on K Blows Top by Peter Carlson (Public Affairs)

Historians often mention the Kennedy-Nixon debates or the JFK assassination to mark the emergence of mass media culture. But Nikita Khrushchev’s tour of the U.S. in 1959 transfixed the world for fourteen days during the height of the Cold War. Daniel Schorr, who covered the visit for CBS News, calls it “the first of the great media events.” Richard Strout called it “a traveling spectacle that has long since passed credulity.”

K4.jpgJames Reston recognized the turning point as it happened when he wrote in The New York Times, “There are so many newsmen reporting this trip that they change the course of events. They are not the obscure witnesses of history, but the principal characters in the drama, whose very presence is so ubiquitous that most of the time Mr. Khrushchev is addressing them, or addressing others with them in mind.”

K11.jpgPeter Carlson’s K Blows Top follows Khrushchev’s improbable trip from Washington to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Iowa, Pittsburgh and back to Camp David. A former “rewrite man” at People magazine and reporter for the Boston Herald-American and Washington Post, Carlson mainly relies on newspaper clippings to tell this story. He interviewed just eight people, including Khrushchev’s son Sergei (who took home movies during the trip and went butterfly hunting).

Neither analytical nor reinterpretive, K Blows Top expresses the mentality of its famous moment without getting nostalgic. Quick-paced and anecdotal, from the tabloid title through its short chapters, the prose reflects a feature writer’s compressed and amused view. In this way, Carlson captures the pitch of media frenzy as journalists attempted to interpret the antic and combustible behavior of Chairman Khrushchev. And the leading reporters of the day – Murray Kempton, Harrison Salisbury, Dorothy Kilgallen, and on television Douglas Edwards, Huntley and Brinkley, John Charles Daly, and Dave Garroway – found plenty to report.

K5.jpgThe visit was unprecedented in American history. No iconic enemy of the US had ever toured the country (not that the US ever had such bête noir foreign enemies in the years between King George and Kaiser Wilhelm) and now Khrushchev would be hopping from sight to sight like “some kind of Communist Kerouac.” Just 41 hours before Khrushchev landed at Andrews Air Force Base, the Soviets launched the first rocket to land on (crash into) the moon. My elementary school classmates and I were practicing the “duck and cover” techniques that would supposedly spare our lives during a Russian nuclear attack. Our fathers built air raid shelters to Civil Defense specs. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover warned President Eisenhower that there were at least 25,000 Americans who would like to kill Khrushchev. The American right-wing was outraged.

K2.jpgWhen Eisenhower secretly extended the invitation to visit, there was a proviso attached – Khrushchev must agree to attend a conference with the US, France and Britain in Geneva and rescind his demand that the West abandon Berlin. But under secretary of state Robert Murphy forgot to mention the precondition in talks with the Russians. Ike was livid. From the beginning of this story, Khrushchev stole the spotlight and had his way. After spending just five days in the US, “already he’d achieved the American Dream: He was the biggest star on television.”

Except for one thing.

K6.jpgArriving in Los Angeles, Khrushchev made his first stop at the studio of 20th Century Fox and the set of Can-Can starring Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra. The dance routine staged for Nikita and Nina Khrushchev clearly violated their sense of propriety (too much decadence – but studio publicists saw their chance: “See the picture that shocked Khrushchev!”). But that wasn’t the problem. The police chief of Los Angeles told Khrushchev’s escort, Henry Cabot Lodge, that he could not guarantee Khrushchev’s safety at Disneyland – that stop would have to be cancelled. The Russians protested. Khrushchev blew up at a luncheon attended by 150 major stars including Marilyn Monroe who said, “This is about the biggest day in the history of the movie business.”

“ ‘Just now, I was told that I could not go to Disneyland,’ he announced. ‘Why not? What is it? Do you have rocket-launching pads there?’ The audience laughed. ‘Is there an epidemic of cholera there? Have gangsters taken hold of the place?’ Khrushchev was starting to look more angry than amused. His fist punched the air above his red face. ‘That’s the situation I find myself in,’ he said. ‘For me, such a situation is inconceivable. I cannot find words to explain this to my people.’”

K8.jpgMrs. Khrushchev then told David Niven how disappointed she was. Carlson writes, “Hearing that, Sinatra, who was sitting next to Mrs. Khrushchev, leaned over and whispered in Niven’s ear, ‘Tell the old broad that you and I will taken ‘em down there this afternoon.’” (Sinatra said of Mrs. K, “She swings pretty good English.”)

By keeping Khrushchev out of Tomorrowland, local officials made it possible for millions of American kids to identify with the Soviet dictator, since our own parents wouldn’t take us there either.

But also, millions of Americans saw a laughing, playful, affably rotund Khrushchev on their TVs, eating hot dogs, petting livestock, and kissing babies as if he were running for office. He caused a near-riot (and substantial damage) at a new Quality Foods supermarket in San Francisco when crowds tried to catch a glimpse of him. The legendary photographer Carl Mydans, on assignment for Life magazine, paid a teenager five dollars to carry him on his shoulders so he could take his shots.

K.jpgInsulted and antagonized by LA’s Mayor Poulson, Khrushchev left town, enjoyed the Bay Area and toured Thomas Watson’s IBM plant and RAMAC computer, visited an Iowa corn farm and a Pittsburgh steel mill, and met with the president at Camp David and at Eisenhower’s family farm at Gettysburg. Khrushchev backed off his Berlin demands, agreed to the 4-way summit, and invited Eisenhower to visit Russia. When in New York, Khrushchev had offered a plan at the U.N. for total unilateral disarmament, largely dismissed by Eisenhower’s people as disingenuous. Yet the president had begun to believe that Khrushchev’s desire for peace was authentic. But this early attempt at détente fell apart when Khrushchev became outraged (or acted out his outrage for domestic purposes) by the American U-2 surveillance flights over Russia.

K7.jpgK Blows Top reels off one entertaining story after another. There’s the PR guy for the National Institute of Dry Cleaning who figured out how to use Khrushchev’s visit to promote this new American convenience. There’s the Soviet delegation amazed by the efficiency and new Formica tables at the IBM cafeteria. Or Khrushchev getting stuck in an elevator in the Waldorf-Astoria and climbing out on the shoulders of his hosts. We see Eisenhower and Khrushchev watching “Shane,” the latter telling stories about how Stalin loved Westerns. And the two of them flying around DC in Ike’s helicopter, swooping down on the president’s favorite golf course (Khrushchev had never seen one). When Khrushchev visits the Mesta Steel Plant in Pittsburgh, we’re reminded that in 1959 there were 500,000 steel workers in the US, or 1% of the workforce.

Diplomatically speaking, the tour may not have led to significant change. But culturally speaking, something burst. Although the era’s politics were determined by a harsh conservative rhetoric, Khrushchev’s trip was “a victory for nuance.”

[Published June 8, 2009. 327 pages, $26.95 hardcover]