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

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev addresses the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., before setting off across America in September 1959.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev addresses the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., before setting off across America in September 1959.

Nikita Khrushchev may well have been the first reality television star. In 1959, the pugnacious general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union undertook a tour across America, during which he alternately greeted crowds, kissed babies and criticized the local way of life — all to the delight of the press corps following his every move.

In his new book, K Blows Top, former Washington Post reporter Peter Carlson digs up old newspaper clippings about the trip and revives the melodrama and humor of the Soviet leader's 10-day tour.

The title of Carlson's book is a reference to an actual headline that ran in the New York Daily News after Khrushchev was prevented from visiting a popular American tourist attraction: "Denied Tour of Disneyland, K Blows Top."

"They called him K because Khrushchev is a very long name, and they couldn't fit it in headlines," Carlson tells Alison Stewart.

The headlines that Carlson includes in the book are all real, including "Khrushchev to Get Free Dry Cleaning" (printed before the communist honcho's arrival) and, above a story about a man who killed two people after watching the leader's arrival on television, "Sees K on TV so He Murders Two."

Carlson explains that Khrushchev's fateful visit was the result of a diplomatic snafu that occurred while the Soviets and Americans were negotiating in Geneva about West Berlin. Hoping to hammer out a compromise, President Eisenhower invited the general secretary to visit the U.S. — on the condition that the two countries come to an agreement about Berlin.

But that condition was accidentally left out of the invite: "Khrushchev got the letter and immediately said, 'Sure, I'll come over. How about letting me travel around the country for a few weeks?' " Carlson says. "There wasn't much Ike could do. He couldn't un-invite him."

The American public was divided over the visit, but thousands wrote to invite Khrushchev to their homes and lodge meetings and factories.

"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," Carlson says.

Though Khrushchev remarked several times throughout the tour that things were better in the Soviet Union, he did praise American hot dogs and the lockers at Washington, D.C.'s Union Station.

The trip wound up at the Camp David presidential retreat, where Khrushchev engaged in summit talks with Eisenhower — who left a lasting impression on the Soviet leader.

"He flew home and immediately visited a huge rally in Moscow where he praised Eisenhower's wisdom and his love of peace," Carlson says.

Khrushchev retained a fondness for Eisenhower, and even built a golf course in anticipation of the American president's visit the following year. But then, on May 1, 1960, Eisenhower sent a U-2 plane on a Soviet Union spying mission. And Carlson says Khrushchev reacted by throwing "a major temper tantrum."

"He appointed himself head of the Soviet's delegation to the U.N. and ... did everything he could to embarrass Eisenhower and denounce the United States" on his next visit to the country, Carlson says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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