September 15, 2014

A Soviet Leader in the US? Preposterous!

A Soviet Leader in the US? Preposterous!

After years of not recognizing the Soviet Union and then painting it as the root of all evil, September 15, 1959 – 55 years ago from Monday – the US welcomed none other than Nikita Khrushchev, General Secretary of the CPSU.

For the first time ever, a Soviet leader – the face of communism, the hated Bolshevik, the enemy, and so on and so forth – was on American soil. And not with an invading force. General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev had come to visit.

He had been invited earlier the same year by then Vice President Richard Nixon, after a lively but amiable debate at the American National Exhibition in Moscow (video). The debate, which helped build Nixon's toughness factor, featured such typical Khrushchev-isms as “in seven years we will pass you and wave ‘hi’ to you as we go by” and the infamous untranslateable colloquialism “we’ll show you Kuzma’s mother.” The debate was then televised, and the adorably frank Khrushchev made for such good TV that American statesmen were happy to bring the show home.

The interpreter-facilitated Kitchen Debate

And Khrushchev did not fail to deliver. The fun started as soon as he landed on September 15: the plane was too tall for any ramp the American hosts could provide, which Khrushchev was quick to spin into a point in the Soviet Union’s favor (“our planes are too great for those capitalist ramps!”). The networks ran an hour of Khrushchev footage every night of his visit, making him the biggest star on American television.

This was not a diplomatic mission – no major deals were reached, and the speech Khrushchev made at the UN about everyone reducing their militaries and using the money for schools and such was just a propaganda ploy. America was not negotiating with its enemy. She was entertaining him.

And boy was he entertained! In Hollywood, he watched a can-can performance on the set for an upcoming film. In Iowa, he loved how the farmer whose farm he was touring heckled and beat up the reporters that followed him around and trampled the crops. At IBM, he showed little interest in state-of-the-art computers, but was fascinated by the cafeteria, and the nearby supermarket – the unseen wonders of self-service. He was even supposed to go to Disneyland, but it was cut from the itinerary at the last minute due to security concerns.

For a few days, America was Khrushchev's petting zoo

After all the hard-line rhetoric of the Stalin years, this lighthearted visit was a welcome reprieve. The following year President Eisenhower was supposed to pay a return visit, but the era of lightheartedness did not last – in May a US spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, triggering a crisis and destroying hopes for a détente at the upcoming summit. The entertainment was over. It was back to Cold War business as usual.


Smithsonian Magazine video about Khrushchev’s visit.

Also see Peter Carlson's great book on the trip: K Blows Top:

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