Nikita Khrushchev was the face of the Soviet Union for 11 years, yet to this day he is defined in the West by one image: banging his shoe furiously upon a U.N. delegate's desk. Was he a short-tempered but essentially good-natured buffoon, or was this the man whose childish overreactions would instigate nuclear war? According to Peter Carlson's diverting new book, K Blows Top, he was both. The folksy farmer-cum-pol was an adroit politician, but he was a rube in strategy and diplomacy. On a 1959 visit to America, it showed.
A novelist couldn't have invented a wackier Cold War interlude than Khrushchev's trip: a midlevel State Department functionary misconstrues instructions from Dwight Eisenhower and accidentally invites the premier to meet the president at Camp David and to tour the United States. Khrushchev breathlessly accepts. Ike can't possibly retract. Madcap hilarity ensues.
Americans knew Khrushchev as the hard-bitten Soviet honcho who had just ordered the Allied powers out of West Berlin (or else!) and told a room full of Western diplomats, "We will bury you." But the hairless tyrant who scrambled around America for two weeks—babysat by the weary U.N. ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, and antagonized at every turn by Vice President Richard Nixon—was more enigma than enemy.
Touring the country, Khrushchev one moment played the statesman who de-Stalinized the U.S.S.R.; the next he threw a tantrum when his American security detail wouldn't let him go to Disneyland. With crowds and cameras, he was a ham—kissing babies and trading his homburg for a unionized longshoreman's cap. But when he was insulted at a banquet by the anticommunist mayor of Los Angeles, he threatened to destroy America. He was cranky when tired and charming when flattered, but slights (real or, often enough, imagined) elicited tirades. Khrushchev was nitroglycerin—harmless chilled, combustible in heat.
Khrushchev returned to Moscow full of bonhomie for "my friend" Eisenhower—until a year later, when he shot down a U-2 pilot. For the effrontery, he loosed a display of histrionics (including the shoe) that set détente back by 15 years, according to his deputy premier.
Carlson paints Khrushchev as a red-faced Zero Mostel for the foreign-policy set, which is partly why the despot had a generation of American children drilling for nuclear war beneath their school desks. Yet it's hard not to feel nostalgic for a time when the threat—a diametrically opposed force, equal but opposite—was mostly predictable. Today's enemies are transnational terrorist groups operating in discrete cells and wielding low-tech weaponry; the lurking specter of global pandemics; a global financial system where a few bad decisions play out worldwide. How do you fight these things? Let the record show that, unlike battling the U.S.S.R., you fight them with very mixed results.