'K Blows Top': Reliving Khrushchev's American Tour Nikita Khrushchev starred in his own travel comedy back in 1959. Peter Carlson's new book, K Blows Top, documents the Communist leader's unusual tour through the United States.
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'K Blows Top': Reliving Khrushchev's American Tour

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'K Blows Top': Reliving Khrushchev's American Tour

'K Blows Top': Reliving Khrushchev's American Tour

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Alison Stewart.

Imagine the sight of a foreign nemesis barnstorming across America kissing babies, being greeted by crowds, the press following every move, all while the pugnacious world leader criticizes the American way of life and hurls one-liners at local leaders.

You don't have to imagine it - it all happened. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the unusual visit to the United States by the then-general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Nikita Khrushchev took every opportunity to tell his side of things to anyone who would listen.

For example, this moment from his road trip where he explained what he really meant when he said to America: We will bury you.

Mr. NIKITA KHRUSHCHEV (Former General Secretary, Communist Party, Soviet Union): (Through Translator) When I spoke of the burial, that should not be understood literally, word-for-word, as if someone was going to take a spade and start burying somebody.

STEWART: The trip is the subject of a new book, "K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Unlikely Tourist." Peter Carlson, a former columnist from The Washington Post, is the author of "K Blows Top," and he joins us in studio. Hi, Peter.

Mr. PETER CARLSON (Author, "K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Unlikely Tourist"): Hello.

STEWART: So, "K Blows Top" is one of the real headlines from his trip. First of all, tell us what he blew his top about and why we only called him K in headlines.

Mr. CARLSON: They called him K because Khrushchev is a very long name and they couldn't fit in headlines. So the headline, from which I took the story, was in the New York Daily News after Khrushchev blew his top because he wasn't allowed to go to Disneyland. The headline was three lines: Denied Tour of Disneyland, K Blows Top. One of my favorites came out before Khrushchev arrived: Khrushchev To Get Free Dry Cleaning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLSON: And another one of my favorites, above a story of a man who went crazy and killed two people after he watched Khrushchev's arrival on television. The headline was: Sees K on TV, So He Murders 2.

STEWART: And they're all real headlines, and they're all real things that happened.

Mr. CARLSON: I couldn't make it up.

STEWART: Let's talk about the origin of the visit. The head cold warrior of the time, the Soviet leader setting foot on U.S. soil. Actually, it was a bit of a diplomatic snafu. He wasn't really just invited to come around and stomp around the United States. What happened?

Mr. CARLSON: Well, Khrushchev had threatened to do something unspecified bad to West Berlin, and the Soviets and the Americans and British and French were negotiating about Berlin in Geneva. President Eisenhower, in the hopes of getting an agreement in Geneva, decided to invite Khrushchev to the United States, and he wrote a letter to Khrushchev.

And the letter was given to one of Khrushchev's aides by a State Department official named Robert Murphy. And Murphy was supposed to tell the aide that the invitation had a condition to it, and the condition was if they came to an agreement in Geneva, then Khrushchev was invited to the United States. But Murphy forgot to say that.

Khrushchev got the letter and immediately said, sure, I'll come over. How about letting me travel around the country for a couple of weeks? Wasn't much Ike could do. He couldn't uninvite him.

STEWART: He was quite angry about it, though, Eisenhower.

Mr. CARLSON: He was very angry and he gave Murphy quite the tongue-lashing.

STEWART: How was the itinerary set?

Mr. CARLSON: Well, there was a lot of fighting about that. Thousands of Americans had written, saying, please come to my house, my lodge meeting, my town, my factory. Finally, basically, they let Khrushchev go where he wanted to go, which was Washington, New York, Hollywood, San Francisco and a steel mill in Pittsburgh and from there to summit talks with Ike at Camp David.

STEWART: Did any diplomatic work get done? 'Cause every time the United States' diplomats or Henry Cabot Lodge, who was sort of his keeper, showed him something that was wonderfully American, Khrushchev would just say, we have it better in the Soviet Union or, that's not so great.

Mr. CARLSON: Well, that's right. Except for hot dogs - he really liked our hot dogs. Also, he liked the lockers at Union Station in Washington. In the Soviet Union, you checked your coat or your bags while you were waiting for a train and you had to stand on line. And Khrushchev was fascinated by the lockers in the station where you could put your stuff in and you could put a quarter in and take the key out.

STEWART: You write a lot about how he was just followed by throngs of reporters. And do you think this trip had a lasting effect on media coverage?

Mr. CARLSON: I think it did. Scotty Reston(ph), a columnist of The New York Times, wrote a column about how Khrushchev and Lodge and all the other people were not really talking to each other, but were talking to the media. And Khrushchev himself instinctively understood this, and he knew that his trip was less a diplomatic tour than it was a big TV show starring himself as the new, charismatic leader of this young and vibrant communist world, as he saw it at the time.

STEWART: One of the members of the media during all of this was Daniel Schorr, who, of course, we all know from NPR, but he was a CBS correspondent at the time, right?

Mr. CARLSON: Yes. He had been in Russia. He spoke fluent Russian, and I believe he had been kicked out a couple years earlier, and he covered '59 tour and then again when Khrushchev came back in 1960.

STEWART: So, Peter, I'd like you to read a passage from the book in which Dan Schorr makes an appearance. And we've actually asked Dan Schorr to play the role of Dan Schorr.

Mr. CARLSON: Khrushchev is on a train from L.A. They've stopped at a whistle stop and he got out and met people, and so he's now in a great mood because he believes that the American people love him. So, in the train he walks into the car full of reporters and this is what happens.

He didn't need strong liquids, he was already high. Today I won my freedom, he announced. I was able to meet real live Americans and look them in the eye. I'm happy that the house arrest I was placed under has been lifted.

DAN SCHORR: You seem in better humor today than you did last night in Los Angeles…

Mr. CARLSON: …Daniel Schorr said. You know, Mr. Schorr, when they stick pins in you, you have to retaliate, Khrushchev replied. He illustrated by throwing a quick punch towards Schorr's gut, causing the CBS correspondent to flinch and step backwards.

SCHORR: Does this mean that you've decided not to go home?

Mr. CARLSON: Why should I go, Khrushchev asked. Did you see the crowd at the railroad station? Did you see that little girl waving at me? She was waiving at communism.

STEWART: Did Khrushchev enjoy this back and forth with reporters?

Mr. CARLSON: Oh, he loved that. He was very good at banter and he loved it, and they loved to do it.

STEWART: Yet he took great offense when it was suggested that Pravda and the like did not have freedom of the press.

Mr. CARLSON: That's true. He did not like to be criticized by people and he would always defend his presence, saying it's really none of your business. Ironically, when he was old, he had been overthrown, he grumbled to his friends that - he was reading Pravda and he couldn't believe they would print this crap because no one would possibly believe it.

STEWART: The book does not end with Khrushchev just going home and saying goodbye to America. You actually talk about one of the most famous incidents involving Khrushchev, the shoe incident, where he banged his shoe on the desk at the U.N. because he was angry that the Soviet Union was criticized for aggression towards Eastern Europe.

But after reading your book, I wonder if that shoe-banging incident isn't related in some way to the 10-day trip, because it seemed that Khrushchev and Eisenhower had bonded in some way.

Mr. CARLSON: Yes. He felt that he had gotten along very well with Eisenhower. He flew home, immediately went to a huge rally in Moscow and he praised Eisenhower's wisdom and Eisenhower's love of peace. And it wasn't just rhetoric, because he went back and he cut the military budget by a lot. He reduced his military by over a million men, and he built a golf course so that when Ike came to the Soviet Union the following spring, he would be able to play his favorite game.

But then Ike sent a U-2 plane spying over Russia on May 1st, 1960, and the Soviets shot it down. And Khrushchev looked to the hardliners at the Kremlin like a weakling because his friend Eisenhower had betrayed him. So Khrushchev threw a major temper tantrum and cancelled Ike's trip to the Soviet Union. He appointed himself head of the Soviets' delegation to the U.N. and acted terribly. He did everything he could to embarrass Eisenhower and denounce the United States.

STEWART: Peter Carlson, a former columnist from The Washington Post, is the author of "K Blows Top." Thanks for being with us, Peter.

Mr. CARLSON: Thank you.

STEWART: You can read an excerpt of "K Blows Top" on our Web site NPR.org.

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