In 1959, with the Cold War in full throttle and MAD the doctrine of the day, Nikita Khrushchev crisscrossed America in a whirlwind circus of a tour, from Harlem to Hollywood. Peter Carlson, author of “K Blows Top,” sifted through the newspapers of the day to piece together an account of the visit.
Jimmie DriftwoodArtist: Bear Flew Over the Ocean
[NIKITA KRUSCHEV SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN]
WALTER CRONKITE: This is the voice of Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev, a voice which became familiar to Americans in the fall of 1959 when he and his family spent 13 days touring the United States.
BOB GARFIELD: Fifty years ago, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev flew to the United States at the invitation of President Eisenhower, in part to discuss the ongoing vexing issue of the fate of Berlin, but also to simply see America. With the Cold War in full throttle and mutually assured destruction the doctrine of the day, Khrushchev crisscrossed the country in a whirlwind circus of a tour, from Harlem to Hollywood, and points in between. Following closely behind was a flock of eager reporters who chronicled the bizarre trip, one of the first round-the-clock news events in modern journalism. Former Washington Post reporter Peter Carlson sifted through the newspapers of the day to piece together a funny [LAUGHS] and enlightening account of the visit. In K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist, Carlson says that Khrushchev landed in the United States on September 15th, 1959 at Andrews Air Force Base, where Ike and other American dignitaries awaited his arrival.
PETER CARLSON: While Ike is making his rather dull little welcoming speech, Khrushchev was waving his hat and winking at a girl and watching a butterfly go by and generally stealing the scene. One reporter described him as a shameless vaudevillian. It was quite obvious to everyone that this guy was going to be totally unpredictable and he was going to do or say whatever he wanted to.
BOB GARFIELD: There were to be another, what was it, 12, 13 days of vaudeville to follow. Give me some of the highlights.
PETER CARLSON: Well, he went to New York, where he was stuck in an elevator at the Waldorf Astoria.
[BOB LAUGHS] Henry Cabot Lodge, who was our U.N. ambassador, had to push Khrushchev’s butt to help him climb out of the elevator. He also went to Hollywood to a formal luncheon at 20th Century Fox, and all the Hollywood stars were there, except those who refused to go, one of them being Ronald Reagan. But Marilyn Monroe was there and Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra and Zsa Zsa Gabor and Dean Martin and many, many others. And Khrushchev got into an argument with the head of 20th Century Fox, Spyros Skouras, about which one had risen higher from a more impoverished background. Khrushchev was very, very funny. And everything was going fine until he was told that he couldn't visit Disneyland that afternoon because they were afraid they couldn't control the security there.
BOB GARFIELD: Hence, the title of your book, K Blows Top. He did, eh?
PETER CARLSON: The title is from a wonderful Daily News - New York Daily News headline, “Denied Tour of Disneyland, K Blows Top.”
[KHRUSHCHEV SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN]
KHRUSHCHEV’S INTERPRETER: For me, such a situation is inconceivable.
[KHRUSHCHEV SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN]
KHRUSHCHEV'S INTERPRETER: I cannot find words to explain this to my people.
[KRUSHCHEV CONTINUING IN RUSSIAN]
PETER CARLSON: He threw this temper tantrum and then sort of calmed down and went across the street to a 20th Century Fox sound stage where he watched Shirley MacLaine and 15 other beauties record a rather risqué dance scene for the movie Can-Can.
MAN: This number, appropriately enough, is called Live and Let Live, and it’s a marvelous idea. Gentlemen. [APPLAUSE/MUSIC]
MAN: Live and let live.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
PETER CARLSON: He looked like he was enjoying it, but the next day he told the reporters that it was decadence. He said, “Mankind’s face is more beautiful than its backside.”
BOB GARFIELD: More poetic words never spoken.
PETER CARLSON: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Among the other [LAUGHS], among the other stops was one in San Francisco, where a riot ensued in a supermarket, and a trip to Iowa and a corn farm there, where there was a battle royale between the press and the landowner. Tell me about those episodes.
PETER CARLSON: In the supermarket in San Francisco, there was a riot, not of people trying to hurt Khrushchev but people trying to get close to him, touch him and shake his hands. Those were the shoppers. And then the Soviet guards got around him, and that prevented the photographers from taking pictures of them. So the photographers, of whom there were dozens, they were climbing up on the meat counter, walking in the chicken. One of the butchers tried to haul one of them down. They were climbing on a display of instant coffee, knocking the cans down. The cans exploded on the floor. Then the shoppers started chasing Khrushchev around, some of them in shopping carts. They started tumbling out of the shopping carts. [BOB LAUGHS] In fact, the Associated Press reporter wrote a great lead about it. It went like this: “It was like the happy hour in a manic depressive ward, like the year of the locusts, like the bull in a china shop, like the night the dam burst, like crazy, man.”
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, it was also like crazy, man, in Iowa when Khrushchev went to visit an acquaintance, a farmer named Randall [Roswell] Garst.
PETER CARLSON: Yes, Garst had sold Khrushchev seed corn. Both Garst and Khrushchev were corn freaks. They believed that corn would solve the problem of world hunger and that corn would feed everyone and everyone would be happy. And Garst was appalled at all the reporters, so he had gone up to Khrushchev the night before and said, look, I'll come by at 6:30 in the morning at your hotel in Des Moines and we'll sneak out and I'll show you my farm without all these pesky reporters. Khrushchev didn't agree. He said it would be like a bride in the Caucuses eloping. So when they got to the farm, the place was swarming with the media - photographers, TV cameramen and hundreds, literally hundreds of reporters. James Reston said, everything was wired for sound but the hogs. And as Garst was trying to show Khrushchev the wonders of his corn crop, the photographers kept getting in the way. And at one point he pulled a stalk of corn out of the ground and used it as a spear and charged the photographers. Well, these photographers were not raw recruits. They were the battle-hardened veterans of the battle of the supermarket, so they just stood still and held their ground and took pictures of this. So Garst started picking up silage from the ground and throwing it at the photographers. Meanwhile, Khrushchev was standing there roaring with laughter.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the publicity was kind of a mixed blessing for Khrushchev. It showed him being very quick-witted and funny and unpredictable, but not always in a good way. He would go into these frightening, raging fulminations about the Disney trip, and there were a couple of other incidents that, you know, made you really wonder whether this guy was stable enough to have his finger on the nuclear button.
PETER CARLSON: That’s true, and on at least three occasions he scared the hell out of the people who were watching him with one of these totally unexpected tantrums. And by the end of the tour, people in the press and State Department people who were along on the tour were wondering, is he faking these tantrums or are they real tantrums? So I asked his son, Sergei Khrushchev, who is now a professor at Brown University, who was on the tour, and he says, yes, he was mad, but he was also acting. He thought he could gain something by throwing these tantrums, and what he thought he could gain was to be treated better by the Americans. In one tantrum he got upset at a question asked by the press, so he thought they would stop ask negative questions. In another, he had been insulted by the mayor of Los Angeles.
MAYOR NORRIS POULSON: Now, Mr. Chairman, I want to say in the most friendly fashion, we do not agree with your widely quoted phrase, “We shall bury you.” You shall not bury us, and we shall not bury you. We are happy with our way of life. We recognize its shortcomings and are always trying to improve it. But, if challenged, we shall fight to the death to preserve it.
PETER CARLSON: After he was insulted by the mayor, he went through a regular speech of maybe 15 minutes’ duration, and then lost his temper about the insult.
[BOB LAUGHS] In that particular tantrum, he said he was going to fly home early, and he reminded Americans that he was turning out missiles like sausages.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter, towards the end of your book, you quote the historian Daniel Boorstin calling the Khrushchev trip the first “pseudo-event” manufactured for the sake of simply getting media coverage. But doesn't that gloss over the fact that this was the first summit between superpowers, in the midst of a very tense Cold War?
PETER CARLSON: Well, they had met before. Ike had met in Geneva and, of course, Roosevelt and Truman had met with Stalin. The difference with this one is that the big deal wasn't the summit, although Eisenhower thought that was the big deal. Khrushchev understood that his tour itself was what he was interested in doing. He knew that he was trying to get TV coverage to show his people back home and the people in the United States and around the world himself and his dynamic new Soviet Union, which was, he believed, on the rise. And he knew that it was a big TV show. So, for the ten days of the tour, before they got to the summit at Camp David, Khrushchev was just performing for the media. And, of course, the media loved it.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter, thank you very much.
PETER CARLSON: Well, thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter Carlson is author of K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist.
[SONG, UP AND UNDER]
JIMMY DRIFTWOOD, SINGING: The bear flew over the ocean To see what he could see He saw a friendly nation He saw a friendly nation He saw a friendly nation And all of our people were free-ee, oh Big bear go back and tell them Big bear go back and tell them Big bear go back and tell them That all of our people are free.
[SINGING, UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Michael Bernstein and P.J. Vogt, with more help from Sarah Fidelibus and Kasia Gladki, and this week edited by our senior producer, Katya Rogers. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
John Keefe is our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Bob Garfield.
Goodbye, good luck, friends!