RIDING OVER THEM ON MY WAY TO CHURCH that September Sunday in 1959, I looked down at the railroad tracks beneath my bike’s tires, mindful that just a few miles down those tracks Nikita Khrushchev would soon be stopping at the Santa Barbara station, on his way from L.A. to San Francisco and soon to ride over this very same spot. Earlier that year my parents had taken my sister and me to the Airport Drive-In to see The Journey, starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, about Budapest in 1956. I knew it was Khrushchev who ordered the Soviet troops to open fire in Hungary. Brynner played an honorable Russian in that movie (how could he not be honorable, having met Deborah Kerr?). He was free to visit any time. But I didn’t want Khrushchev anywhere near my home.
Not everyone agreed. According to my hometown News-Press, some 2,000-2,500 locals greeted him during his 13-minute layover, which saw him leave the train for some smiles and waves, “appearing more as a whistle-stopping Harry Truman than the boss of world Communism,” as the paper put it. Later he would thank the town’s mayor for being so cordial, in contrast to L.A. Mayor Norris Poulson, who nearly caused an international crisis the previous night with his thunderous denunciation of Khrushchev. Those were the days.
Many of them are captured by veteran journalist Peter Carlson in his excellent recreation of Khrushchev’s ten-day visit to America, K Blows Top (Public Affairs). Anyone who remembers those times knows they occurred only yesterday — 50 long years ago. From that perspective it’s easy to laugh the visit off as a “Cold War comic interlude,” as Carlson does in his subtitle. At the same time Carlson, in that knowing anti-anti-Communist way of his former employers at the Washington Post, is also too apt to dismiss anger at Khrushchev’s visit as the product of disgruntled East Europeans or Republican pols like Paulson playing for votes. For all the thoroughness of his research, he seems rather unmoved by the brutality of Communist rule and Russian history.
Perhaps I was expecting too much from someone whose serious interest in the Khrushchev visit began when he still worked for People magazine. Thus it’s only fitting that the worst putdown of Khrushchev in the book comes from a blonde bombshell. Despite playing nice with him during the Hollywood phase of his trip — at a big studio lunch, which Bing Crosby and Ronald Reagan declined to attend — Marilyn Monroe would later tell her maid, “He was fat and ugly and had warts on his face and he growled.” Incidentally, until I read Carlson’s book I didn’t know Khrushchev was barely five feet tall.
Several Americans distinguished themselves during this trip, first and foremost President Eisenhower, who was cool and businesslike throughout and both firm and cordial in the limited contact the two men did have. Ike’s discomfort was forever captured in the photo of him squeezed between Khrushchev and Mrs. K. in the back seat of the presidential limousine for the ride into D.C. from Andrews. One suspects he was happy the U-2 shootdown the following year kept him from having to make a return visit to the USSR.
Henry Cabot Lodge, U.S. Ambassador to the UN and later Richard Nixon’s running mate in 1960, went beyond the call of duty as Khrushchev’s escort in New York and across America. Yet for reasons best known to the Boston Brahmin or moderate Republican in him, he felt compelled to address the standard Soviet critique of rapacious capitalism. At a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria, Lodge told Mr. K. and the 2,000 in attendance that what some call “monopoly capitalism” is actually “economic humanism.” “We live in a welfare state which seeks to put a floor beneath which no one sinks,” he proudly noted.
Others there were less defensive. After Khrushchev delivered his remarks, someone asked him about the unavailability of U.S. media in the USSR. Mr. K did not like the tenor of the question. “Answer the question,” a heckler shouted. Harry Schwartz would report in the New York Times, “No one who was there will soon forget an angry, red-faced Khrushchev waving his fist in the air at the audience.” That’s how I remember him.