Fifty summers ago President Dwight Eisenhower, hoping to resolve a mounting crisis over the fate of Berlin, invited Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to a summit meeting at Camp David. Ike had no idea of what he was about to unleash on the land whose Constitution he had sworn to defend.
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It was the height of the cold war, a frightening age of fallout shelters and "duck-and-cover" drills. No Soviet premier had visited the United States before, and most Americans knew little about Khrushchev except that he had jousted with Vice President Richard Nixon in the famous "kitchen debate" in Moscow that July and had uttered, three years before, the ominous-sounding prediction, "We will bury you."
Khrushchev accepted Ike's invitation—and added that he'd also like to travel around the country for a few weeks. Ike, suspicious of the wily dictator, reluctantly agreed.
Reaction to the invitation was mixed, to say the least. Hundreds of Americans bombarded Congress with angry letters and telegrams of protest. But hundreds of other Americans bombarded the Soviet Embassy with friendly pleas that Khrushchev visit their home or their town or their county fair. "If you'd like to enter a float," the chairman of the Minnesota Apple Festival wrote to Khrushchev, "please let us know."
A few days before the premier's scheduled arrival, the Soviets launched a missile that landed on the moon. It was the first successful moonshot, and it caused a massive outbreak of UFO sightings in Southern California. That was only a prelude to a two-week sojourn that historian John Lewis Gaddis would characterize as "a surreal extravaganza."
After weeks of hype—"Khrushchev: Man or Monster?" (New York Daily News), "Capital Feverish on Eve of Arrival" (New York Times), "Official Nerves to Jangle in Salute to Khrushchev" (Washington Post), "Khrushchev to Get Free Dry Cleaning" (New York Herald Tribune)—Khrushchev landed at Andrews Air Force base on September 15, 1959. Bald as an egg, he stood only a few inches over five feet but weighed nearly 200 pounds, and he had a round face, bright blue eyes, a mole on his cheek, a gap in his teeth and a potbelly that made him look like a man shoplifting a watermelon. When he stepped off the plane and shook Ike's hand, a woman in the crowd exclaimed, "What a funny little man!"
Things got funnier. As Ike read a welcoming speech, Khrushchev mugged shamelessly. He waved his hat. He winked at a little girl. He theatrically turned his head to watch a butterfly flutter by. He stole the spotlight, one reporter wrote, "with the studied nonchalance of an old vaudeville trouper."
The traveling Khrushchev roadshow had begun.
The next day, he toured a farm in Maryland, where he petted a pig and complained that it was too fat, then grabbed a turkey and griped that it was too small. He also visited the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and advised its members to get used to communism, drawing an analogy with one of his facial features: "The wart is there, and I can't do anything about it."
Early the next morning, the premier took his show to New York City, accompanied by his official tour guide, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the United States ambassador to the United Nations. In Manhattan, Khrushchev argued with capitalists, yelled at hecklers, shadowboxed with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, got stuck in an elevator in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and toured the Empire State Building, which failed to impress him.