Book Review: 'K Blows Top' by Peter Carlson

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By Jacob Heilbrunn
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 9, 2009


A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist

By Peter Carlson

PublicAffairs. 327 pp. $26.95

In September 1959, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech before Hollywood's biggest stars at the Café de Paris, Twentieth Century Fox's elegant commissary. Forty-five minutes into his talk, as celebrities like Marilyn Monroe (wearing, on orders from her studio bosses, her slinkiest dress) and Frank Sinatra watched in amazement, a red-faced Khrushchev began to punch the air. He wasn't complaining about American nuclear plans or Cuba but an even graver matter: his American guides' refusal to allow him to visit Disneyland. (The problem was security, they said.)

Khrushchev's mood didn't really improve as his motorcade went on a meandering, two-hour tour of tract housing developments, while curious Angelenos gathered along the roads to catch a glimpse of the communist dictator. Most were friendly, but one woman, dressed all in black, clutched a black flag and a terse sign that read: "Death to Khrushchev, the Butcher of Hungary." Enraged, the premier asked Henry Cabot Lodge, the American ambassador to the United Nations who was accompanying him, "If Eisenhower wanted to have me insulted, why did he invite me to come to the United States?" Lodge was baffled. Surely Khrushchev didn't believe that the president had personally arranged for the woman to stand on that particular street corner? "In the Soviet Union," Khrushchev replied, "she wouldn't be there unless I had given the order."

It was never going to be easy to host Stalin's combustible successor, and as Peter Carlson shows in "K Blows Top," Khrushchev's two-week journey across America quickly became one of the most outlandish episodes in the annals of Cold War history. Carlson, a former feature writer for The Washington Post, confesses to being obsessed with Khrushchev's peregrinations ever since first reading old newspaper clips about them several decades ago as a rewrite man at People magazine. Since then, Carlson seems to have sought and discovered every piece of arcana associated with the Soviet leader's American sojourn. A deft and amusing writer, Carlson does a marvelous job of recounting it.

The traveling road show, which Carlson discerningly calls the "television debut" of the "multiday media circus," wasn't really supposed to occur in the first place. To Eisenhower's dismay, a senior State Department official had badly bungled matters by inviting Khrushchev without insisting on vital Soviet concessions about West Berlin in exchange. Khrushchev was elated and seized every opportunity to show that under his leadership the Soviet Union had left Stalinist terror behind to steal a technological march on decadent, bourgeois America.

Khrushchev insisted on flying to Washington in his new TU-114, the world's tallest aircraft, despite being warned of the plane's potential mechanical problems. The Soviet premier was welcomed by a 120-member military honor guard, four 75-millimeter howitzers to fire a 21-gun salute, and a crowd of 3,000 that included, Carlson reports, Eisenhower, "his face uncharacteristically glum under his gray Stetson." After Eisenhower delivered a dreary homily about universal peace, Khrushchev, who had been hamming it up by holding his homburg over his face like a sunshade and waving to the crowd, walked to the lectern to brag about the rocket Soviet scientists had launched to the moon days earlier.

As Khrushchev veered between trying to seduce America and threatening to blow it to smithereens, he met with a mostly fawning reception. In New York, W. Averell Harriman hosted a cocktail party at his Manhattan townhouse, where the titans of American capitalism, including John D. Rockefeller III and John McCloy, chairman of Chase Manhattan, spent the evening trying to persuade Khrushchev that they wielded no great power. Scarcely less ingratiating was Sen. Joseph McCarthy's former henchman G. David Schine, who had gone into his father's hotel business. When Khrushchev arrived at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Schine greeted him effusively. Carlson tartly observes, "Finally, the famous Commie-hunter had found an authentic Communist, and he sent him upstairs to the hotel's luxurious Royal Suite." During a brief stop in San Luis Obispo, Khrushchev plunged into the crowd gathered around his train.

After the trip, Soviet relations with America deteriorated rapidly. Thanks to his triumphalism over the downing of America's U-2 spy plane in 1960, his banging of a shoe at the United Nations and his attempted installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev scuttled any chance for an incipient detente. By 1964, his erratic judgment led to his ouster. Still, the Soviet reformer's voyage across America prepared the stage for the biggest Soviet celebrity of all, Mikhail Gorbachev, who visited America and ended the Cold War. Perhaps Carlson can make those trips the subject of his next book, but it won't be easy to top this sparkling effort.

Heilbrunn is a senior editor at the National Interest.

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