In a post I wrote earlier this month about the best Cold War memoirs, I noted that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was one of that era’s more blustery figures, telling the West that “we will bury you” and banging his shoe at the United Nations. What I didn’t mention was his mesmerizing, almost surreal twelve-day visit to the United States in September 1959. That visit is the topic of what looks to be a fascinating new documentary called Cold War Roadshow that premieres tonight on PBS.
Khrushchev’s visit came about as the result an error. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had intended to invite to the Soviet premier to visit the United States provided that the two countries settled their differences over West Berlin. But the invitation letter that went to Moscow inadvertently omitted that condition. Khrushchev immediately said yes to the invite, and Eisenhower honored his invitation.
The merits of the letting the leader of America’s archenemy come to the United States were hotly debated. The visit was taking place at the depths (or if you prefer, heights) of the Cold War. Two years earlier, the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, prompting many Americans to fear that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union militarily. So it was hardly surprising that Sen. Thomas J. Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, denounced the visit, saying, “Over the years there must have been an imperceptible erosion of our moral consciousness…which represents a softening of our determination to resist.” But his fellow Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson called the visit a “very excellent thing.”
Khrushchev’s trip became a media sensation. The press followed his every move. Whenever they could, they wrote catchy headlines about his activities. And the Soviet premier, living up to his reputation, gave them plenty of material.
Khrushchev’s itinerary began with a stop in Washington. But he was soon on the road. Over the next ten days he crisscrossed the country. He petted a pig in Maryland, had tea with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saw the Empire State Building (he wasn’t impressed), triggered near pandemonium at a San Francisco supermarket, and ate his first hot dog in Des Moines, Iowa (he loved it). He also spent a day in Los Angeles, where he toured Twentieth Century Fox studios (and the set of the movie Can Can) and dined with Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and a host of other Hollywood stars. Khrushchev ended his trip back in Washington at a summit meeting with President Eisenhower. Vice President Nixon, who just two months earlier had jousted with Khrushchev in their famous “kitchen debate,” took the Soviet premier to the airport to catch his flight back to Moscow.
In all, Khrushchev got to see a big chunk of the United States. But he didn’t get to visit one place he wanted to see: Disneyland. The Secret Service and local police, worried that crowds at the park would make it impossible to guarantee Khrushchev’s safety, nixed a planned visit. The fiery-tempered Khrushchev did not take the news well.
And I say, I would very much like to go and see Disneyland. But then, we cannot guarantee your security, they say. Then what must I do? Commit suicide? What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place that can destroy me?
The press loved the outburst. The New York Daily News ran with the headline, “Denied Tour of Disneyland, K Blows Top.”
Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to the United States didn’t temper his view of the West. His shoe banging incident at the UN was still to come, as were the construction of Berlin Wall and the Cuban missile crisis. And while Khrushchev would return to the United States to attend the UN General Assembly, he never did manage to make it to Disneyland.