Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to America could have been stalled at any turn, but perhaps the most fatal was the plane he took there: Intent on impressing then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower with his military might, Khrushchev pushed to be allowed to take a 220-passenger military plane whose engines developed microscopic cracks before takeoff. Peter Carlson’s K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist, an account of a state visit the world watched, dances over these and other near-misses along what turned out to be a colorful but historically useless mission.
The offer of an American visit was originally intended as a bargaining chip for stalled talks in Geneva over the fate of West Berlin, but due to a diplomatic error, it reached Khrushchev’s ears with no strings attached. The premier was delighted, but that didn’t stop him from using every opportunity to unnerve his hosts by discussing his favorite topic, the imminence of nuclear war. (That’s how he cornered Nixon—whose visit to the Soviet Union a few weeks earlier widened the rift between Nixon and Ike—in a model kitchen.) With the family in tow, including his son Sergei, who shot most of the trip on video, Khrushchev graciously backed away from “We will bury you,” endured a stand-off with the American Dental Association over the use of the ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria, and shared a moment with Marilyn Monroe over a star-studded lunch in Hollywood. Meanwhile, diplomats from both countries watched nervously to see if “Khrushy”’s famous temper would flare and turn a surrealist road trip into the worst vacation ever.
In spite of the death threats flooding in before his visit, Khrushchev’s interlude made no particular mark on the Cold War, other than providing the photo ops of a generation. Lucky for Carlson, who discovered the trip while digging through news archives working for People, the trip’s most remarkable element isn’t how little relations between the two countries changed. Instead, Carlson is largely content to deliver his bizarre travelogue in the most deadpan manner possible, as if to counteract the largely hysterical news reports at the time, which tracked K’s every move with the ardor of paparazzi chasing a bare-headed Britney. The promised rapprochement never materialized, but the media fervor and surprising openness to an adversary of state haven’t been matched. Next year: Ahmadinejad does Alabama?