In 1959, at the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, an unlikely visitor took the country by storm: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
The 10-day trip to the United States is now all but forgotten, although at the time, Khrushchev, the face of communism, caused a sensation. His goodwill journey took him to Washington, New York, Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Calif., Iowa and the president’s retreat at Camp David in the Maryland countryside. He mingled with movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, spoke at the United Nations and visited a farm.
Containing a remarkable cache of images, “ Cold War Roadshow,” produced by Robert Stone and Luc Martin-Gousset, will be shown Tuesday on PBS from 9-10 p.m. EST. It’s the season premiere of the network’s “American Experience” series, and it has captured the colorful, mercurial Khrushchev as he both charmed and angered the American public.
It does, however, skimp on explaining to viewers, especially those not born at the time, the enormity of the Soviet leader having been invited to visit the U.S. by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was a time fraught with nuclear tension between the two superpowers.
The visit was, in a way, the first reality TV show, as the three television networks – there were only three in the 1950s – along with local stations, covered the trip non-stop, with more than 300 reporters along for the ride. It humanized the gregarious Soviet leader – and by extension, his country.
But that moment was soon forgotten after the shooting down months later of an American U-2 spy plane over Soviet territory and the capture of the CIA pilot, Francis Gary Powers.
“Khrushchev’s trip was the first multiday media event of the TV age,” said Peter Carlson, author of “K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist.”
His arrival on Sept. 15, 1959, was an eye-opener for the Russians, as well as the Americans.
“It’s like Christopher Columbus discovering America,” said Sergei Khrushchev, the son of the leader who accompanied his father and mother on the trip and is interviewed throughout the program.
Fascinated by the country and its image from Hollywood movies, the younger Khrushchev, now 79, took home movies of the trip, some of which show his father enjoying the rides on planes, trains and automobiles.
Some of the most surprising images are the crowds lined up in Washington and New York to watch the Soviet entourage drive past; not waving, not calling out, just staring. Meanwhile, an apparently untroubled Khrushchev waves cheerfully.
Los Angeles was warmer in a lot of ways for the Soviet chief, who spoke at a lunch filled with Hollywood stars. He then went to watch the filming of the movie “Can-Can.”
“He really was a warm, vital, colorful character,” William Taubman, a professor emeritus of political science at Amherst College and a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of the Soviet leader, says in the program.
But Khrushchev didn’t like it when the mayor of Los Angeles eliminated his visit to Disneyland for security reasons.
The trip to Iowa was a homecoming of sorts for the Soviet leader, who reconnected with Roswell Garst, a farmer and seed company executive who had lectured about hybrid corn in Russia. Not only were the crowds friendly, but Khrushchev tried his first hot dog.
When the going got serious, it was back to talk about disarmament with Eisenhower at Camp David. Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter, remembers that the president decided to bring the Soviet entourage to visit his grandchildren in nearby Pennsylvania. Each grandchild received a small red star, the symbol of the Red Army, from Khrushchev, who pinned them on their clothes.
What came of the trip? Not as much as hoped. A planned visit in-kind by Eisenhower never happened. Scheduled for mid-1960, the U-2 incident on May 1, 1960, prompted Khrushchev to cancel the invitation.
But there was some kind of understanding that came out of the visit. Sergei Khrushchev, who became good friends with Susan Eisenhower, moved to the United States as an educator in the early 1990s and became a U.S. citizen in 1999.
Sergei Khrushchev is now a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.
But his father’s trip remains a window on a singular moment in history.