Khrush in America

Andrew O’Hagan

  • K Blows Top by Peter Carlson
    Old Street, 327 pp, £9.99, July 2009, ISBN 978 1 905847 30 3

Shirley MacLaine danced the can-can for Khrushchev and later said: ‘life is a cosmic joke.’ By the time he got to Hollywood, the Soviet premier had become an international comic hero; to many an ogre of the left, but also a character out of Dr Strangelove or one of Vonnegut’s novels. K Blows Top, a non-fiction account of Khrushchev’s trip to America in 1959, could be the most entertaining book of the year, but it is also, in its blood, a novel, a novel-in-secret, with index and pictures and History as a character. If the novel dies, as predicted, it will be found drowned in the doldrums of verisimilitude, having forgotten the comedy of history and the value of the burlesque.

In July 1959 Khrushchev was invited to America by accident, or at any rate prematurely, and secretly, in advance of a change of Soviet policy that didn’t happen. The 65-year-old dictator had been behaving badly about Berlin, issuing an ultimatum to the Western occupying forces, telling them they had to get out. ‘Berlin is the testicles of the West,’ he’d said. ‘Each time I give them a yank, they holler.’ He was in buoyant mood, having launched several Sputniks, and the Americans were on the back foot. Seeing the invitation as a publicity coup, Khrushchev immediately accepted and decided to make it a two-week jaunt.

Eisenhower’s timing was vexed. The invitation was issued ten days before Nixon was due to visit Moscow yet the vice-president wasn’t told about it till the eve of his departure. He wasn’t best pleased. Khrushchev on the other hand was in fine feather when Nixon arrived in Moscow: goading him, upping the ante, a strangely folksy politician who was busy instituting a cult of personality around himself. At an exhibition of the American way of life, Khrushchev and Nixon got into a furious debate – the famous ‘kitchen debate’ – from which it was clear that the premier had an ominous view of his own power. When Nixon jabbed at him with his finger, obliquely referring to the Berlin crisis, Khrushchev jabbed him right back. ‘It sounds to me like a threat,’ he said. ‘We, too, are giants. You wanted to threaten – we will answer threats with threats.’

The comedy had begun, but it was a comedy with a threat of mutually assured destruction attached. In America, nobody could believe the sight of these two bruisers, squaring up like kids in a playground. It was as if the argument between Capitalism and Communism had been reduced not to a chess game, too high-minded, but to a slanging match, recorded every step of the way by the world’s media. When the two statesmen went for a boat ride on the Moscow River, it so happened that the beaches were stocked at every turn with smiling swimmers. Eight times, Khrushchev shouted out to them, ‘Are you captives?’ and eight times the swimmers smiled and shouted back: ‘Nyet.’ ‘Photos of the event reveal a comic scene,’ Peter Carlson writes, ‘the swimmers waving and cheering, Khrushchev beaming and gesturing grandly, Nixon smiling wanly, his formal white shirt buttoned at the cuffs, his sober black tie fastened tightly at his collar. He was not a man with a gift for informality.’

‘You know, Mr Khrushchev, I admire you,’ Nixon said at the eighth stop. ‘You never miss a chance to make propaganda.’

‘I don’t make propaganda,’ Khrushchev said. ‘I tell the truth.’

The matter of truth hangs over Carlson’s book. Whose world was more real? Whose version of history would triumph? The book mimics the moral play-acting of the period, embedding opposing views of society in vivid men and their vivid wives. But the fun really begins once the premier touches American soil. Don DeLillo (as it were) takes over, and you find yourself tuning into an ideological road movie. At the White House state dinner, Khrushchev refused to wear white tie and his wife wore a blue dress that would have been rejected by Orphan Annie. He was introduced to J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI.

Khrushchev: ‘I feel like I know you.’

Hoover: ‘I feel like I know you too.’

A few moments later, the visitor met Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA.

‘You, Mr Chairman, may have seen some of my intelligence reports from time to time,’ Dulles said, smiling.

‘I believe we get the same reports,’ Khrushchev replied. ‘And probably from the same people.’

‘Maybe we should pool our efforts,’ Dulles said.

The trip was a free-for-all, where the diplomatic arts were serially corrupted by the visitor’s unpredictability. For him, the threats facing mankind were things to be argued over, shouted about, in bar-room language full of boasts and threats. In a manner that suits the novel form, and which makes this a superior work of non-fiction, much of the trip is about language and the attempt to wrestle with the unspeakable. In the era of duck and cover, the trip was one long, comic and terrifying negotiation with potential misunderstanding. Almost everything Khrushchev said was alarming. During a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, he said that war was an unthinkable insanity that would leave the world ‘covered with ashes and graves’. Given that he had earlier threatened to ‘bury’ the West, this observation, though seeming to reject war and violence, sent a chill over the nation. When a reporter asked what he had been doing while Stalin was committing his crimes, Khrushchev’s face reddened, his hands shook.

There are laughs. There were laughs even before I replied to the question. But I would say that they laugh best who laugh last. I shall not reply to this question, which I look upon as being provocative, and I would like to take this occasion to deny any such malicious rumours and lies which do not correspond to the truth.

He didn’t like questions about Hungary, either.

Khrushchev’s paranoia never lets you down, if only because much of it was justified. Every other room he walked into in the course of his American adventure was bugged, and sometimes we find him not entirely speaking to the people he is with, but to his watchers and listeners beyond the walls. He imagined – or saw – that America was actually run by its top business people, and that the politicians were in the pay of big business and were fans of equality so long as it didn’t require them to be equal. Yet one of the joys of Carlson’s book is the way it shows how much Khrushchev also loved being in America, loved the food, the arguments, the people at their most strapping and power at its least subtle. After all, he wasn’t on a very sure footing back home, and his time in America was both a flexing of selfhood and a holiday from it. He loved the cafeteria at IBM: he’d never been in a place before where you fill your own tray. Forget Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, it was the secret of moving your tray along at waist height and filling it with fries that he took home.

But boy, could he blow his top. His chaperone, Henry Cabot Lodge, had to deploy every ounce of his Brahmin charm to keep his charge from feeling that he was being undermined and ridiculed by the Americans. During a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria for the New York Economic Club, a dinner with two thousand people in attendance, he stood up to give a speech and was soon red with rage and screaming back at some perfectly mild hecklers. ‘I have not come here to beg!’ he shouted. ‘I come here as a representative of a great people who have made a great revolution! And no cries can do away with the great achievements of our people!’ He threatened to leave and waved his arms in the air, which made people feel – not for the last time – that one of the men with the means to destroy the planet wasn’t just a hothead but a borderline lunatic.

This behaviour became extreme in that domain of extremities, California. By this point, he was the biggest star on American television, and christened Khrush, Krushy or K by the papers. The modern phenomenon of the ‘media riot’ was born during the Soviet leader’s holiday in America, and the scribes fell over each other, literally, in an attempt to describe him. ‘The chairman, as he likes to be called,’ Charles McCabe wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, ‘looks like your genial host at the neighbourhood delicatessen.’ Dorothy Kilgallen, who was earlier seen almost to have caused an international incident by ridiculing Mrs Khrushchev’s choice of evening wear, said the man himself was an excellent actor. ‘If you were a Hollywood casting director trying to find a part for him,’ she wrote, ‘you might find him perfect for the role of the elderly fat cuckolded husband.’ Norris Poulson, the mayor of Los Angeles, determined not to be nice to the premier, seized the opportunity to make hay while the bulbs flashed.

Marilyn Monroe was delighted to meet him at a star-crammed lunch in the Twentieth Century Fox commissary. She passed on greetings from her husband, Arthur Miller, and later said: ‘he looked at me the way a man looks on a woman.’ The studio head Spyros Skouras took Khrushchev on with an argument about capitalism. Judy Garland wanted more drinks. Elizabeth Taylor said she wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Then it was off to the set of Can-Can, and its star, Shirley MacLaine. She was certainly more amused than Khrush, who thought it was shockingly decadent to see women dancing with their bottoms sticking out. At the Ambassador Hotel that night, the mayor rolled out his prepared speech, a slap to Khrushchev about the ‘bury you’ remark. Khrushchev’s reply, from the podium, was threatening and deadly.

‘If you want to go on with the arms race, very well,’ he said, his voice rising. ‘We accept that challenge. As for the output of rockets – well, they are on the assembly line.’ By now, the premier’s face had attained its familiar angry redness and seemed headed towards an apoplectic purple. ‘This is a serious question. It is one of life or death, ladies and gentlemen, one of war or peace. If you don’t understand . . .’

‘We understand!’ somebody shouted in Russian.

The crowd, which had been laughing only moments before, now sat stunned. ‘The audience gasped,’ wrote Relman Morin of the Associated Press. ‘It was not only the words but the manner in which they were spoken. Two large veins in Premier Khrushchev’s forehead bulged as he said this, snarling at Mayor Poulson.’

The main thing, it seems, that had enraged K was the decision not to permit his visit to Disneyland for security reasons. He thought it was a terrible conspiracy and never got over it. (Even DeLillo might have stopped short of making that up.) At this point Cabot Lodge thought that his visit to America was turning into a disaster. But Eisenhower stepped in and calmed the thing down. I won’t give away Carlson’s ending – I couldn’t, anyhow, because we’re still living through it. The novel-ness of his book lies in that fact: the story doesn’t end, it pervades, turning you back again into its own world, a world without end.

Eisenhower and K reached a tacit agreement on Berlin, but everything was set back – détente was postponed by 15 years – after the Soviets shot down Gary Powers’s spy plane on 1 May 1960. The period was intense for change, for a blending of the high and low, in that interval between Khrushchev’s visit and the death of Kennedy. But everything that wasn’t darkened by the shadow of the U-2 was blackened by the Cuban Missile Crisis. What we see in those middle years is a Soviet leader who seems, from our vantage point, to have been charged with equal degrees of threat and promise. He was a double agent of a sort, full of Red Army gusto and at the same time a sucker for the gleam of modernity, yet he proved more than a match for the public relations scams and commercial pieties of Eisenhower’s America. He may have been one of history’s classic middle managers, not yet free of the horror and not quite ready for the can-can: a would-be change-merchant, a stress monkey, a professional liar, a ludic philosopher and a marked man. If Ilf and Petrov had worked for Time magazine, imagine the fun they might have had with this sporting little tyrant who came back to New York to bang his shoe.