Nikita Khrushchev, then the head of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, visited the United States on September 15, 1959, at a time when the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were at their worst. The accidental invitation offered the Soviet leader a unique opportunity to visit the country and spread his influence beyond the borders of his country. A section of the American community supported the visit, while others felt that was one of the main diplomatic mistakes committed by the government of President Eisenhower.
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Carlson’s book, K Blows Top: A Cold War Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist, gives a perfect view of the conflicting views that Americans had towards the visit. In this essay, the focus is to discuss the reactions of Americans towards the visit and what it demonstrated about the values of American society during the period of the Cold War.
The visit by the Soviet Union’s strongman was expected to ease tensions in Berlin and to improve relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, a few diplomatic mistakes among American envoys and the selfish interest of the visiting dictators made the visit less meaningful, as the author argues.1 It is important to look at the reactions of the Americans to the visit.
Reactions of American Citizens
According to the author, many Americans were shocked by the fact that Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States.2 As a presidential candidate in the future elections and the acting vice president, he felt that it was a betrayal on the part of the president to invite such a dictator to the country without informing him. Carlson says, “While he (Nixon) had been cramming for his meeting, studying briefing papers and memorizing proverbs, Ike (President Eisenhower) and the striped-pants boys at the State Department had invited Khrushchev to America- and nobody even bothered to tell him about it.”3
The statement shows a strong feeling of resentment that the vice president, and many Americans at the same time, had towards the leader of the Soviet Union. Many felt that it was not the right decision to make. They viewed him as a dictator who had excess power and was too ambitious to be trusted. When Richard Nixon first met Khrushchev, he described him as a person who “had a round face, bright blue eyes, a mole on his cheek, a gap between his teeth, and a huge pot belly that made him look like a man shoplifting a watermelon.”4 The mockery was a further demonstration of the resentment.
Khrushchev’s invitation to the United States was based on his willingness to accept specific terms regarding the tension in Germany. However, the Soviet Union was able to manipulate the United States, and Khrushchev accepted the invitation unconditionally. In his acceptance letter to President Eisenhower, he said, “I accept with great pleasure your kind suggestion that I make a tour of your country and could allocate for that purpose from ten to fifteen days.5.
The president was shocked by the acceptance letter. He realized that Khrushchev and his intelligence team had manipulated the United States by accepting the invitation without considering the conditions. The imagination of him visiting the country for about fifteen days touring various regions was shocking even to the highest office in the country. The most unfortunate thing was that the invitation had been made and could not be reversed. In his memoir, President Eisenhower noted, “To say that this news disturbed me is an understatement,” regarding the planned visit of Khrushchev.6 It means that even the highest office in the land was not comfortable with the visit.
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In his book, Carlson notes that not all Americans were disillusioned by the visit.7 A section of the society saw the visit as an opportunity for American firms to explore the Soviet market. Carlson notes that “the Pepsi-Cola Company, a feisty underdog in the ferocious cola wars, eagerly agreed to go to Moscow.”8 It was a unique opportunity for the company to spread its market share beyond the North American and Western Europe markets. Donald Kendall, then the President of Pepsi-Cola Company, once stated, “I owe my career to Nixon and the Kitchen Debate” concerning the preparations that were made before the visit of Khrushchev.9
To him, the events leading to, during, and after the visit of Khrushchev offered his company a rare opportunity to gain popularity in the global market. It also offered him the opportunity to advance his career. Many Americans also considered the visit as a major step towards improving the relations between the two countries and eliminating the threat of a possible nuclear attack by the dictatorial Soviet regime.
Nikita Khrushchev had a memorable experience while visiting the United States based on his comments and critiques. Although the decision to stop him from visiting Disneyland did not please him, his overall experience on tour was great. He had an opportunity to interact with top Hollywood actors and be entertained by some of the world’s best artists. He visited the country’s leading cities and experienced the way of life in the United States. Carlson says, “He flew home and immediately visited a huge rally in Moscow where he praised Eisenhower’s wisdom and his love of peace.”10 He believed that the leadership of the United States was committed to improving the relations between the two countries and ending Cold War.
However, Nikita Khrushchev had personal interests when he visited the country. Carlson observes that when the United States sent U-2 plane on a spying mission to the Soviet Union a few months after the meeting, Khrushchev responded in kind by shooting down the plane.11 It was a demonstration that although the two sides were interested in a peaceful resolution to the problem in Berlin, there was a deeply-rooted mistrust, and Khrushchev was keen not to have absolute trust towards American leaders.
Nature of Khrushchev’s Trip
The trip made by Khrushchev was accidental given the events and mistakes made during the invitation. The Soviet Union’s leader considered it an opportunity to tour a nation that his country was at war with and negotiate peace deals favorable to his people. However, the United States was very uncomfortable with this move. Carlson says, “A communist dictator rambling around America for two weeks.”12 The statement shows the level of discomfort that many Americans had towards the visit. Carlson notes that even the president himself was uncomfortable when he said, “Khrushchev’s trip to America promised to be a most unpleasant experience.”13 It was an indication that the visit was not highly regarded by top officials in the government.
The Depicted American Society and Values during the Cold War
The visit by Khrushchev revealed the unique values of Americans during the period of the Cold War. One of the most important values of the American society that was exposed by the visit was the principled nature of its leaders. The president and top leaders realized that a mistake was made during the invitation. It became evident that the Soviet leader would visit the country without having to meet the demands of the United States government. It created tension in the government. Carlson says, “Finally, basically, they let Khrushchev go where he wanted to go, which was Washington, New York, Hollywood, od, San Francisco and a steel mill in Pittsburgh.”14
Despite this discomfort, they allowed the Soviet leader to the country. The visit also exposes the straightforward nature of the American public. Although they showed respect to the visiting leader, many journalists expressed the concern of members of the public towards Soviet’s foreign policies, especially towards the West.
The visit by Nikita Khrushchev to the United States in 1959 was one of the unlikeliest events that happened during the Cold War. Many Americans did not trust the Soviet leader and considered the visit as a dangerous reconnaissance by the dictator in case the two countries went to war. Even the leaders of the country, including President Eisenhower, who made the invitation, and his Vice President Nixon, were uncomfortable with his visit.
However, another section of the society felt that it was a good initiative towards having a peaceful world. The business community also saw an opportunity to spread their operations to the communist country.
Carlson, Peter. K Blows Top: A Cold War Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist. New York: PublicAffairs Books, 2009.
- Peter Carlson, K Blows Top: A Cold War Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist (New York: PublicAffairs Books, 2009), 23.
- Ibid., 45.
- Ibid., 7.
- Ibid., 8.
- Ibid., 14.
- Ibid., 24.
- Ibid., 89.
- Ibid., 24.
- Ibid., 38.
- Ibid., 191.
- Ibid., 468.
- Ibid., 15.
- Ibid., 15.
- Ibid., 210.