Hitchcock on Nelson and Schoenbachler, 'Nikita Khrushchev's Journey into America'

Lawrence J. Nelson, Matthew G. Schoenbachler
William I. Hitchcock

Lawrence J. Nelson, Matthew G. Schoenbachler. Nikita Khrushchev's Journey into America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2019. 296 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2788-2.

Reviewed by William I. Hitchcock (University of Virginia) Published on H-Diplo (February, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54435

The two-week journey of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to the United States, from September 15 to 27, 1959, has often been treated by historians as a curious anomaly: merely a brief thaw in the otherwise icy US-Soviet relationship of the 1950s. Scholars have mined the episode for its comic elements—and there were many—but since the trip failed to alter the course of the Cold War, the trip is usually dismissed as a minor sideshow.[1] Lawrence J. Nelson (who passed away in 2014) and Matthew G. Schoenbachler (who edited the manuscript for publication) have made a diligent effort to raise the profile of the visit and endow it with greater significance than previous scholars have done. They do not fully succeed, but they do offer readers a well-researched and lucidly written account of the trip, narrating the daily events of Khrushchev’s travels and periodically pulling back to provide the context of key debates and controversies that arose along the way.

The late 1950s was a time of great strain and tension in the Cold War. Though Khrushchev had sharply broken with the murderous legacy of the Joseph Stalin years in his February 1956 “secret speech,” the new premier was no dove. The Suez Crisis of October 1956, in which the British, French, and Israelis conspired to topple President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, nearly led to a US-Soviet military clash in the Middle East, as Khrushchev strongly backed the Egyptians. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in November 1956 demonstrated that Khrushchev would use brutal armed force to suppress democratic movements if they threatened the Soviet hold on Eastern Europe. The success of the Sputnik satellite launch in October 1957, combined with Khrushchev’s boasts about Soviet technical prowess in the missile race, also strained East-West relations. Khrushchev’s dramatic ultimatum in November 1958 to the Western allies to resolve the status of Berlin within six months brought the Cold War to a heightened state of alarm, for the NATO allies were united in their determination to defend West Berlin from Soviet and East German pressure.  

How, then, did Khrushchev’s visit to the United States come about in such a tense moment of great-power relations? The authors do not fully explain why US president Dwight Eisenhower extended an invitation to Khrushchev to visit America. Certainly, Eisenhower was looking for a way to ease the tensions over Berlin. The authors contend that the death of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in May 1959 may have removed an obstacle to negotiations, for Dulles had strongly counseled against any compromise that might smack of appeasement. But there is more to the story than that.

The origins of the trip can be situated in a broader political context, which the authors did not fully grasp. In November 1958, the Republican Party, and by extension its leader, Eisenhower, suffered a devastating defeat in the midterm congressional elections, losing thirteen seats in the Senate and forty-eight in the House of Representatives, giving the Democrats enormous majorities in both chambers. This blow was the last in a series of embarrassments for the administration, including the woeful surprise of the Sputnik launch in late 1957 and subsequent charges by Democrats that a “missile gap” had opened in the arms race, leaving America weak and vulnerable. An economic recession in 1957-58 also had hurt Eisenhower’s popularity. In the wake of the fall election disaster, Eisenhower was looking for a way to recharge his flagging presidency. In December 1958, his press secretary and confidant, Jim Hagerty, laid out a strategy for a globe-trotting campaign of personal diplomacy that would transform the president from a lame duck into an active ambassador of world peace. Part of Hagerty’s plan was a one-on-one meeting with the Soviet leader, as a way to thaw the Cold War. Going over the head of the partisan Congress on a mission of good will would reignite national enthusiasm for Eisenhower and could spur a real breakthrough in the tense US-Soviet standoff.[2]

Eisenhower liked the scheme and hoped that a trip to the Soviet Union might be one of the high points of his final years in office. An opportunity for a test run of this kind of personal diplomacy appeared with the midsummer 1959 opening of the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park in Moscow. Always on the lookout for opportunities to burnish his credentials as a statesman, Vice President Richard Nixon asked Eisenhower for permission to lead the delegation, which the president granted.

But Nixon’s trip was just a trial balloon. At least six weeks before Nixon left for Moscow, on July 22, 1959, Eisenhower was talking to advisers about tendering an invitation to Khrushchev to visit America, in hopes of receiving a similar offer from the Soviets. At Ike’s direction, State Department officials privately approached their counterparts with a personal invitation from Eisenhower to Khrushchev. The Soviet premier eagerly accepted the invitation and—just as Eisenhower hoped—Khrushchev returned the compliment by asking Eisenhower to be his guest in the Soviet Union soon after. All this was confidentially worked out before Nixon’s trip began, and the news of the personal exchanges was released to the press on August 3, 1959. Giant headlines filled the world’s newspapers: a thaw in the Cold War, which had been so frosty of late, suddenly seemed possible.[3]

These details matter because Nelson and Schoenbachler depict the prolonged and unstructured Khrushchev visit to the United States as the result of “a gross mistake” (p. 30). Eisenhower wanted a brief meeting, but with Dulles no longer at the helm and the less competent Christian Herter now serving as secretary of state, the invitation to Khrushchev was insufficiently specific. Instead of a short meeting, Khrushchev agreed to an open-ended two-week tour of the American heartland. The vague invitation annoyed the president, according to the authors. But the authors did not notice that Eisenhower’s personal secretary, Ann Whitman, who knew Eisenhower better than any staff member, described the president as “happy as a lad” about the upcoming exchange of visits, and felt sure it would both thaw the Cold War and boost his political fortunes at home. In fact, Eisenhower had cunningly plotted out the pair of visits.[4]

The bulk of the book recounts the details of the trip, which makes for enjoyable reading even if the details will be familiar to Cold War scholars. The large Soviet delegation arrived in Washington on the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the Tupolev 114—a deliberate statement about Soviet technological prowess. Thousands of Washingtonians lined the route from Andrews Air Force Base to the White House, though they were largely mute and undemonstrative. Overhead a skywriting pilot formed a giant cross in the sky, and some of the assembled onlookers brandished protest placards denouncing “the butcher of Budapest.” Indeed, Eisenhower had triggered a storm of controversy by welcoming the Soviet leader. William F. Buckley in the National Review denounced it as treachery, and evangelical clergy across the country staged small protests and write-in campaigns.

Eisenhower was therefore careful not to appear too eager to strike a deal of any kind. That explains the rather strained conversation the two leaders had in the Oval Office upon the Soviet premier’s arrival. Eisenhower asked Khrushchev to think of history, to rise to the moment and strike a blow for peace by standing down over Berlin; Khrushchev insisted that compromise was a two-way street and that America must also give in. The first meeting fizzled, though the two men then enjoyed an impromptu helicopter ride above Washington, DC. The atmosphere did not improve much as Khrushchev met with journalists, who asked him about his activities during the Stalin period, and the trip turned sour in New York, where Khrushchev met with a rude and combative audience of bankers and industrialists at the Economic Club of New York. A swift, awkward trip to Hyde Park, to meet Eleanor Roosevelt and honor Franklin Roosevelt’s memory, brought no warmth to the visit.

Matters took a distinct turn for the worse in Los Angeles. The Soviet delegation flew across the country and went to the 20th-Century Fox studios to meet Hollywood stars and observe the production of the ribald film Can-Can (1960). When the cast performed a dance number in which the show girls lifted their skirts and bent their backsides toward the audience, Khrushchev was outraged by the vulgar display. Then Los Angeles mayor Norris Poulson, a conservative Republican, gave a graceless dinner speech that hectored Khrushchev about the achievements of capitalism and declared America’s willingness to “fight to the death” (p. 112) to protect its system from communism. Khrushchev, shocked by the poor manners and bellicosity of the Americans, considered breaking off the trip and returning home.

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who was serving as host and shepherd to the visitors, felt that more contact with ordinary citizens might remove some of the ideological sting of the first encounters.[5] While the Soviet delegation made its way toward San Francisco by train, Lodge and Khrushchev got off at stops along the way, greeted well-wishers on the station platforms, ate hot dogs, and enjoyed themselves. Khrushchev began to feel welcome. Nelson and Schoenbachler do the readers a real service in recounting Khrushchev’s meeting in San Francisco with American labor leader Walter Reuther who, by chance, was leading the annual meeting of the AFL-CIO in that city. Reuther, the United Auto Workers president, had actually worked briefly in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s in an automobile plant in Gorky, and had ever since been a convinced anticommunist. Reuther met Khrushchev and the two men argued about the importance to the labor movement of the right to strike. Khrushchev, of course, insisted there was no need for worker action in the USSR, as the workers owned the means of production. Reuther pointed out that millions of East German workers were fleeing communism in search of free labor. The meeting was tense, and Khrushchev felt far more comfortable when he met later with members of the Longshoreman’s Union—a much more radical faction of the labor movement.

As Khrushchev returned eastward, his entourage stopped in Iowa to meet with Roswell Garst, a hybrid-corn developer and farmer who had developed ties to Soviet farmers through an exchange program pioneered in 1955. After receiving Russian agriculturalists in Iowa, Garst and colleagues had traveled to the USSR and in fact met Khrushchev while also exchanging technology for producing hybrid seed. Khrushchev and Garst had a well-publicized reunion at Gartst’s Coon City, Iowa home, along with a few hundred townsfolk and journalists. The crowd gulped down ham, fried chicken, barbecued ribs, and corn pudding, leading Khrushchev to observe: “Americans really know how to eat!” (p. 173).

Colorful as these anecdotes are, they do little to illuminate the real significance of the visit. When Khrushchev returned to Washington at the end of his transcontinental journey, he and Eisenhower spent two days at Camp David and also made a hasty side visit to the Eisenhower family farm at Gettysburg. The Soviet leader met the Eisenhower children and grandchildren, admired Ike’s Angus cattle, and strolled in the pleasant Pennsylvania countryside. But when the two sat across the table to discuss Berlin or disarmament, little happened. Khrushchev eased off slightly from his November 1958 ultimatum about Berlin and accepted a pledge to discuss the city’s status at a future summit meeting. Beyond that, neither side could point to any real results, though Khrushchev felt that his stature as an equal of the famous and renowned Eisenhower had been established.

The authors do not really answer the “so what” question. In the introduction, they claim that the trip was “the most democratic event of the Cold War” (p. 3) because so many people saw and engaged with the Soviet premier. (The German dissenters in East Berlin and Leipzig in 1989 might disagree with that assertion). The authors also argue that the trip revealed the depth of American religious sentiment in the 1950s, because so many protestors were clergymen or people of religious zeal. That point is not really fleshed out in the book. Finally, the authors tell us that the trip “laid bare the depth of the ideological commitment on both sides” (p. 3) of the Cold War, which is a curious observation since the trip seemed to show just the opposite: that ideology could at times be softened to accommodate person-to-person contacts. In any case, these points appear tacked on and not really integrated into the book.

Equally disappointing is the absence of any analysis of the problem that had been at the center of the trip: the Berlin crisis. That city was a dangerous flashpoint and any misunderstanding over rights of access to it by the Western allies could easily set off a serious conflagration. The authors provide no insight into how Khrushchev’s visit connected to the Berlin matter, and their lack of any foreign-language source materials only deepens the problem.

Finally, the authors do not adequately explain why the trip had so little impact on the Cold War. After all, the leaders had met and been cordial; Khrushchev had been delighted with the press attention and most of the responses of the American public to his visit; and he acknowledged that he now saw the Americans as friendly, peaceful people. Unfortunately, the reason US-Soviet relations returned to the deep freeze soon after the trip has everything to do with Eisenhower’s decision to keep flying the U-2 spy plane into Soviet airspace, right up to the eve of the Paris summit that both men had pinned their hopes on as a moment when they might reap the harvest they had planted during Khrushchev’s whirlwind journey. But on May 1, 1960, one U-2 was shot down by the Soviets and the whole rosy picture darkened. Eisenhower lied about the aircraft, then was forced to own up to it when the Soviets produced both the plane and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers. Eisenhower refused to apologize for this obviously illegal violation of a sovereign nation’s airspace, and Khrushchev quite predictably refused to allow the summit in Paris, set to open in mid-May, to proceed. The Cold War was back on, and it was due entirely to Eisenhower’s poor judgment, a brutal fact he never acknowledged in his copious postpresidential memoirs. The authors could easily have carried the story up to that episode, but to do so might have had the effect of making Khrushchev’s journey to America appear as little more than a lighthearted and anomalous sidelight in the ongoing and still dangerous Cold War.

William I. Hitchcock is the William W. Corcoran Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the author of The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s (New York, 2018).


[1]. Peter Carlson, K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist (New York: Public Affairs, 2009). See the contemporary account by the White House protocol adviser, Wiley Buchanan, Red Carpet at the White House (New York: Dutton, 1964).

[2]. Hagerty memorandum for President Eisenhower, December 9, 1958, Dwight D. Eisenhower's Papers as President, Name Series, box 26, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, KS.

[3]. William I. Hitchcock, The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018), 417-21.

[4]. Hitchcock, Age of Eisenhower, 421.

[5]. Lodge’s memoir recounts a good deal of the trip’s itinerary: The Storm Has Many Eyes (New York: Norton, 1973).

Citation: William I. Hitchcock. Review of Nelson, Lawrence J.; Schoenbachler, Matthew G., Nikita Khrushchev's Journey into America. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54435

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