a nominal and ceremonial position to one of unprecedented responsibility in US foreign policy.

Nixon’s core remit was to reinforce, consolidate and, where possible, expand the American Cold War sphere of influence in Asia. As part of this tour the Vice President spent three days in Ceylon, an Indian Ocean island state, recently independent from Great Britain. In 1951 Ceylon —which has been known as Sri Lanka since 1972— became the only non communist Asian state to begin shipping strategic materials to the newly communist China. Nixon’s visit to Ceylon, in order to address this (and other issues) personally, became something of a blueprint for US diplomatic operation in South Asia. This landmark visit has never been investigated nor its impact explained.

At just before 1.30pm on the 27th November 1953, on a clear and humid afternoon in tropical Ceylon, a US military transport plane descended from its flight path and touched down on the tarmac of Ratmalana Airport, just south of the Indian Ocean island’s capital, Colombo. As the plane taxied to its disembarking position, a welcome party, including Mr Gunasena de Zoyza, the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs, and Philip K. Crowe, the US Ambassador to Ceylon, awaited the arrival of the plane’s distinguished passenger.

When the silver door  swung open, the Ceylon Army Band struck a rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner”, while a contingent of the Ceylon Army formed a guard of honor in anticipation of Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala’s guest. Vice President Richard Nixon emerged into the glare of the midday sunlight, smiling and waving, his wife Pat by his side.

“Mr Richard Nixon…becomes the first holder of that office to pay a call on this country, and also the first top-ranking American politician of recent times to come here.” 1

Hand held firmly outstretched, America’s Vice-President to the newly -in-office Eisenhower, eschewed formal protocol and marched forward in a bid to connect with “Citizen Per-r-ra”2. His first connection was with a young boy of 12 years old named Siripala, with whom he swapped pleasantries3. The front page of the Times of Ceylon carried a picture clearly indicative of the tenor of Nixon’s visit to Ceylon: shaking hands through the airport barriers with enthusiastic, if slightly bewildered, locals and asking friendly “how do you dos?”, despite the obvious language barrier4 .

Such a high level visit to the newly independent nation of Ceylon was unprecedented, but earlier official visits had followed traditional protocol. So it was much to the visible discomfort of Ambassador Crowe, that Nixon breached diplomatic convention by agreeing to answer questions from the attendant press corps at the airport. As the questions from the press became more challenging, Ambassador Crowe began to look discernibly agitated. When one journalist insisted that Nehru of India had claimed evidence that the US and Pakistan were involved in negotiations regarding a military pact, Crowe decided that he had heard enough. According to the diplomatic correspondent of the Ceylon Daily News, Nixon was politely interrupted and, still smiling, whisked away to his home for the night, room number 24 in Sir John Kotelawala’s Prime Ministerial residence, Temple Trees5. And so began a three day diplomatic tour of Ceylon by the Vice President and his wife. A tour unprecedented in Ceylonese as well as US Vice Presidential history, and one largely, if not wholly, forgotten or ignored by historians and Nixon’s biographers.

When Richard Nixon was chosen by Dwight D. Eisenhower as his running mate for the 1952 presidential election, the office of the Vice Presidency was something of a ceremonial position – one which yielded neither true authority nor substantial responsibility.  Jonathan Aitken, one of Nixon’s early biographers, recognised correctly that, by joining the republican presidential ticket, “…he was taking on a job notorious for its insignificance”6.  However, what Eisenhower knew, in many respects much earlier than Nixon, was that the role of Vice President was about to take on an entirely modern significance.

The demands of the Cold War and, in particular, the spread of its battlefields to the countries of Asia, meant that the American foreign policy network needed a new system of management – a management that would incorporate Asian geo-political subtleties into its rather doctrinaire Cold War, ‘Europe First’, policy complex. Eisenhower (and indeed Washington) was relatively unfamiliar with the dynamics of the individual countries of Asia – many of which were undergoing a process of identity building following the transition from colony to sovereign state. It was in this complex and sensitive context that Nixon “…was being asked to fill a gap in American foreign policy. He seized his chance”7.

Many of the countries of post-war South and South East Asia, ripe with irredentist, nationalist and various post-colonial movements, either viewed the United States with suspicion – as a modern variant of the pre-war coloniser –, or  as was more often the case, as one of the two ideological Cold War centres, to be resisted or embraced. It therefore became of paramount importance – recognised by Eisenhower and Nixon and used as part of their election manifesto  – that America move quickly to assuage the suspicion of the countries of South and South East Asia vis-à-vis colonisation and/or win their ‘ideological’ trust. Enter Vice President Richard Nixon.

“Nixon has now come East for the first time, but he is the representative of a Party whose political program at the last presidential election promised great things for Asia and severely criticised the ‘Asia last’ policy of the Democrats.”8

In his first term as Vice President, Nixon visited thirty-two countries, fifteen of which were in Asia and three in the ‘near East’. Thus, the ‘gaps’ and deficiencies in the American Asia policy were being filled and remedied.

In the early 1950’s, Ceylon was in a state of economic uncertainty and ideological flux – a dangerous combination that was clearly counter to America’s tentative new Asia policy. Out of economic necessity Ceylon became the only non – communist Asian state to begin shipping strategic materials to the newly communist China. Whatever the motivation, the result had been an embargo on American aid to Ceylon. Nixon’s visit to Ceylon, in order to address this (and other issues) personally, would become something of a blueprint for US diplomatic operations in South Asia.

Regardless of what else was taking place in Asia, Nixon himself assigned a degree of importance to Ceylon that, at least in terms of language, was usually reserved for Japan and West Germany. The very day after his return from Asia, Nixon addressed the White House Conference of Mayors, stating dramatically that,

“The rubber and tin of Malaya, Indonesia and Ceylon, in the event of an attempted world conquest, either military or economic, could be decisive.”9

In just forty three and a half hours on the island Vice President Nixon undertook fifteen separate official engagements and his wife, when not in attendance with her husband, was involved in her own very busy schedule.

Perhaps Nixon’s most important engagement was his first after leaving the airport at Ratmalana. He met with Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala at around 2.45 on the afternoon of the 27th, and the main topic of conversation was the Rice-Rubber accord with China and the subsequent US embargo on assistance to Ceylon. What emerged from this first meeting was a reciprocal understanding of the positions held by the two men and their countries. In this sense the meeting, and indeed the trip, was a success. More than that, both Nixon and Kotelawala came away from their meetings impressed, and more importantly reassured, by the other’s agreeable justification for their individual country’s actions; both positive that the future of the bi-lateral connection remained bright. In fact, just over one month later, in a private letter to Nixon, Kotelawala expressed the hope that, “…your visit will be the fore-runner of more visits by you, your President and other members of your Government and that the mutual understanding of our problems would help further strengthen…relations”10.

The limits placed on Nixon by his schedule and his many other duties meant that Pat Nixon was given the de facto role of Cultural Ambassador – an unprecedented responsibility for the wife of a Vice President. Mrs Nixon dedicated her available time to visiting orphanages, hospitals and homes for the aged. Such was her impact that her visits often overwhelmed those that she was visiting. Despite the obvious language barrier she was able to convey a sense of empathy and involvement that helped to overcome the somewhat typical Asian image of Americans as domineering, self-interested imperialists – the image Eisenhower and Nixon were consciously attempting to change by this trip. In a hand written note scribbled in the margin of the weekend’s itinerary, Pat Nixon revealed her surprise at being greeted so warmly and enthusiastically by staff and patients at a home for the aged – she wrote that the “old people were thrilled”, pointing out that nobody, until she arrived, had ever visited them11.


Vice President Nixon’s Itinerary in Ceylon.


The second lady, Pat Nixon, wrote a handwritten note on the VP’s itinerary that described being greeted warmly by natives at a “home for the aged.”

Accompanying Mrs Nixon on a number of her visits was Mrs Irene de Silva (wife of eminent paediatrician Dr. C.C. de Silva). Mrs Silva was no less impressed. In a hand written letter to Mrs Nixon she sums up the dual impact the Vice-President’s wife had during her brief stay in Ceylon: after one of their visits to a hospital, Mrs de Silva wrote that Pat had given “…herself in a real spirit of love and service”.12

Cynics may view Nixon’s tour of the Far East as merely a grand exercise in propaganda, and there is no question that it was planned and executed with that important dimension in mind. But it was no mere play of symbols and imagery. Nixon came to the region to examine the subtleties of Asian private and political life, to reinforce alliances and forge new ones, address concrete issues vital to the national security of the United States, and, where possible, to solve diplomatic problems. What he was able to accomplish (with the help of his wife) on his visit to Ceylon, perhaps more so than in many of the other countries on his itinerary, was to combine the central objectives of his mission into one almost seamless tour de force.

Read the full essay here.