Nixon and Pepsi
Updated: Jul 20, 2018
The sordid history of Richard Nixon knows no bounds, and it is essential to be aware of it as we try to determine the changes that have occurred to the basic philosophy of the government of the United States since the 1950s. Nixon’s career was aided, funded, and abetted by Pepsi Cola from the beginning.
Nixon was a close friend and political ally of Pepsi president Don Kendall. In 1959, the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to set up cultural exhibitions in each other’s countries to illustrate how their people lived their everyday lives. The U.S., with the eager assistance of Pepsi Cola, built a model of a typical American house, with all the modern comforts and conveniences. On the opening day of the exhibit, Vice President Nixon was hosting Russian Chairman Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev became irritated at the number of color televisions throughout the house, and boasted that Russian homes would have superior technology in a year or two. What followed was the famous “kitchen debate” in which Nixon boldly asserted the values of capitalism, insisting that the Russian leader should “not be afraid of ideas.” In front of a contingent of international reporters and photographers, the argument became heated with raised voices and finger pointing, conveniently in the kitchen of the model home and in front of a large Pepsi logo on the wall. After all, doesn’t every middle-class family home have a Pepsi logo on the kitchen wall? Nixon was aggressive, suggesting that Khrushchev's constant threats of using nuclear missiles could lead to war, and he belittled the Chairman for repeatedly interrupting him while he was speaking. His anger growing, Khrushchev warned of "very bad consequences." Then, with all the cameras capturing the scene, Khrushchev coolly reminded everyone that he simply wanted "peace with all other nations, especially America," and Nixon admitted that he had not "been a very good host." Well, it turns out that the entire event had been planned and scripted as a Pepsi Cola publicity stunt, conceived by Pepsi publicist William Safire who would go on to become a White House speechwriter and later, a New York Times publicist.
Nixon’s close alliance with Pepsi was evident throughout his career. When he lost the 1960 Presidential election to John F. Kennedy, Kendall and Nixon’s “honorary father”, Elmer Bobst, the Chairman of Warner-Lambert pharmaceuticals, went to the prestigious New York City law firm of Mudge, Stern, Baldwin, and Todd and convinced the firm to take on the ex-Vice President, in return for which both companies brought their entire corporate business, along with a prosperous municipal bond firm owned by John Mitchell, to the renamed Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, and Alexander. In the hard-fought 1968 Presidential campaign, Nixon charged that McGovern forces had wiretapped his phone, and he directed his old friend Kendall to pressure Pepsi Vice President Cartha (Deke) DeLoach, a log-time FBI executive and close personal friend of J. Edgar Hoover, to corroborate the story. To his credit, DeLoach never confirmed the story, despite Nixon saying publically that if the investigation of the wiretapping turned up anything DeLoach had not revealed, Kendall would, “of course, have to fire him”.
This type of shenanigans went on throughout Nixon’s career. His famous diplomatic journey to the People’s Republic of China in 1972 was the first-ever visit by an American President, and resulted in reopening dialogue between the two countries for the first time in 25 years. It also resulted in Pepsi and its affiliated company, Pizza Hut, being allowed to do business throughout China at a time when no American companies were doing business there.
I learned about these events, and many more Nixon antics, from the 1973 book Perfectly Clear by Robert Kennedy’s Press Secretary, and George McGovern’s national political director, Frank Mankiewicz. Nixon finally resigned from the Presidency in August of 1974, but even before that I had taken certain steps in my life to express my dislike and disgust for the man. For all these many years, I have avoided Pepsi Cola. Growing up, my children thought I was “weird”, but they knew better than to bring a Pepsi onto our property. I have actually gone out to get the morning paper and found Pepsi bottles leaning up against the curb, testimony to my kids’ efforts to keep their old man docile. Business colleagues thought I was “eccentric” as I would not drink Pepsi, even at the most informal lunch gathering.
However, I am not a zealot. When I was in Vietnam in 1967-68, one of the guys in our unit was Dennis Lay. Pepsi did not own Frito-Lay back in 1968. Dennis’ father sent us cartons of Frito-Lay products, very welcome treats in Vietnam. I won’t drink a Pepsi, but I do eat Fritos… out of a sincere feeling of thanks for that kindness.
John Ketwig is a Lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of …and a hard rain fell: A G.I.’s True Story of the War in Vietnam.
Published in VVAW Veteran, November 2016