Cold War Roadshow: Khrushchev Comes to the U.S.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev takes part in the American ritual of eating hot dogs, at a factory in Iowa during a visit to the US. Bettmann/Corbis

Three of the most popular figures in 1950s America looked like babies. One of them was a baby -- Little Ricky Ricardo was "born" on I Love Lucy on January 19, 1953, an episode timed to the real-life pregnancy of the show's star, Lucille Ball, and the Caesarian birth of her son, Desi Arnaz, Jr. (Little Desi was never actually on the show; Little Ricky was played by baby twins.) That show was watched by more people than any other television program of the time. It was estimated that 71.7% of the TV's in the nation were tuned in to see "Lucy Goes to the Hospital" -- a full four percentage points more than the number who tuned in to see the Inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower the next day.

Ike was one of the other baby faces of the decade. The third belonged to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who for two frantic weeks in 1959 paid the U.S., his nation's greatest rival, a visit. The accompanying attention was unheard of at the time; not until the Beatles invaded in 1964 would America become so completely unhinged by the arrival of a foreigner, and the spectacle is the subject of an episode of PBS's American Experience ("Cold War Roadshow") that airs November 18.

"It was kind of like the first reality television show," says director Robert Stone of the resulting hysteria. By the end of the decade, the U.S. and the USSR had managed to completely demonize each other and it was to the credit of both Eisenhower and Khrushchev that they arranged the visit to dispel some of the tension. Most Americans knew the Soviet leader for saying of the U.S. and the arms race, "We will bury you." That kind of talk can make people tense.

"This would be far riskier than inviting Vladimir Putin at this particular moment," says Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the president, and one of the few eye-witnesses in the show. (After Ike took Khrushchev to meet his brood, including grandchildren, at the family farm the guest pinned them all with little red stars.) She made those remarks not long after Russia's invasion of Crimea, an event that caused concern, if not outrage, among most Americans.

"I was thinking other historical analogies might be like inviting the Ayatollah [Khomeini], Osama Bin Laden or maybe Saddam Hussein to come go on a two-week tour of the US," says Stone. The director (Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst) had wanted to tell this story for 20 years. "I was researching another film and came across this treasure trove of footage on this singular event. I've always been fascinated by mass media spectacles but I knew very little about this one. I was just astonished at the degree of coverage."

The reporting began with his first appearance in Washington, D.C., when curious onlookers simply stared. They didn't want to cheer the man who said he'd bury them but they didn't want to boo him either (that would be rude). As he traveled with his entourage, which included his 23-year old son Sergei, Khrushchev's celebrity snowballed. On NBC's Today Show they discussed his plans as if it were Elizabeth Taylor's next wedding, and each of the three networks devoted a half hour of primetime every evening to what Nikita did that day.

"He got the power of television before we did," says Peter Carlson, author of a book about the visit entitled K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist. Though we had more TVs than the Russians and the medium was definitely the message, the commies got it first.

"The Soviets very early on had discovered the power of film as a propaganda tool and I think Khrushchev was savvier," says Stone, "knowing how his image on film or television would enhance his status or his message." He wanted to be seen as a dynamic leader and having survived the Second World War and the Stalin purges he probably wondered, as Eisenhower puts it, "What could we possibly do to him?"

The Soviet leader got a lesson in the First Amendment at his very first public event. At a press conference at the Washington Press Club he was asked about the so-called Secret Speech of 1956. In a closed session of the Communist Party Congress the then-new leader took four hours to decimate Stalin's reputation (the title of the speech was "On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences"). Legend has it that in the midst of it someone called out, "Comrade, where were you when Stalin was doing all these terrible things?" Khrushchev reportedly asked whoever asked that question to stand up, and when no one did said, "That comrade is where I was."

While Khrushchev may have grokked the medium, free speech was new to him and he left in a huff ("I will not respond to this question which is meant to be provocative," he said through an interpreter). But by the time he got to L.A., where a Hollywood lunch in his honor included Frank Sinatra, David Niven and Marilyn Monroe, he was more willing to engage. After being informed that he could not go to Disneyland because the city could not guarantee his security, he blew a gasket. In a very funny way.

"What, do you have rocket launching pads there? Is there an epidemic of cholera?" Members of the press (he had 340 reporters following him) were cracking up until he began to bang the podium.

"It was bizarre that an aging Russian dictator would be having such a fit about Disneyland," says Stone. "I'm not sure he really knew what Disneyland was; I think he was more offended that something was being denied to him. They could not imagine that if Eisenhower came to Russia there would be a security problem [and] so he assumed it was some plot or an intentional effort to offend him."

Likewise the protesters he had seen in New York; he thought that they may have been organized by then-Vice President Richard Nixon, who had taunted Khrushchev on TV about the superiority of capitalism in the so-called Kitchen Debate in Moscow the year before. "In the Soviet Union," Stone explains, "if a foreign leader came and there were people with placards, the government would have brought those people there and written the placards."

By the time Khrushchev and his entourage were headed, via train, up the California coast to San Francisco, he was tired of being managed. He stopped the train in San Luis Obispo and glad-handed the crowd, poking men in their beer bellies and giving their children a pat. "You cannot show him as a devil if he is a smiling person like any other," Khrushchev biographer William Taubman says in the show, and by the time he stopped to visit a corn farm in Iowa, Americans were loving the leader.

Ultimately, things went sour. Though he had wanted to host Eisenhower in the Soviet Union in return the following year, the trip was cancelled after Russia shot down a U2 spy plane carrying American pilot Francis Gary Powers in April of 1960. When he returned to address the UN a few months later he was bellicose and childish, even banging his shoe on the podium to protest a speech he disagreed with. As famous as the incident is, and as many eye-witnesses as there were, there are no photos of Khrushchev with shoe in hand.

But here you'll see him and the Soviet delegation at the UN, drumming on their table like a bunch of schoolboys protesting lunch in the cafeteria. You'll see him telling 20th Century Fox's Spyros Skouros, who had been bragging about a system that let a poor Greek immigrant become the head of a studio, that he was a shepherd's son who became the leader of the USSR. (So there.) And you'll see him threaten a dinner in Los Angeles, after being insulted by Mayor Norris Poulson, telling them that "we're turning out missiles like sausages."

In the end, maybe, Khrushchev's gallows humor was not unlike Reagan's. Twenty-five years later, in 1984, President Reagan joked into an open mike that he had "signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." (When he was governor of California and a woman said he would have the blood of the people on his hands for sending the National Guard in to do deal with Berkeley protesters, Dutch quipped, "Then I'll just wash them with Boraxo!") Like Khrushchev, he was far less educated than a lot of the people he rubbed elbows with, though a whole lot smarter about some stuff.

"He played for the camera," Stone said of the Russian leader (who was overthrown by hardline Stalinists in 1964). "He knew what the media wanted...he knew how to get attention. He fed the beast. It took American politicians 20 years to really get that."