The Cold War is over; we won it and we have forgotten about it, because we have hotter things to worry about. Young people now, and those in the future, will watch, say, “Doctor Strangelove,” and be astonished that the world could have organized itself in such a way. If you really want to get in touch with how weird the Cold War years were, a wonderful introduction is “K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America”s Most Unlikely Tourist” (PublicAffairs) by Peter Carlson.
Carlson describes himself as “the world”s most zealous (and perhaps only) Khrushchev-in-America buff.” He is a reporter who used to amuse himself by looking through holdings of the Time-Life library. When on a whim he asked about clippings from Khrushchev”s 1959 visit to the U.S., the librarian said, “Are you sure you want them all?” This was a huge story at the time, and there was a mountain of clippings, including the one from which the title of the book comes: “Denied Tour of Disneyland, K Blows Top.” No, he never got to Disneyland, but he got to plenty of other places he wanted to go, and others the State Department wanted him to go, and it was a very weird 13 days. This is why the phrase “media circus” was invented. Carlson”s hilarious book tells a lot about Khrushchev, but also a lot about America and Americans of the time.
Khrushchev wasn”t even supposed to come. Eisenhower was trying to get him to make some concessions on West Berlin in exchange for an official visit to the U.S., and was dismayed when a State Department official bungled the matter by issuing the invitation without strings attached. Khrushchev was delighted. He was promoting his view of a new communist state. Having denounced his predecessor Stalin three years before, he wanted to show that the terror was over (even though he had had more than a small hand in it) and that just as Russia was winning the space race, it was overtaking bourgeois America, as any communist system would eventually do to any capitalist one. He came to get his message out to the Americans, and while few were buying it, he was generally (but not always) received politely, and often enthusiastically.
Many of the funny situations in Carlson”s book have to do with the clashes of how Khrushchev saw himself compared to how his hosts saw him. He arrived in Washington in his new TU-114 aircraft, which he was proud of because although he had been warned that it might have mechanical problems, it was the world”s tallest aircraft. Eisenhower was there to greet him, however glumly, and gave a speech about universal peace, while his guest waved to the crowd, mugged, winked and held his homburg over his head like a sunshade. When it was his turn to speak, Khrushchev bragged about a recent moon shot, and he later gave Eisenhower a special gift of a model of the craft that had landed on the moon. Ike was glad to get rid of him to his U.S. tour, and Congress arranged for their own sakes that he could not address a joint session because it worked overtime deliberately to adjourn before he got there.
He was off on his tour, accompanied by Henry Cabot Lodge, the American ambassador to the United Nations. He didn”t just fail to get to Disneyland; there were plenty of offers he could not take advantage of from Americans who were curious about him. Officials in Houston offered to guide him through “some very attractive Negro subdivisions.” The Jaycees wanted to give him a Russian translation of the Jaycee creed. A Philadelphia store sent him some shoes and requested he visit them so he could learn how “strong and healthy feet make for a strong and healthy America.” A clothes store in New York took out an advertisement to ask Khrushchev to visit so he could see “the American Way in Action” (which turned out to be prices up to 65 percent below those in other stores). Khrushchev was invited to enter a float at the Apple Festival Parade in La Crescent, Minn. Louis Armstrong suggested he get to a jazz club to witness “the swingin” feel of freedom.” The National Institute of Dry Cleaning announced that Khrushchev and his entire party (including his wife and son) would get free dry cleaning for the whole visit. A publicity agent for the Institute scored further points when he was able to get Mrs. Khrushchev to accept an invitation to a tour of the facility, including the moth zoo where they tested moth-proofing techniques.
Not everyone was friendly. The mayor of Los Angeles gave a speech criticizing Khrushchev”s remark that the Soviets were going to bury the U.S., a statement that Khrushchev had already explained away. It was a tense moment, even though Lodge had managed to prune the speech of grosser insults. Also in Los Angeles, as his motorcade went by, Khrushchev saw a woman holding a sign that said, “Death to Khrushchev, the Butcher of Hungary.” He was furious, and exploded to Lodge, “If Eisenhower wanted to have me insulted, why did he invite me to come to the United States?” It took some time to sort out that Americans put up whatever signs they want, and do not do so at the behest of the government. Khrushchev was baffled: “In the Soviet Union, she wouldn”t be there unless I had given the order.” When he went to see Shirley MacLaine and others filming the movie “Can-Can,” he smiled very nicely to the actress, and later condemned the production as pornographic: “The thing is immoral. We do not want that sort of thing for the Russians.”
Americans in their turn had their opportunities to be baffled by the premier. When he touched down in Washington, an Army wife who was among the crowd to greet him muttered “What a funny little man!” Indeed, this “short, fat bald guy with a major pot belly” was not what central casting would have picked to look like a dictator of the world”s largest country. He was friendly, he made earthy jokes, he genuinely enjoyed much of what he saw, and he loved being the center of attention. When he was confronted with questions about, say, the lack of press freedom in Russia, he would get red in the face and shake his fists in fury, and then he would joke again, and no one knew what to make of it. It is astonishing that he played the American media perfectly. He was folksy, he smiled at pretty girls, he made jokes, and he was a natural showoff. He loved having newsmen and photographers around; he knew he could benefit from collaborating with them, and he made his travels the best television special America could have asked for.
He wound up his tour with an official visit to Camp David, where he and Ike did come up with a tentative agreement about Berlin, and he flew home to wild congratulations. Unfortunately, when Russia downed the U-2 spy plane the next year, he truculently refused any future cooperation, and when he came to the U.S. a second time, his visit was restricted to New York where he was to address the United Nations. This was the scene of his most famous display of anger, pounding his shoe on his desk. (Carlson says it is so famous that millions of people can recall the film of the event and the repeated shoe-blows, but they are imagining seeing such a thing; it happened, but no one made a movie of it.) The year after that there was the Cuban Missile Crisis. And in 1964, Khrushchev was oustered; he viewed even this as a success for the state, since no previous Soviet dictator could have been faced with being told he was no longer suitable and had to retire. His strange tour of the U.S. was a step that kept up the strange status quo of the cold war while still being a diversion. Khrushchev might have been responsible for thousands of deaths, he might be bragging about how many rockets he could lob our way, but he was still a ham who made people laugh. It was a bizarre tour in a weird and distant time, and Carlson”s drily hilarious day-by-day reconstruction of the visit makes for the funniest history book ever.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.