When Khrushchev’s comic escapades warmed up the Cold War
Nikita S. Khrushchev was a walking bundle of contradictions. He rose to power in the Soviet system in the service of the dictator Josef Stalin. Following Stalin’s orders, Khrushchev was complicit in the deaths of many innocent people. Yet after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev, in a four-hour public address, courageously revealed the truth about Stalin’s many crimes against humanity. Khrushchev could, within a few seconds, be charming, funny, rude and frightening. All of those aspects of his personality were on display for the American public when he toured the United States for two weeks in 1959. It was a rare interlude in the Cold War, at a time when the possibility of war between the world’s two superpowers was on many minds throughout the world.
Peter Carlson, a former Washington Post feature writer and columnist, brings this unique trip vividly to life in K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist. American reaction to Khrushchev reveals much about the mood of our country at the time and makes for fascinating reading.
Khrushchev’s own reactions are equally engrossing. At banquets with speakers extolling the virtues of capitalism, the Soviet Leader defended Communism and threw tantrums, refusing to concede the U.S. any point of superiority. In Hollywood he met movie stars like Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, and was invited to watch the filming of the movie Can-Can where, although he appeared to enjoy himself, he later objected to the dancing. He threw a major tantrum when told he could not go to Disneyland because police could not assure his safety. On a corn farm in Iowa Khrushchev was amused when his host, upset at the media circus on his property, started throwing corn stalks at the press. The foreign visitor also brought havoc to a supermarket in San Francisco. And these are only a few of the stories.
Carlson carefully explains the trip within the context of U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations. Just weeks before Khrushchev’s visit, he had his famous “kitchen debate” with Vice President Richard Nixon in Moscow. Seven months after Khrushchev left the U.S., two weeks before a Paris summit of major powers, and six weeks before President Eisenhower’s planned reciprocal trip to Moscow, the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane and captured the pilot. When Khrushchev returned to the U.S. for the 1960 U.N. General Assembly session, he did not get a warm welcome and is best remembered for banging his shoe in outrage over remarks by a Filipino delegate.
The invitation to visit the U.S. almost didn’t happen. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a short and purposely vague letter to the Soviet leader about a possible visit. The note was to be supplemented by an oral explanation from an undersecretary of state. Both sources were to make clear the visit to Camp David was contingent upon a successful resolution of deadlocked diplomatic negotiations in Geneva relating to Khrushchev’s 1958 ultimatum for the Western allies to leave Berlin. However, the state department official misunderstood his role and Khrushchev was not aware of the caveat.
Carlson’s account is extremely well researched and includes interviews with a number of participants, most notably Khrushchev’s son, Sergei. Many of the accounts and memos he quotes are from State Department historical documents. His book is enlivened by many direct quotes from Khrushchev and others. Anyone interested in cultural exchange, international diplomacy and fine writing should enjoy this unique book.
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and frequent contributor to BookPage.