In the summer of 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower invited Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to a summit at Camp David. Khrushchev accepted, adding that he’d like to travel around America for “ten to 15 days.” The trip was unprecedented: No Soviet dictator—or any other enemy leader—had ever toured America. The summit yielded no great diplomatic breakthroughs but Khrushchev’s cross-country jaunt became a hilarious extravaganza as the mercurial dictator told jokes, threw temper tantrums, posed for goofy pictures and cavorted with Hollywood stars. “It was like the happy hour in a manic depressive ward,” wrote one reporter. Another mused, “Every once in a while, you stop and pinch yourself. It seems like a dream, a nightmare.”
K meets Ike, squabbles with Nixon about their speeches and poses with a turkey.
In Washington, Dwight Eisenhower squeezed into a limo between Nikita Khrushchev and his wife, Nina. At the White House, K taunted Ike with a model of the space capsule that the Soviets had just blasted to the moon. Later, the premier delighted photographers by slurping his soup and wrestling a turkey at a Maryland farm.
A trip to the top of New York, some angry dentists and an awkward moment in an elevator.
In New York, Khrushchev’s hosts hoped to fete the premier in the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom, but the dentists gathered in convention there refused to budge. Later, the premier got stuck in a stalled elevator at the Waldorf and had to climb out with help from Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., who pushed the Russian’s ample rump. Still, K had fun, touring the city and bantering with big-time capitalists at a party hosted by Averell Harriman, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union.
Schmoozing with the stars, a battle on an Iowa farm and a friendly cigar in Pittsburgh.
In Los Angeles, Khrushchev lunched with Hollywood stars, watched Shirley MacLaine film a risqué dance scene in Can-Can, and threw a temper tantrum when told he couldn’t visit Disneyland. “Why not?” he bellowed. “Do you have rocket-launching pads there?…Is there an epidemic of cholera there?” In San Francisco, K toured a supermarket and sparked a riot as shoppers and photographers scrambled to get close to him. On an Iowa farm, the media mob trampled Roswell Garst’s corn, and Garst kicked a New York Times reporter in the shins as Khrushchev laughed. In a Pittsburgh steel mill, a worker named Kenneth Jackey handed the premier a cigar and Khrushchev, touched, took off his watch and gave it to Jackey.
Peter Carlson is the author of K Blows Top, a non-fiction comedy about Khrushchev’s adventure in America.
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.