In 1959, a mix-up resulted in the first state visit to the U.S. by a Russian or Soviet leader, and the first time one had set foot in the Western Hemisphere, when Nikita Khrushchev was accidentally invited to visit the U.S. and gladly accepted.
An oafish, potbellied figure, “K,” as American tabloids dubbed him, had been born in Russia in 1894, near the border of Ukraine, and was already a young man by the time of the 1917 revolution. When he came to the U.S., he had seen the best of that revolution and, as a survivor of the inner circle of Joseph Stalin, much of the worst. He could be comical but not soft and was thought to have his finger on a nuclear button.
He arrived in D.C. on Sept. 15, 1959, knowing almost nothing about America that he had not read in Soviet propaganda. He came in an airplane built for the occasion, the TU-114 – the world’s tallest aircraft. The height of airplanes had not been a signal distinction before, but the Soviet Union could be nutty that way. Was America?
On the 15-mile ride from the airport, an estimated 200,000 people lined the roads, watching in curious silence.
In D.C., K met FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. “Khrushchev and Hoover may have seemed like two men with nothing in common,” writes Peter Carlson in his rollicking account of the trip, “K Blows Top,” “but in fact, they were the two largest contributors to the Communist party of the United States” – K with secret subsidies of about $2.2 million a year in today’s money, and Hoover through the dues his infiltrators paid. “I feel like I know you,” K said.
He was introduced to Sen. Lyndon Johnson, the leader of the Democrats, then in opposition. “I’ve never been able to see any difference between your two parties,” K told Johnson.
Two days later, K and company traveled to New York. After a luncheon in the grand ballroom of the Commodore Hotel, U.N. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., an arch Republican, went to bat first for Team USA.
The country “cannot be simply described by a reference to the economic system,” Lodge said. And that system, “with its intense competition, its wide sharing of earnings, its ever-changing character and its enormous government welfare program, can certainly not be accurately summed up in the one word ‘capitalistic.’”
How fascinating is it, 61 years later, to see this ultra-establishment GOP pol facing the leading exponent of socialism, bragging about having a large welfare state? Every presidential candidate today should be asked how we got from there to here.
K responded with a proverb: “Each duck praises its own swamp.”
He believed a small cabal of capitalists ran the American government the way a small circle of communists ran the USSR. Chief among the capitalists were the Rockefeller brothers: He knew all about them from a 1957 Soviet book about them, “Ever Knee-Deep in Blood, Ever Trampling Corpses.” He viewed them the way later Democrats would speak of the Koch brothers.
The next day, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, K met Nelson Rockefeller, New York State’s governor.
Nelson spoke of the brotherhood of man, and love, and God.
K said, sourly, “We’re also deeply concerned for the people.”
Nelson proudly told K that 500,000 citizens of his state were immigrants who had come to America seeking “freedom and opportunity.”
“Don’t give me that stuff,” K. said. “They only came to get higher wages.”
K’s socialist empire came and went, yet somehow we are still having this conversation. Today, it is a fringe of socialists who buoy Bernie Sanders in a war against “corporate Democrats”; who think free enterprise is merely a euphemism for capitalism, which only serves billionaires; and who maintain there is practically no difference between Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Donald Trump. We had to name a genre of music “Americana” to talk about what we have in common, and then, as often as not, it turns out to be a series of clichés.
We have internalized our own Khrushchev.