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He Wanted to Go to Disneyland

By (August 1, 2009) No Comment
Kristen Borg

K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist

By Peter Carlson
Public Affairs, 2009

“Khrushchev?” my father said when I told him what I’d been reading lately. “I remember that he banged his shoe at the United Nations.”

I didn’t even know that until I cracked open K Blows Top. But I have the excuse of not having been born until a couple decades later. Besides this, my generation is generally oblivious to the kind of Cold War paranoia that Khrushchev’s name evokes. My father was only a boy in 1960 when the premier’s outburst took place, certainly too young to do more than vaguely connect Khrushchev with bomb shelters—but somehow this one thing stuck.

Khrushchev biographer William Taubman points out that my father isn’t the only one with a limited recollection of the Communist leader:

Ask many Westerners, and even quite a few Russians, about the man who succeeded Stalin and then denounced him, who ruled the Soviet Union for a decade and brought the world to the nuclear brink in Cuba, and what they remember most is the shoe.

Undoubtedly, this shoe-banging (made in protest to a Filipino emissary’s criticism of Soviet colonial policy) is a vivid and memorable image. It left the UN delegates and the public astonished that one of the most powerful men in the world would carry on like an ill-mannered child. The occasion, only captured in photographs, was “both hilarious and frightening”. It certainly must have induced some panic attacks in the decadent, capitalist West. Taking off one’s shoe is a relatively harmless act, if a juvenile and undiplomatic way to express discontent. But in Nikita Khrushchev, who sat at the helm of the Soviet Union and all its nuclear weaponry, such impulsiveness was ample cause for alarm.

All this to say that while this famous tantrum gives one an idea of the premier’s unique personality and leadership style, it is only a glimpse of Khrushchev’s over-the-top tendencies. In September 1959, this portly leader of a Communist superpower played tourist in the United States. As he traipsed across the country, he saw the wonders of American materialism, kissed babies, ate enough to sustain three men his size, and created mayhem everywhere he went. The resulting hilarity and media circus is the subject of Peter Carlson’s historically factual (yet farcical) narrative.

The subtitle of this book immediately caught my eye with its Rocky and Bullwinklesque charm—A Cold War Comic Interlude, you say? Count me in!—but it may puzzle the casual student of history. Carlson’s juxtaposition of the comic with the heightened tension of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ may seem implausible, an attempt to romanticize history just to sell copies of his book. But Khrushchev, that cantankerous Communist devil, refuses to be watered down. If anything, his portrayal here is incredibly real. By faithfully reporting the dichotomy of Khrushchev’s character, Carlson emphasizes his subject’s basic humanity and how strongly he defies being reduced to a historical stereotype. Khrushchev comes to life on these pages in all his complicated glory: a “puzzling, unpredictable, funny, nasty, prickly, charming, insecure, obnoxious, frustrating man”.

In finding a sense of the ridiculous under many a crucial summit, Carlson gives his subject matter both historical and entertainment value. The mingling of those two traits heightens reading pleasure, as you must reconcile your reaction that this is all so hard to believe with the knowledge that it is entirely factual. In his postscript, Carlson throws out a basic historian’s disclaimer, informing us that he tried to portray these events without “embellishing or fictionalizing anything”. Then he qualifies this, mentioning that he didn’t particularly need to take artistic license.

“Why bother?” he jokes. “The truth was stranger than anything I could concoct.”

In other words, buckle up, comrade. Here’s what journalists of the day had to say about this thrilling series of diplomatic debacles…before it was even over:

“This is an interstellar voyage,” wrote Murray Kempton.

“A traveling spectacle that has long passed credulity,” wrote Richard Strout.

“In this grisly political farce being played out under armed guard,” wrote Mary McGrory, “the preposterous has now become an hourly occurrence.”

“Every once in a while you stop and pinch yourself. This trip of Nikita Khrushchev can’t be real,” wrote Arthur Edson of the Associated Press. “It seems like a dream, a nightmare.”

If not a bad dream sequence, Khrushchev’s road trip across America certainly reads like fiction. It even begins with the crafty plot device of an accidental invitation.

In 1958, the premier had issued an ultimatum to the American, British, and French forces occupying West Berlin—they had six months to withdraw, or the Soviet war machine would remove the Western military presence by force. Even though this deadline passed without an attack, Khrushchev still held the threat over their heads. President Eisenhower intended to put strings on his offer. Arrangements for the Communist leader’s visit to America would only be made if he backed down from the crisis he had cultivated in Berlin. But something was lost in translation: Ike’s diplomatic underlings didn’t deliver any such stipulation. Khrushchev eagerly accepted what appeared to be an unconditional invitation.

“To say that this news disturbed me is an understatement,” Eisenhower recalled in his memoir. But revoking the invitation would offend a man who was temperamental at the best of times, and so America prepared for its greatest enemy to tour the country. VP Richard Nixon had already been scheduled to make his own diplomatic mission to the Soviet Union—now his task required an even more delicate balance of diplomacy and standing his ground. He studied folksy proverbs, which Khrushchev was known for spouting, in the hope of besting the premier in a battle of old saws. And the two leaders would square off, all right—in the famous Kitchen Debate, a vibrant description of which occupies the first section of Carlson’s book.

On the home front, newspaper columnists were irate at the idea of “K” (his name was frequently abbreviated, being too long for the average headline) roaming free in America and offered suggestions of the best ways to make him feel unwelcome. Other writings were more overtly hostile: “FBI director J. Edgar Hoover estimated that at least 25,000 Americans wanted to kill Khrushchev,” Carlson writes. On the other hand, the State Department received several letters from the general public offering Khrushchev the hospitality of their “typical American” home, or helpfully suggesting that their state fair/local landmark/modern factory should be added to the premier’s itinerary.

All these reactions to the Soviet’s impending visit only illustrate the media storm that began brewing before Khrushchev ever stepped foot on American soil. The outcome of the visit would obviously be crucial. At best, it was a chance to show off, to see if the wholesome bounty of capitalism could win over the world’s most powerful Communist. At worst…well, pessimists practiced their duck and cover drills. But besides this, such a state visit was unprecedented. Journalists knew this was an once-in-a-lifetime scoop:

Khrushchev’s coming! Khrushchev’s coming!

This was, in the parlance of the journalistic trade, a “holy shit! story.” The enemy, the anti-Christ, the Boogie Man, the national bête noir, was coming to visit! It was unprecedented in American history. George III never dropped by for a chat. Neither did Kaiser Wilhelm or Hitler or Tojo. Truman did not invite Stalin to the White House or ask Mao Zedong if he’d like to go sightseeing. And Khrushchev was not merely coming to meet with Eisenhower—which would be a major story in itself. He would also be gamboling around the country for ten days like a campaigning pol or some kind of Communist Kerouac!

[. . . .]

Maybe there was something in the air in America, some heady, intoxicating vapor that would affect Khrushchev too. Maybe he’d see Broadway or Bourbon Street or the Sunset Strip and fall in love with us. Or maybe he’d have the opposite reaction. Maybe he’d hate America—absolutely detest the country—and return home eager to blow us to smithereens. Who knew?

The stage was set for a truly momentous meeting. Naturally, journalists planned to tag along and see what the punchline to the joke would be. This is the other fascinating aspect of Khrushchev’s tour of the country: the media, as much as the premier, added fuel to this surreal fire. Carlson, who deftly filters his account through the lens of contemporary news articles, is right to emphasize this in his book. After all, this story is not solely about the wily Soviet’s reaction to America, but America’s bewilderment and fascination with him. Such an obsession may be recognizable to us:

One aspect of Khrushchev’s trip was obvious only in retrospect: it had been the television debut of the now-familiar phenomenon of the non-stop, round-the-clock, multiday media circus—a story reported, recorded, and inevitably distorted by an anarchic mob of reporters, photographers, and TV cameramen, who end up dominating the event they are ostensibly covering.

We are presented with an interesting angle on the material, which brings a depth to Khrushchev that biography can’t quite reach. What better way to depict sensational behavior than through a medium prone to hyperbole? How better to match the premier’s quick temper than with the nation’s many volatile pens? The resultant wealth of coverage is a boon, illustrating the Khrushchev mania in an irreverent and full-disclosure manner that makes the reader feel like they were there.

Newspaper clippings set Carlson onto K’s trail in the first place. A columnist and former newspaper writer, the author describes himself as the “most zealous (and perhaps only) Khrushchev-in-America buff”—and it shows in the way he obsessively combed through archives to craft this quasi-biography. Carlson recalls that, as a writer at People magazine, when he needed to kill time, he would sift through old Time-Life clippings, the subject chosen by whim. When he hit upon the surprisingly voluminous library of articles about Khrushchev, it became an addiction. Eventually, he compiled all the bizarre incidents generated by K’s ten-day trip into this book. A unique account took form, more lively than academic, shaped by the best of the newspaper coverage of the day.

The title itself is taken from a New York Daily News headline Carlson found: DENIED TOUR OF DISNEYLAND, K BLOWS TOP. This may perhaps be the second most-known piece of trivia about Khrushchev. Just like the later incident with his shoe, the anecdote serves as an illustration of his easily-roused temper. It’s certainly worth recounting here.

K was a consummate politician—ever aware of his audience—and also a shameless ham. He delivered this rant in a room full of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars and entertainers, a group of people who I’d wager were familiar with histrionics:

“Just now, I was told that I could not go to Disneyland,” he announced. “I asked, ‘Why not? What is it? Do you have rocket-launching pads there?”

The audience laughed.

“Just listen,” he said. “Just listen to what I was told: ‘We—which means the American authorities—cannot guarantee your security there.”

He raised his hands in a vaudevillian shrug. More laughter.

“What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there? Have gangsters taken hold of the place? Your policemen are so tough they can lift a bull by the horns. Surely they can restore order if there are any gangsters around. I say ‘I would very much like to see Disneyland.’ They say, ‘We cannot guarantee your security.’ Then what must I do, commit suicide?”

Khrushchev was starting to look more angry than amused. His fist punched the air above his red face.

“That’s the situation I find myself in,” he said. “For me, such a situation is inconceivable. I cannot find words to explain this to my people.”

The audience was baffled. Were they really watching the sixty-five year-old dictator of the world’s largest country throw a temper tantrum because he wasn’t allowed to go to Disneyland?

What kind of dictator sulks like a child? This man reads like a bipolar Red time bomb: so unpredictable and complex that his behavior defies the rational expectations we have for public leaders. But Khrushchev wasn’t all tantrum and hot air. While his mood often soured when faced with hecklers and hard-hitting questions about censorship and state-sanctioned murder in the Soviet Union, he did have other facets to his personality. He was a former coal miner, enthusiastic about mingling with the American working class (and, shockingly, they him: he was a celebrity, after all, if a dangerous one) and proved to be a savvy player of political games. His bluster, Carlson speculates, was part of a strategy to keep his enemies on their toes.

In a meeting with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, K managed to question-dodge with the best of them, demonstrating he did have tact when it served his needs. Grilled by committee chairman J. William Fulbright on the potential fate of their respective political systems, Khrushchev never lost his cool—or his sense of humor.

“You are convinced,” Fulbright said, “that your system is better than ours—”

“Absolutely convinced,” Khrushchev replied.

“But what happens if it suddenly developed that the capitalist system is better and that more and more people prefer capitalism to socialism?” Fulbright asked. “Would you put up with that, or will you use force?”

“If history should show that capitalism proves more able than communism, I would be the first to raise my hand in favor of capitalism,” Khrushchev replied. “One cannot favor poverty for the people. However, in that event, I might have to decide whether I should join the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. That would be a difficult choice because I don’t think there is much difference.”

The senators laughed, and Fulbright said, “I can tell you which party is better.”

“You would advise me,” Khrushchev said, “but maybe not correctly.”

A far cry from his prediction only three years earlier that “we will bury you.”

Considering Mr. K’s unique brand of showmanship and statesmanship, it is small wonder that the reader’s attention is so easily snagged. It’s just too crazy to believe it really happened, and it engages the reader in a rollercoaster ride of incredulity. And the trip is utterly wonderful! That this paradoxical Russian politician can still elicit such a reaction, even fifty years later and through secondary sources, must surely stand testament to how unforgettable he was in person. It is an irony that for the most part the intricacies of his personality have been forgotten, at least until Carlson decided to write this book.

K consumes hot dog in Iowa
(from the book)

The author’s enthusiasm for the subject is evident, and results in a light-hearted and accessible treatment of the Cold War and its key players. Fidel Castro even has a cameo or two. The only complaint I would make is that in trying to recreate the social atmosphere of the time (an important endeavor, to be sure), Carlson makes a few stylistic stumbles. There are not many, but they can be disorienting. The book’s chronological organization has a bit of a rocky start—we are fed brief historical facts that aren’t elaborated on until the author catches up with himself later (presumably having gotten his timeline in order). And there are a few questionably relevant digressions: for instance, we need to know that Francis Gary Powers was shot down in a reconnaissance flight over Russia, not the particulars of his conjugal visit in prison. Whether Carlson was trying to lay the groundwork for a history somewhat grander in scope, or just didn’t get those last couple bugs out of his manuscript, I can’t say. For the most part, though, the humorous and human angle that has served him well so far in this work stays in the forefront.

The sense of greater historical significance Carlson wants to evoke does eventually play out in the right way. Besides presenting us with an absorbing portrait of a very interesting man, the author performs the additional service of reminding us of the serious side to this Communist comedy of errors. The delicate political context surrounding this epic visit, despite how Khrushchev’s theatrics often overshadow it, merits consideration:

The trip was more than a summit conference; it was a two-week nonstop cultural exchange, a chance for the world’s two superpowers to peek behind their comfortable myths and observe each other up close. After seeing the country for himself, Khrushchev could no longer view America as a nation riven by Marx’s inevitable class conflicts and ripe for revolution. And after watching Khrushchev, a man bursting with familiar human quirks and foibles, Americans could no longer see the Soviet Union as a nation of brainwashed automatons led by a faceless, malevolent Big Brother. The trip was, if nothing else, a victory for nuance.

This doesn’t mean Khrushchev and Eisenhower became fast friends. As a matter of fact, very little diplomatic progress was made when the two leaders met at Camp David on the tail end of K’s fantastical odyssey. And so it is logical that the third section of this book doesn’t end up as light-hearted as the first two: subjects like U-2 spy flights and the Cuban Missile Crisis are weighty in significance, and even the premier’s antics don’t change that. Even so, you will want to look elsewhere for an extended analysis of those topics, as Carlson tends to focus instead on Khrushchev’s love affair with the media. What this mercurial finale instead accomplishes is the retracing of the line between the premier’s power and his temper, with deadly earnest finally added to the mix. As the world came within a hairsbreadth of nuclear war in the Cuban standoff, it was a powerful reminder that nobody could predict what Khrushchev would do next.

Not that anyone who heard his outbursts in America didn’t immediately come to that conclusion, and worry that he would blow up their major cities at the slightest provocation.

Somehow, I think Khrushchev would have found that funny.

Kristen Borg moved from Phoenix to Boston in 2008 to earn her M.A. at Emerson College, and only recently thawed out. This is her first piece for Open Letters Monthly.

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