History In The Headlines

8 Historic Handshakes

By Christopher Klein
While handshakes are everyday gestures of goodwill, peace and etiquette, a few have produced truly gripping history. As people around the globe celebrate World Handshake Day on June 21, pass the Purell and explore eight of history’s most famous handshakes.

1. Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (April 9, 1865)

Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee

(Credit: Corbis)

The only thing civil about the terrible war between the Union and the Confederacy was its climax. On Palm Sunday 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant strode into the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s farmhouse in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, and shook hands with General Robert E. Lee. Grant tried to break the ice by recalling their only other meeting, during the Mexican-American War. For 25 minutes, the men talked cordially until Lee, tired of the chitchat, brought up the elephant in the parlor: his surrender, the capitulation that would end the Civil War.

2. Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley (December 21, 1970)

Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley

(Credit: National Archives)

Richard Nixon didn’t exactly have a rock and roll persona, which is why the bizarre photograph of the president and “the King” getting all shook up in the Oval Office has become such a cultural icon. The handshake between the odd couple came about after Elvis Presley walked up to a security guard outside the White House that morning with a handwritten letter scribbled on American Airlines stationery. In the note to Nixon, Presley requested a presidential audience and expressed his desire to become a federal agent at large to combat drug abuse in America. A hastily arranged meeting was granted, and the King arrived in appropriately royal garb—a purple velvet cape—carrying a Colt .45 revolver as a gift for Nixon. The two men talked about drug policy, and the president nodded in agreement as Presley badmouthed the Beatles as anti-American. Before leaving, according to a White House memo, Presley, “in a surprising, spontaneous gesture, put his left arm around the President and hugged him.” That afternoon, Presley, who died of a drug overdose in 1977, received a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

3. William McKinley and Leon Czolgosz (September 6, 1901)

William McKinley and Leon Czolgosz

(Credit: Library of Congress)

Few presidents could press the flesh as well as William McKinley. On receiving lines, he even employed his own handshake, the “McKinley grip,” to prevent cramping and to usher through as many as 50 people a minute. During the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, McKinley held one of his public meet-and-greets inside the Temple of Music. When Leon Czolgosz approached, the president noticed what appeared to be a bandage on the man’s right hand. Displaying the nimble skills of a politician, McKinley adjusted on the fly and extended his left hand. At that moment, the assassin fired two shots from a gun hidden underneath the wrappings on his right hand. A little more than a week later, McKinley died from his wounds.

4. Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain (September 23, 1938)

Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain

(Credit: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

With Nazi Germany poised to send troops into Czechoslovakia to occupy the Sudetenland, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain traveled to Godesberg, Germany, for a late-night meeting with Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Hitler greeted Chamberlain at the Hotel Dreesen with a handshake, but the meeting did not go well. Less than a week later, Chamberlain returned to Germany, and the two men struck a deal in Munich. Chamberlain allowed the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland in return for a separate peace between Germany and Britain. The prime minister, who believed Hitler’s claim that he had no further territorial ambitions, said the agreement ensured “peace for our time.” Chamberlain returned to a hero’s welcome in London. He was driven straight to Buckingham Palace to receive royal congratulations and became the first commoner to appear on the balcony before cheering throngs. With the horror of World War II, however, Chamberlain’s handshake with Hitler came to be a symbol of appeasement.

5. Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin (July 25, 1945)

Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin

(Credit: National Archives)

Just weeks after the surrender of Nazi Germany in World War II, Allied leaders met in Potsdam, Germany, to shape postwar Europe and warn Japan of “prompt and utter destruction” if it did not surrender. While President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin posed for a smiling handshake, tensions ran high amid suspicions about the Soviet Union’s intentions in Central and Eastern Europe. Potsdam proved to be the swansong of the three Allies. A day after the handshake, Churchill was out as prime minster following a landslide defeat in parliamentary elections. Less than a year later, he spoke of the “iron curtain” that had cleaved Europe.

6. Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin (March 26, 1979)

Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin

(Credit: Benami Neumann/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

A state of war that had lasted more than 30 years between neighboring countries came to an end with a treaty signing and a symbolic handshake between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The formal signing ceremony of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty on the South Lawn of the White House was one of the highlights of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Carter played a key role in the negotiation of the 1978 Camp David Accords, which laid the groundwork for the treaty. With the agreement, Egypt became the first Arab state to officially recognize Israel. Sadat and Begin shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize.

7. Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat (September 13, 1993)

Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat

(Credit: National Archives)

The South Lawn of the White House was again the setting for a notable handshake in Middle East history when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat were present for the signing of the Oslo Accords, the first face-to-face agreement between Israel and the PLO. Standing in between the two men who had been bitter enemies for decades, President Bill Clinton gently coaxed Rabin and Arafat together for a symbolic handshake, the men’s first. Arafat and Rabin, along with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, were awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately, the peace hoped for by the Oslo Accords failed to live up to the promise of that sun-soaked handshake.

8. Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy (July 24, 1963)

Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy

(Credit: Arnold Sachs/Getty Images)

It was a bright summer day in the White House Rose Garden when President John F. Kennedy emerged to address a group of youth leaders attending Boys Nation in the nation’s capital. One of the boys Kennedy shook hands with that day, 16-year-old Bill Clinton, would become a future occupant of the White House. Clinton pointed to the moment as inspiring him to public service, and the photograph of the handshake between the once and future presidents became one of the enduring images of the 1992 campaign.

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Categories: Adolf Hitler, American Civil War, Bill Clinton, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Middle East, Richard Nixon, World War II