K Blows Top

A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist


By Peter Carlson

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Khrushchev’s 1959 trip across America was one of the strangest exercises in international diplomacy ever conducted. Khrushchev told jokes, threw tantrums, sparked a riot in a San Francisco supermarket, wowed the coeds in a home economics class in Iowa, and ogled Shirley MacLaine as she filmed a dance scene in Can-Can. He befriended and offended a cast of characters including Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe.

K Blows Top is a work of history that reads like a Vonnegut novel. This cantankerous communist’s road trip took place against the backdrop of the fifties in America, with the shadow of the hydrogen bomb hanging over his visit like the Sword of Damocles. As Khrushchev kept reminding people, he was a hot-tempered man who possessed the power to incinerate America.


For my daughters, Emily and Caitlin,
and of course, once again, for Kathy

Maybe it was Khrushchev throwing a temper tantrum because he wasn’t allowed to visit Disneyland.
Or maybe it was Khrushchev debating Nixon about which animal dung smells worst. Or maybe it was Khrushchev’s fear that Camp David was really a leper colony. Or maybe it was the American Dental Association’s courageous battle to defend the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom from Khrushchev’s invasion. Or maybe it was Khrushchev’s historic meeting with Marilyn Monroe, who later described the magic moment in her inimitable sexy purr. “Khrushchev looked at me,” she said, “the way a man looks on a woman.”
I’m not sure which of these delicious anecdotes turned me into the world’s most zealous (and perhaps only) Khrushchev-in-America buff, but I’m certain that it happened on a Thursday or a Friday.
This was back in the mid-1980s, when I was a rewrite man at People magazine, a job that compelled me to type furiously on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays but required almost no work on Thursdays and Fridays. To fill the idle hours, I amused myself by exploring the treasures of the Time-Life library of newspaper clippings. I’d remember some famous person who’d lived since the founding of Time magazine in 1923, then call the library and request the clippings on him. A few minutes later, a messenger would drop a folder on my desk. I perused the clips on such great American characters as John Dillinger, Emma Goldman, and Father Divine. It was fun.
One day, after reading somewhere that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had been barred from Disneyland during his tour of America in 1959, I called the library and requested the clips on his trip. A few minutes later, a librarian called back. “There are an awful lot of them,” she said. “Are you sure you want them all?”
I replied with the phrase that’s launched a million misadventures: “Sure, why not?”
Soon a messenger appeared, pushing a cart packed with bulging folders. Lined up against my office wall, they covered more than ten feet of floor space. I turned the first one upside down on my desk and quickly found myself falling through a rabbit hole into a weird wonderland. At first I just glanced at the headlines:
And this one, which, for some reason, still makes me laugh:
Actually, most of the headlines did not contain the word “Khrushchev.” His name was frequently too long to fit, so the unsung poets who create America’s headlines had to conjure up shorter monikers. They nicknamed the visitor Khrush (“Khrush Irked in Hollywood”) or Khrushy (“Be Warned! Khrushy Is a Clever TV Performer”) or Niki (“Question Sizzles Niki”). Frequently the headline writers referred to the chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics simply as “K,” as if he were a character out of Kafka:
And the classic New York Daily News headline that inspired the title of this book:
Illustrating the adventures of K in America were photos of the pudgy traveler, who mugged shamelessly for the cameras like a mischievous eight-year-old. Khrushchev may have been a dictator responsible for thousands of deaths, but he was also an incurable ham who couldn’t bear to disappoint a photographer. Consequently the pictures in the clip folders were wonderfully wacky: Khrushchev grabs a live turkey! Khrushchev pats a fat guy’s belly! Khrushchev gawks at chorus girls! Khrushchev pretends to shoplift a napkin holder by stuffing it into his suit jacket while laughing uproariously!
Khrushchev’s trip was, as cold war historian John Lewis Gaddis dubbed it, “a surreal extravaganza.” Within an hour of reading the first clipping, I was hooked. For months, I spent my Thursdays and Fridays following the adventures of K as he traveled from Washington to New York to Hollywood to San Francisco to Iowa to Pittsburgh to Camp David, creating hilarious havoc all the way.
The trip was a picaresque journey across America, like Huckleberry Finn, On the Road, or National Lampoon’s Vacation. The world’s leading Communist traipsed through capitalist America at the height of the 1950s—a land of movie stars, rock and roll, tail fins, suburbs, segregation, missile silos, fallout shelters, and duck and cover drills. He was a not-so-innocent abroad in a landscape populated by posturing pols, hustling PR men, angry protesters, gate-crashers, anti-Communist skywriters, and mobs of frenetic reporters—plus Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, J. Edgar Hoover, Perle Mesta, Richard Nixon, JFK, LBJ, and a crotchety Iowa corn farmer named Roswell Garst, the only man on earth who could steal a scene from Nikita Khrushchev.
The trip was hilarious but the humor was darkened by the shadow of the atomic bomb, which rendered the cold war the first era in history when rational humans feared an apocalypse that could end civilization. As Khrushchev kept reminding people—by his comic tantrums and his grisly jokes—he was a hot-tempered man who possessed the power to incinerate America.
In time, those folders of yellowed newspaper clippings led me to the memoirs of the people who’d participated in Khrushchev’s grand tour: Nixon, Eisenhower, MacLaine, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Safire, Bob Hope and, of course, Khrushchev himself, whose autobiography, secretly dictated and smuggled to the West after his ouster, was as earthy, outrageous, and full of blarney as its author.
The memoirs steered me back two months to Nixon’s trip to Moscow—where he jousted with Khrushchev in the now legendary kitchen debate—and then forward to 1960, when Khrushchev returned to New York for an encore visit now best remembered for the moment when he took off his shoe and banged it on a desk at the United Nations. Soon the story of one trip had expanded into the story of three trips, each one more bizarre than the previous. My boredom-born whim had grown into an eccentric obsession. Fortunately, I kept encountering evidence that other people had shared my delight in this bizarre tale.
“In nearly 40 years of journalism, the Khrushchev visit to America was undoubtedly the most fascinating story that I covered,” wrote Chalmers Roberts, who chronicled K for the Washington Post, which devoted more space to the story than to any that preceded it. “It had everything: a fabulous personality, conflict, human interest, the unexpected. It was an embarrassment of riches.”
“The wildest comic scenes in my life in this comic country have always belonged to Nikita Khrushchev,” wrote columnist Murray Kempton. “It is odd that not one of my fellow voyagers has thought to do a book; it has to have been the most profoundly entertaining public experience of our lives. Perhaps no one believes it.”
Well, I believed it and I thought to do a book.
In preparation, I made sneaky forays to the People Xerox machine, copying hundreds of clippings and stuffing them into manila envelopes. In 1986, I left People to work as a feature writer for the Washington Post. Unfortunately, that job required me to work on Thursdays and Fridays, which severely curtailed my Khrushchev scholarship. I stashed my cache of manila envelopes in my basement. And there it sat, unread, for years.
During those years, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and the Soviet Union withered away. As the fiftieth anniversary of K’s trip approached, I dragged the dusty envelopes up from the basement. By then, the old fears of nuclear apocalypse had faded, bathing the cold war in the glow of nostalgia and providing the ironic distance that rendered the story of Khrushchev in America even funnier.
Hooked again, I revived my research. I pored through State Department records, spent hours watching Khrushchev on TV and obtained the FBI files on the trip, which contained the fruits of the bureau’s investigation of a California businessman who dared to give the dictator two Chihuahua puppies. Best of all, I interviewed the people who’d been there, including Khrushchev’s son Sergei, who fed me a salami and cheese sandwich and showed me his home movies of the long, strange trip.
Soon I’d gathered enough material to fill a steamer trunk. Boiled down, it was the story of a stranger in a strange land. The stranger was a fat-bellied, thin-skinned, cantankerous, insecure, earthy man who was always eager to show off—a Communist dictator as portrayed by Zero Mostel or Danny DeVito. And the strange land was a big, brash, brawling, sprawling, self-righteous, gloriously democratic, and invigoratingly vulgar country.
“Has anybody on earth ever had as much fun as Nikita Khrushchev has had for the last ten days?” Murray Kempton asked a few days before Khrushchev’s departure in 1959. “We can never put mankind back into its sober mold again. Nikita Khrushchev may well go home and be his old self in a few days, but he will miss us as long as he lives. He knows now that no place on earth is as much fun as America.”


Preparing to meet Nikita Khrushchev in the Kremlin, Vice President Richard M. Nixon spent the early summer of 1959 stuffing his head with proverbs.
He got the idea from Bob Considine, the famous columnist. Considine and his boss, William Randolph Hearst Jr., had conducted two long, strange interviews with Nikita Khrushchev, and so Nixon, eager for insights, invited them to lunch in Washington. They informed him that the Soviet premier was tough, smart, and surprisingly funny.
“Bone up on some American proverbs,” Considine suggested. “He’ll have a Russian proverb for every possible topic and he believes that these proverbs not only sum up all his arguments, but win them for him. You’d better get some proverbs of your own, preferably from Lincoln or Franklin or people like that.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Nixon, and he jotted down a reminder on the back of an envelope.
Just as the United States could not afford to fall behind the Soviet Union in the arms race, Nixon felt he must maintain parity with the premier in the proverb race. He began stockpiling an arsenal of American aphorisms, proverbs, and bits of folk wisdom. Then, being a savvy politician, he let the story of his proverb collection leak out to the press.
“Reckoning with His Host, Nixon Is Packing Proverbs,” the New York Times headlined its story. Citing an “informed source,” the Times revealed that “the vice president has been recalling old and learning new proverbs” in preparation for his meeting with Khrushchev, who was known to utter such aphorisms as “spit in his eye and he’ll say it’s dew from heaven.”
The Daily News—the Times’s funkier, feistier crosstown rival—spun the story into a full-page feature that ran beneath a headline that read like a tabloid haiku:
The News, which frequently filled its entire back page with a close-up photo of some luckless pugilist getting hit with a haymaker, couldn’t resist an extended boxing metaphor:
Khrushy is the undisputed Iron Curtain champ at making points with proverbs. Nixon is an unknown at international competition, but he has been in training for this big one ever since Ike decided to send him on a visit to Russia.
Though Nixon’s handlers have kept him under wraps, word has leaked out that he will rely on trusty American proverbs when he crosses old saws with Khrushchev. Will Nixon wade right in with Teddy Roosevelt’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick”—or will he start off easy with, say, Ben Franklin’s “There never was a good war or a bad peace?”
The News urged Nixon to pummel the premier with authentic Russian proverbs:
Can’t you just see the look on Nikita’s face, for instance, if Nixon said, in Russian, that Soviet promises are “written with a pitchfork on water?” Or that trying to deal with the Reds makes about as much sense as “pouring an empty bucket into a bucket that has holes in it.” While Khrushchev is still reeling, Nixon would follow through with “Make that a notch on your nose.”
Back in Washington, Nixon was not spending all of his time memorizing proverbs. With characteristically dogged tenacity, he studied everything he could find on the Soviet premier, poring through reports from the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, and even visiting the CIA’s secret new office—located above an auto repair shop in a seedy section of town—to inspect photographs taken by the agency’s secret U-2 spy plane.
Nixon figured he needed every edge he could get. Although the official purpose of his mission to Moscow was prosaic—he was to cut the ribbon at the American exhibition in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park—Nixon was already running for president and he knew that voters would judge him on how well he handled Khrushchev.
At sixty-five, the Soviet dictator was a wily and unpredictable opponent. Son of peasants and grandson of serfs, Khrushchev left school after only a few years to work as a shepherd, a coal miner and a factory hand before joining the Red Army after the Bolshevik revolution. Uneducated but intelligent, ambitious and fiercely loyal to Josef Stalin, he quickly rose in the ranks of the Communist Party. In 1938, Stalin sent him to run the Ukraine, where Khrushchev helped to carry out his boss’s paranoid purges. In September 1939, when the Hitler-Stalin pact divided Poland, Khrushchev was dispatched to collectivize the Soviet sector, a brutal process that killed thousands of Poles and sent another half million to labor camps in the Soviet Union. During World War II, General Khrushchev was a commissar in the Red Army, fighting the Nazis in the horrific battles at Stalingrad, Kharkov, and Kiev. After the war, he became part of Stalin’s inner circle, and was compelled to spend long nights with the man Pravda praised as “leader and teacher of the workers of the world” and “the greatest genius of all times and peoples,” while the demented old dictator got drunk, watched cowboy movies, and eyed his underlings for signs of disloyalty.
When Stalin died in 1953, his closest henchmen scrambled for power, and Khrushchev emerged on top, exiling his rivals to obscure posts in far places. At a secret session of the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, Khrushchev did the unthinkable. He delivered a speech denouncing Stalin’s brutality, paranoia, and egomania. Slowly, cautiously, Khrushchev began to liberalize and de-Stalinize the Soviet Union, releasing hundreds of thousands of political prisoners from labor camps and relaxing the state’s iron grip on artists and intellectuals. But when Hungarians revolted against their Communist government in 1956, Khrushchev crushed the rebellion with Soviet tanks, killing 20,000 people in the process.
In November 1958, Khrushchev suddenly announced that West Berlin was a “malignant tumor” inside Communist East Germany and demanded that the Western occupying powers—Britain, France, and the United States—leave the city within six months. In May 1959—two months before Nixon’s trip to Moscow—that deadline passed without incident. But the threat remained and Khrushchev seemed to enjoy the crisis he’d provoked. “Berlin is the testicles of the West,” he later said. “Each time I give them a yank, they holler.”
That was typical Khrushchev. During the Suez crisis of 1956, he mocked British prime minister Anthony Eden: “I’ve just heard a good joke. Eden is sick. Do you know what he’s suffering from? Inflammation of the canal!” Three years later, he ridiculed West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer: “If Adenauer pulls down his pants and you look at him from behind, you can see Germany is divided. If you look at him from the front, you can see Germany will not stand.”
In 1958, Senator Hubert Humphrey visited Moscow and was granted an audience with Khrushchev that he expected would last about an hour. But Humphrey and Khrushchev, two of the world’s most notoriously loquacious politicians, ended up yakking for eight solid hours. (It must have been a very tough workday for Khrushchev’s translator, Oleg Troyanovsky.) At one point, after bragging about his missiles and his hydrogen bombs, the premier asked the senator to point out his hometown on a map of the United States. Humphrey identified Minneapolis and Khrushchev circled it with a thick blue pencil. “That’s so I don’t forget to order them to spare the city when the rockets fly,” he explained.
To Americans, Khrushchev’s most famous statement was an off-the-cuff utterance he made at a diplomatic reception in 1956: “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.” The diplomats at the reception understood that Khrushchev was merely restating, in his own inimitable style, the Marxist belief in the inevitable triumph of Communism. But most Americans who read the quote in newspapers assumed that Khrushchev was planning to slaughter them.
The more Nixon learned about the premier, the more nervous he became about meeting him. On July 22, 1959—the day he was scheduled to fly to Moscow—he stopped at the White House for last-minute advice from President Eisenhower, who revealed some shocking news: Khrushchev was coming to America!
In an exchange of letters over the previous ten days, Eisenhower told his vice president, he had invited Khrushchev to visit and the premier had accepted, saying that he’d like to tour the country for a couple of weeks. The trip was still top secret—it wouldn’t be announced until the details were arranged—and Ike ordered Nixon not to mention it to anyone, not even Khrushchev himself. Nixon was flabbergasted. While he’d been cramming for his meeting, studying briefing papers and memorizing proverbs, Ike and the striped-pants boys at the State Department had invited Khrushchev to America—and nobody even bothered to tell him about it! It was a karate chop to Nixon’s ego.
Eisenhower told his vice president to play it cool in Moscow and maintain “a cordial, almost light atmosphere.” But Nixon had other ideas. He told Ike that he wanted to debate the dictator, “to probe and cause some blurting out of Khrushchev’s real feelings.” Nixon was trapped in a tough spot. As vice president, he was supposed to follow Ike’s orders and be diplomatic with Khrushchev. But as a presidential candidate, he had to show his toughness, to prove that he could, in the phrase of the day, “stand up to the Russians.”
On the plane to Moscow, Nixon sat up all night worrying. When he arrived at the American embassy, he was still too keyed up to sleep. After churning in his bed for a few hours, he rose before dawn and strolled through Moscow’s open-air market. He returned to the embassy for breakfast, then rode to the Kremlin for his historic meeting.
Escorted into Khrushchev’s office, he got his first glance at the premier. Bald as an egg, Khrushchev stood only a few inches over five feet but weighed nearly two hundred pounds. He had a round face, bright blue eyes, a mole on his cheek, a gap between his teeth, and a huge pot belly that made him look like a man shoplifting a watermelon.
Something in Khrushchev’s chubby hands caught Nixon’s eye. After a moment, he realized it was a model of a Soviet satellite. The crafty Russian was rubbing Nixon’s nose in the memory of Sputnik, the satellite the Soviets had launched into orbit in 1957, scaring the hell out of America. Khrushchev stared at his visitor, eyeing him the way “a tailor might estimate a customer’s size for a suit of clothes,” Nixon later recalled, “or perhaps more as a undertaker might view a prospective corpse with a coffin in mind.”
Khrushchev smiled warmly as the two men posed for pictures. But after he shooed the photographers away, he launched into a tirade about the captive nations resolution. The annual resolution, passed by Congress about a week before, called for Americans to pray for the liberation of the “enslaved peoples” of the “Soviet-dominated nations.” Khrushchev pounded the table and denounced the resolution as a provocation to war.
Like a crafty pol confronted by an angry constituent, Nixon promptly passed the buck. The resolution was the work of the Democratic Congress, he said, not the Eisenhower administration.
Khrushchev wasn’t convinced. “Any action by an authoritative body like Congress must have a purpose,” he insisted, “and I wonder what the purpose of this particular action can be.”
The purpose was, of course, to enable the lawmakers to exhibit their anti-Communist zeal while courting the votes of Polish Americans. But how could Nixon explain that to Khrushchev?
“The Soviet government thought Congress would never adopt a decision to start a war!” Khrushchev bellowed. “But it appears that, although Senator McCarthy is dead, his spirit still lives. For this reason, the Soviet Union has to keep its powder dry.”
Failing to convince Khrushchev that the resolution was meaningless, Nixon dipped into his arsenal of proverbs. “At the White House,” he said, “we have a procedure for breaking off long discussions that seem to go nowhere: President Eisenhower says, ‘We have beaten this horse to death, let’s change to another.’ Perhaps that is what we should do now.”
Khrushchev, the connoisseur of proverbs, enjoyed that one. “I agree with the president’s saying that we should not beat one horse too much,” he replied. But he couldn’t resist the urge to give this old nag one final whack: “I cannot understand why your Congress would adopt such a resolution on the eve of such an important state visit.” He came back with a proverb of his own: “It reminds me of a saying among our Russian peasants that ‘People should not shit where they eat.’”
By now, Khrushchev was red-faced and roaring. “This resolution stinks!” he said. “It stinks like fresh horseshit—and nothing smells worse than that!”
The interpreter blushed as he translated that little bon mot, but Nixon remained poker faced. Having grown up in a small town in southern California, he knew that horse manure was hardly the most pungent of livestock excrement.
“I’m afraid the chairman is mistaken,” he said. “There is something that smells worse than horseshit—and that is pigshit!”
For a moment, Khrushchev looked as if he was about to start bellowing again. But then he cracked a smile. “You are right,” he said. “So perhaps you are right that we should talk about something else.”
The strangest series of diplomatic visits in the twentieth century had begun with two of the most powerful men on Earth arguing about the odor of animal dung.

Ten days before Nixon arrived in Moscow, Khrushchev was relaxing in his luxurious dacha—his country house—when he received a phone call from his deputy, Frol Kozlov, who had just returned from New York. “I have a special message for you from President Eisenhower,” Kozlov said, then he hustled to the dacha to deliver the sealed envelope.
“Dear Mr. Prime Minister,” Eisenhower’s letter began, “For some time past, it has seemed to me that it would be mutually profitable for us to have an informal exchange of views about problems which interest both of us.”
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Khrushchev said later. “We had no reason to expect such an invitation—not then or ever for that matter.”


  • Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History and Baker Institute Fellow at Rice University
    "What a joy it was to read Peter Carlson's K Blows Top. With vivid detail, crisp language, subtle wit, and admirable new research, Carlson recounts Khrushchev's notorious bungling around America in 1959. A truly fine piece of writing and Cold War scholarship."

    Christopher Buckley, author of Thank You for Smoking and Supreme Courtship
    “Peter Carlson's K Blows Top is an utterly hilarious and un-putdown-able story about one of the strangest episodes of the Cold War -- Khrushchev's 1959 visit to the U.S. Someone absolutely has to make this into a movie. I insist!”

    The Daily Beast, from Christopher Buckley, author of Thank you for Smoking and

On Sale
Jun 2, 2009
Page Count
352 pages

Peter Carlson

About the Author

Peter Carlson is the author of K Blows Top, which has been optioned into a feature film. For many years, he was a reporter and columnist for the Washington Post. He has also written for Smithsonian magazine, American History, and the Huffington Post. He lives in Rockville, MD.

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