The Dictator on the Ranch

by Published on
PHOTO BY ABBIE ROWE, COURTESY JFK LIBRARY
Presidents Kennedy and Khan in July 1961.

The late spring of 1961 was a rough time for President John F. Kennedy. The residual thrills from his inauguration in January and his razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon the previous year had long since vanished. By May, the botched Bay of Pigs invasion had nearly derailed his presidency and convinced many in Washington, D.C., that he was as weak on communism as they’d always thought he was. The 13 days of backbone the young president would exhibit during the Cuban missile crisis were still more than a year away. In the meantime, he needed a public-relations victory to convince the world that he could be tough, not just inspirational.

Enter Ayub Khan. In 1961 Khan was president of Pakistan, the beneficiary of a 1958 military coup that destroyed a promising young democracy. Khan was a dictator. He was also D.C.’s man in South Asia. In exchange for military aid, development money and countless other kinds of American largesse, Khan offered the United States a strategic foothold in its Cold War against the Soviet Union, providing intelligence and land for military bases and safe haven for spy planes. (The ill-fated U-2 adventure, in which a U.S. spy plane was shot down over Soviet airspace, began at Pakistan’s Peshawar Air Station.) Khan was narcissistic, corrupt and indifferent to the principles of a democracy, but he was a company man.

In July 1961 he came to visit Kennedy. The American president, battered and bruised, knew he had to make the most of the trip. He needed to paint this dictator as a symbol of freedom in South Asia, to show the country and the world that together they were building a defensive wall in Pakistan against the communist menace. To accomplish all that, the U.S. would have to devise a diplomatic masterpiece.

On July 11, Khan arrived in Washington and received what could only be called a hero’s welcome, full of more pomp, circumstance and American reverence than many heads of state would receive today. After a state dinner at Mount Vernon, a speech before a joint session of Congress, and a ticker-tape parade in New York City, Khan was taken to the ranch of Vice President Lyndon Johnson in Stonewall, Texas, where he was feted with real serve-yourself Texas barbecue, complete with tin coffee cups and mariachi bands. The whole episode had an Alice in Wonderland quality about it: the Dictator on the Ranch.

Earlier, in front of the White House press corps, Kennedy told the corrupt leader of a country that had, by that point, been under martial law for almost three years, “You come as the head of a country … which represents a powerful force for freedom in your area of the world.”

Thankfully the U.S. Information Service got Kennedy’s speech and Khan’s trip on film and edited them into a 20-minute exhibition of newsreel propaganda and geopolitical pandering titled America Welcomes President Ayub. In 2007, the film found its way to the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI), a little-known, Austin-based nonprofit that digitizes Texas-related moving images in an effort to preserve and restore the state’s cinematic output and help historians piece together state history.

TAMI acquired Ayub from Gordon Wilkison, a longtime Austin-based television producer and Johnson associate who also gave 1,000 other videos to the archive. In spring 2009, TAMI staff digitized the video and added it to an online library alongside thousands of hours of Texas-centric motion pictures: parades, home movies, wrestling displays, all-girl rodeos, old commercials for office furniture warehouses in Lubbock, public safety announcements and informational films produced by groups like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to name a few.

Every year, Caroline Frick, TAMI’s director and creator, and her staff receive hundreds of films from sources across the state and country, so they at first didn’t think much of America Welcomes President Ayub. As far as they were concerned, the film featured footage of Johnson and was shot partially in Texas, fitting the archive’s criteria for inclusion in its online library.

Your average TAMI video—Fire Prevention Public Safety Announcement or Citrus Queen Pageant and Parade or even Southwest Airlines Commercial No. 1 – Hostesses in Hotpants—generates about 600 hits, most from curious visitors clicking on the website’s “random film” link. But in spring 2011, Ayub started getting thousands and thousands of hits, right around the time SEAL Team Six slipped into Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden. The incident angered many Pakistanis and once again raised doubts about their country’s relationship with the United States. The TAMI footage of Khan was quietly becoming a flashpoint for debate about the value of that relationship. Some viewers, commentators and linkers—many of whom were in Pakistan—pointed to the film as a happy relic from the “good old days” when a Pakistani president could travel to the most powerful country in the world and be treated with respect. Others saw Khan selling out his country for personal gain, in the process inaugurating a relationship in which Pakistan would be repeatedly treated like America’s pawn in a series of chess matches with the eastern world, first with the Soviets, then the Iranians, and now the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

As is frequently the case with viral phenomena, it was hard to pinpoint exactly why and how Ayub moved through the virtual world the way it did. TAMI staffers think the first site on which the footage was reposted is HistoryofPIA.com, a tribute page celebrating Pakistan International Airlines. Interest in the Khan film was at first purely aeronautic: A visitor screen-named FullThrust posted the footage because it featured Khan flying on a PIA 707. Abbas Ali responded that the plane was actually a Pan American World Airways Boeing 707-321 (registration N723PA), which was acquired on lease by PIA in 1960 and then returned two years later after the airline purchased three brand-new 720B jets. But it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn political, or at least reflective. Adnan Anwar interrupted an argument about how many 720Bs PIA had purchased with this: “Wow, a very touchy video about what Pakistan was headed for, what respect we had, and now what we are today in current circumstances.” The debate was on.

From HistoryofPIA.com, the TAMI footage made its way around the Internet, and the ideological spectrum, from PakPassion.net, where one visitor pointed to the footage as proof that Khan had started the “culture of being puppets to Americans,” to the home page of the nonprofit Sargodhian Spirit Trust, which reposted the film under the title Nostalgia. At the website Pakistan Defence, the reaction was ironic: “First the warm welcome and now the drone attacks. Oh America! How much I love you so!” Ayub, a forgotten newsreel from the 1960s with murky modern-day geopolitical implications and starring a long-dead South Asian president, was a viral sensation. At last count, the video had been viewed more than 69,000 times on the TAMI page. The second-most-popular film on the site, 1949’s Our Home Town: San Marcos, has gotten just over 18,000 hits.

When I spoke with Frick about the America Welcomes President Ayub phenomenon, she claimed no credit for it. As the head of a tiny nonprofit film archive trafficking almost entirely in obscure footage of obscure people, she’s gotten used to her life’s work being ignored. That a deceased Pakistani military dictator has become TAMI’s first and only matinee idol amuses her.

“It’s really hard for tiny organizations like ours to get any traction these days. We can’t get the word out in the din that is the World Wide Web. People are struggling with how to rethink marketing to get this stuff out there,” Frick says. “And then along comes this Ayub Khan video, which was just a complete fluke.”

The best of all possible worlds for an archivist is when a historical piece, whatever its content, brings about serious cultural discussion. Frick, who started TAMI in 2002 while pursuing her doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin, couldn’t have asked for anything more when her organization acquired Ayub. “This experience really validated what we’re trying to do, because out of nowhere this became an important film in social and cultural discourse in a way we never imagined it would. This has given me a renewed faith that there is value in what we’re doing,” Frick says.

Frick gets her faith renewed and viewers of the film access a new—or at least rediscovered—perspective on a very old predicament.

America Welcomes President Ayub captures a particular moment in the history of U.S./Pakistan relations, but not a particularly strange one. Watching the video now, nearly 11 years into the war on terror, is a reminder that our country’s special friendship with Pakistan hasn’t changed much since 1961. It’s still a relationship built on mutual mistrust, self-interest and lies. Consider events in the last two years: the shooting of two Pakistanis in Lahore by a CIA agent; the U.S.’s secret invasion to kill bin Laden; drone air strikes last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border; Taliban attacks on major cities in Afghanistan that the U.S. claims were launched from inside Pakistan’s tribal belt. Yet the relationship continues.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have called Pakistan a partner in the war against terror, knowing that Pakistan harbors terrorists. Similarly, Kennedy called Ayub Khan a fearless leader in the fight for freedom, even though Khan was a petty tyrant. America Welcomes President Ayub ends with a narrator stating that Khan was leaving “a people impressed by his force and loyalty and a nation convinced of the solid friendship between the United States and Pakistan”—the perfect sales pitch for a young, insecure president stumbling though the Cold War. Sixty years later, the newsreel demonstrates America’s boundless capacity for self-delusion when it comes to Pakistan. No wonder it went viral.

Josh Rosenblatt is a contributing writer at The Texas Observer.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.