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Khrushchev -- A Look Back

September 20, 2009 |  2:00 pm

Sept. 19, 1959, Khrushchev, Hat

Photograph by Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times

Sept 19, 1959: Nikita Khrushchev, Los Angeles International Airport.

What did Khrushchev make of his trip to Los Angeles? Fortunately, he deals with it at some length in his autobiography, published by Penn State Press. His version of the notorious exchange with Mayor Norris Poulson, which is too long to quote here, appears on Pages 111-113.

Here is what Henry Cabot Lodge had to say about the matter in 1959 in a conversation with Andrei Gromyko:

We have no control over local politicians. I have been trying all day to persuade Mayor not to make such an unsuitable speech. I can understand why with your different system Mr. Khrushchev might think we can control them, but you have been an ambassador here and you know the United States. United States Government has had no hand at all in this. We have been exerting a moderating influence. If you had seen what he was going to say and took out you would realize that I really accomplished something. I want to deny most vigorously that we are instigating this. I want to do this very very strongly. President would not invite him and then want to make him unhappy. He wants his trip to be useful and interesting and successful.

Lodge also said: Motive is personal ambitions of a local politician to have his moment in limelight with world figure like Khrushchev and they see this very eminent man coming into their town and want to get into limelight for some personal ambition of their own. This is not some plot out of Washington. I hope you, Mr. Gromyko, will explain this to Mr. Khrushchev. He might not believe me because I am an American. Our ways may seem strange. We are a loosely organized country compared with the Soviet Union. We are not directed closely from central point.

Book Cover
"Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev," edited by his son Sergei, published by Penn State Press.

Khrushchev's perspective on his trip is enlightening and I recommend it highly: He  writes:

I will begin my account with Los Angeles because it became a kind of special place for me during our trip through the United States. After seeing the city, we were supposed to go to Disneyland, a "fairyland theme park," as they say, a very beautiful place, but we ended up not going there. [Henry Cabot] Lodge and the deputy mayor, Victor Carter, began trying to dissuade me. Carter spoke Russian, but with a noticeable accent similar to that of Jews who live in the USSR.

"I asked him: 'Where do you know Russian from?'

"There's where I'm from. Russia. That's why I know Russian."

"Where did you live?"

"Rostov on the Don."

"Then I began to wonder how he could have lived in Rostov being a Jew?" After all, Rostov was part of the territory of the Don Cossack Host, and under the tsar, Jews were not allowed to live there."

"Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev," Volume 3, p. 108

Circus of '59: Khrushchev's U.S. Tour Recalled

May 30, 1990


WASHINGTON -- When Mikhail Gorbachev leaves Washington to take a swift look at America's heartland, he can hardly expect to match the frenzy and flair of the first Soviet leader to tour the United States -- Nikita Khrushchev in 1959.

The bald, rotund, beady-eyed Khrushchev transformed his tour into a circus extravaganza with himself as the rambunctious and leading clown. He embroiled himself in so much banter and argument across America that Associated Press columnist Arthur Edson wrote that he was reminded of "the old days when strong men toured the county fairs, offering prizes to anyone who could stay with them for three rounds."

Khrushchev's quotes -- some of them earthy Ukranian expletives toned down by shocked interpreters -- cascaded to a bevy of reporters and camera operators who dogged his every step and gesture.

Oct. 11, 1959, Analysis

Oct. 11, 1959: The Times' Robert Hartmann analyzes Khrushchev's visit.

In one of his best known pronouncements, Khrushchev, after watching the Hollywood filming of the dance sequence in the movie "Can-Can," starring Shirley MacLaine and Maurice Chevalier, denounced the proceedings as immoral. "A person's face is more beautiful than his backside," he said.

Khrushchev ate his first American hot dog at a meat-packing plant in Iowa. Proud that the Soviet Union had landed a rocket on the moon a week before his trip, he told his hosts, "We beat you to the moon, but you beat us at sausages." Then he turned to his official American chaperon, the distinguished Boston Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge, still munching a hot dog. "Well, capitalist," Khrushchev asked, "have you finished your sausage?"

Yet, though he sometimes acted like a clown, Khrushchev obviously used his wit for purpose. "Everything he did had a point," Robert T. Hartmann, who covered the trip for the Los Angeles Times and later became White House counselor to President Gerald Ford, recalled recently.

"Take the dance," he said. "(Khrushchev) really enjoyed those legs and fannies. But he was trying to make a point about the decadence of Hollywood films. Why should Russian youth try to see Hollywood films when they had all the Tolstoyan films to see? Everything he did had a moral like an Aesop's fable."

The Gorbachev itinerary promises some echoes of the Khrushchev trip. Gorbachev will visit California and the Midwest, just as Khrushchev did. In fact, the Soviet president will be the first Soviet leader to set off on his own since 1959. Leonid Brezhnev, who came to the United States in 1973, left Washington for California but only in the company of President Richard M. Nixon who was hosting their talks at the Western White House in San Clemente.

Oct. 11, 1959, Analysis

On his previous trips to the United States, Gorbachev kept to Washington during his summit meeting with President Ronald Reagan in 1987, and kept to New York when he addressed the United Nations and met both Reagan and then-Vice President Bush in 1988.

But it would be foolish to expect more than an echo of the Khrushchev trip in Gorbachev's long afternoon in Minnesota and night and a day in San Francisco.

Circumstances could hardly be different. Unlike Gorbachev, Khrushchev was an unlettered man who had hardly ever left the Soviet Union. He was surprised by the economic growth of the United States and tried to hide his surprise in pugnacious boasting. The 1959 trip was also much longer, allowing Khrushchev a week outside Washington.

But, surely most important, the atmosphere was far different then.

Khrushchev came to the United States at one of the most frozen moments in the Cold War -- the United States and the Soviet Union still wrangled bitterly over the status of Berlin. Many Americans resented the decision to invite him. New York Cardinal Francis Spellman denounced the visit. Khrushchev fought his way through sheets of hostility with a peasant's jokes and a peasant's temper. With the Cold War all but over, Gorbachev, probably more popular among Americans than any other foreign leader, does not need to waste his fervor and energy on deflating hostility.

When Khrushchev arrived in the United States on Sept. 15, 1959, he was met by an uncharacteristic President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike, who felt that the trip had been engineered by aides who had misunderstood his instructions, shut off his trademark grin. He did not want to show voters any semblance of approval of the Soviet Union.

Then-Vice President Nixon had already urged Americans to speak out to Khrushchev to keep the record straight. Holding back their point of view out of politeness, Nixon said, "is a grave mistake where men like Mr. Khrushchev are concerned."

The city of Washington, turning its back on its own tradition, refused to fly the Soviet flag on Pennsylvania Avenue. "Every bantamweight visiting dictator from Latin America sees his flag hung from the lampposts between the Capitol and the White House," I. F. Stone wrote in his weekly newsletter, "but there were no Hammer-and-Sickles in sight." Skywriting planes etched white crosses high above Washington to confound atheistic communism. In Miami, a sign appeared in front of a cemetery maintained by the Veterans of Foreign Wars: "Nikita Khrushchev will be welcome here."

Khrushchev's itinerary outside Washington included New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Des Moines and Pittsburgh. He headed to New York in a special Pennsylvania Railroad car known as "The George Washington" that was rechristened "K-1" for the trip.

At the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, his elevator lost power on the 30th floor, forcing him and his aides to climb five flights to his 35th-floor suite. "A capitalistic malfunction," said Khrushchev.

Khrushchev looked out on New York from the top of the Empire State Building, then the world's tallest building. Henry Crown, owner of the 102-story structure, asked him, "Do you have a view in Russia as good?"

"When our soldiers came back from the war," Khrushchev replied, "they sang this song: Bulgaria certainly is a fine country but Russia is best of all. So I say New York is a fine city but Moscow is best of all."

He was quick to loose Marxist dogma on his hosts. At a private dinner in the Manhattan home of former New York Gov. W. Averell Harriman, Khrushchev stunned the industrialists and financiers by lecturing them: "You rule America. You are the ruling circle. I don't believe in any other view. You are clever. You stay in the shadows and have your representatives, men without capital, who figure on the stage."

After a shocked silence, John J. McCloy, chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank, protested that "any legislation sponsored by Wall Street was almost automatically rejected." But he did not convince Khrushchev.

The high point of rancor was surely reached in Los Angeles when Mayor Norris Poulson infuriated Khrushchev with a steeled speech that taunted him by recalling his old threat of burying the United States. "You shall not bury us," Poulson said, "and we shall not bury you."

In a torrent of reply, Khrushchev insisted that he had often made clear he had used the word burial as a metaphor -- a way of saying communism would survive longer than capitalism in the annals of history and philosophy -- and that Mayor Poulson should have known that. "I trust that even mayors read the press," said Khrushchev. "At least in our country, the chairmen of the city councils read the press. If they don't, they risk not being elected next time."

After noting that Ike had invited him to America, not for laughs, not for a social tea, but for serious talks about world peace, Khrushchev threatened to leave if not taken seriously by Americans. "The unpleasant thought sometimes creeps up on me here as to whether Khrushchev was not invited here to enable you to sort of rub him in your sauce and to show the might and the strength of the United States so as to make him shake at the knees," he said. "If that is so, then it took me about 12 hours to get here. I guess it will take no more than 10 1/2 hours to fly back."

Scores of Hollywood stars attended a grand luncheon for Khrushchev in Beverly Hills. "I don't think he'll show up," said Edward G. Robinson, brandishing a long cigar. "I think it'll be Oscar Homolka."

But, when the guest of honor arrived, it was really Khrushchev, not the well-known Viennese-born character actor who often played Slavic roles in the movies. Khrushchev marched up to Gary Cooper. "Haven't I seen you in pictures?" he asked. "Have you ever played a cowboy?"

A controversy erupted over Disneyland. Khrushchev wanted to go to Disneyland but was turned down. The Americans insisted the request to visit had come too late to arrange security. "What is it they have there -- a rocket-launching platform?" he asked with a grin.

Khrushchev arrived in San Francisco during the AFL-CIO's annual convention. But its president, George Meany, refused to meet him, accusing him of "deceit, treachery, and inhuman ruthlessness." But seven other labor leaders met with Khrushchev in a tense, testy, private lunch in San Francisco.

Khrushchev seemed more at ease with the capitalist Thomas J. Watson Jr., IBM's president who showed him the company plant in San Jose. The Soviet leader devoured a huge lunch in the employee cafeteria and announced, "You fed me very well. Even an animal becomes kinder when well fed." He was asked how many languages he spoke. "I speak our Red language," he replied. "All the time," his harried interpreter added.

San Francisco charmed Khrushchev so much that a city official suggested he might want to buy land there. "I can't do that," he said. "I'd be expelled from the party."

There is little doubt that Khrushchev seemed to enjoy himself best in Iowa -- an agricultural land that reminded him of his native Ukraine. Foy Kohler, the deputy assistant secretary of state who organized the trip for the State Department and later became ambassador to the Soviet Union, believes that Iowa made the biggest impression on Khrushchev, for he had expected a backward rural state.

"I think he was a little bowled over by some of the things he saw like the big farm and the meat-packing plant," Kohler recalled recently. "He realized then that there were things like that all over the country. He couldn't believe what he saw. I mean he did believe it, but it was more than he had expected."

Patting the expansive middle of a beefy, 240-pound Iowa farmer, Khrushchev said, "Ah, this is America! And this is a real American!" After a huge meal on the enormous Coon Rapids farm of millionaire hybrid seed grower Roswell Garst, Khrushchev acknowledged that "the slaves of capitalism live very well." But he quickly added, "The slaves of communism also live very well."

He could not resist offering some Ukranian advice to the Iowa farmers. "I think you plant your corn too close together," he said. "If you did as we do in the Soviet Union, you would have more ears on each stalk."

The 300 reporters and camera operators seemed to get out of hand on the Garst farm, even knocking the host down once while trying to get closer to Khrushchev. Garst yelled at them to stay out of his cow pens. "Otherwise," Khrushchev joined in, "we will send a bull against you."

When Khrushchev returned to Washington for more talks with Eisenhower, he met Nixon at a dinner in the Soviet Embassy.

"You are looking wonderful, Mr. Chairman," said Nixon.

"Did you expect me to look all tired out?" Khrushchev replied with a laugh.

"Not you, you have too much energy," said Nixon.

"Yes and I still have some in reserve," said Khrushchev.

Times librarian Maria Garcia contributed to this story.