K blows top
It is fair to say that this was the most unique road trip across America ever undertaken. In 1959 Nikita Khrushchev and his entourage spent 15 days in the USA visiting Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Iowa. Along the way he met politicians, capitalists, movie stars and a few ordinary people at whistle stops on the train journey between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Khrushchev’s political agenda was to force the hand of the USA on disarmament (on his terms) and to get it to accept the USSR as an equal partner on the world stage. Khrushchev had every faith that the USSR would soon surpass the USA as an economic and political power, thus demonstrating the superiority of the Communist system, and he used every opportunity to present his case to American leaders and the American people.
After the horrors of the first half of 20th century in Russia which included the First World War, the 1917 revolution, the subsequent invasion and Civil War, the genocidal horrors of forced collectivisation and famine, and the all consuming disaster of the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis which left 14% of the pre War Soviet population dead, along with the ongoing Stalinist tyranny, the years of comparative peace and development after Stalin’s death in 1953 were a welcome relief for the Soviet people.
Through the 1920’s and 1930’s the USSR pursued autarchic economic development based around heavy industry, collective agriculture, infrastructure development and power generation. The allocation of economic resources was centralised in Moscow and 5 year plans were pursued. It was the era when comrade Stakhanov was held up as exemplary proletarian working above and beyond the call of duty to further the revolution. This pattern of economic development was resumed after WW II, along with an occasional re-imposition of the Stalinist terror to keep everyone on their toes.
In the aftermath of WW II and the Death of Stalin, the 1950’s were something of an optimistic time in the USSR. The Communist regime was not as brutally repressive as it had been under Stalin and presumably retained some popular goodwill as a result of defeating the Nazis. The Soviet Union was industrialising rapidly and the infrastructure was improving. Large scale electrification and major canal building works were undertaken, leading to increased agricultural production in the Central Asian Republics. The USSR became the second nation to develop nuclear weapons and their rocket delivery systems were arguably superior to those of the United States. This was demonstrated in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik and by 1959 the USSR had landed a rocket on the moon while the USA was struggling to get its rockets off the launch pad.
The model of heavy industry led economic development based on Central Plans developed in Moscow was delivering 7 +% annual economic growth and the lack of consumer goods was seen as a problem which would soon be fixed. The environmental debacles of many of the gargantuan projects had not become apparent at that point. Early computers held out the promise that the socialist calculation problem (essentially a system of shadow non-market prices used as a resource allocation guide) would be resolved and enable the continuation of high rates of centrally planned economic growth with a bit more of a consumer goods focus. Soviet planners projected forward the current growth trends of the USSR and the USA and Khrushchev came up with his infamous quote: “We will bury you.” Khrushchev thought he was describing the objective path of history as outlined in Marxist-Leninist thought but it lost something in translation and many people in the USA read the quote as a military threat.
It was at precisely this apogee of the Soviet dream, captured in all its evanescence by Francis Spufford in Red Plenty and in the Crooked Timber colloquium on the book, that Khrushchev bluffed his way to the United States against the wishes of President Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower had vetoed the visit unless the Soviets withdrew their threats against West Berlin, a West German outpost with military forces from the USA, the UK and France providing security, but the diplomats failed to add this caveat to the invitation which Khrushchev quickly took up before the Americans could have second thoughts. The groundwork for the visit had been paved when Vice President Richard Nixon went to Moscow with the American exhibitors at a Moscow Trade Fair. Khrushchev and Nixon conducted a famous political debate in the kitchen of an American display home. Privately they discussed the worth of diplomatic promises:
NK “Your promises smell worse than horseshit. Nothing smells worse than horseshit.”
RN “You are wrong Mr Secretary. Pigshit smells worse than horseshit.”
Khrushchev landed in Washington just days after the USSR has landed a rocket on the moon and hours after the Senate had sat through the weekend to complete the legislative agenda and then declare itself out of session so that no invitation would have to be proffered to Khrushchev to address it. The Soviets arrived in the Tupolev which was the largest passenger plane ever built and stood taller than the tallest stairways at Washington airport.
Khrushchev really had little idea of the USA and such information as he had was derived from pro Communist Russian authors such as Gorky (early C 20) and the comics Ilf & Petrov’s 1930’s road trip as well as any movies deemed suitable for the USSR. Stalin was a big fan of Westerns.
Khrushchev alternately charmed and terrified people as he travelled the USA. He showed himself to be an engaging political animal well versed in pressing the flesh while at other times he delivered threatening and lengthy communist propaganda speeches to a public scared witless by Cold War rhetoric and nuclear proliferation. As a diplomatic visit it was not a great success in either defusing tension over Berlin or reducing the threat posed by nuclear weapons proliferation.
The title K blows top derives from a headline describing Khrushchev’s reaction when he learned that his party would not be able to visit Disneyland as security could not be guaranteed. The nuances of crowd control in an affluent and mobile democracy escaped him.
Peter Carlson points out that the Khrushchev visit was the first time that the media became a central player in the creation of the news due to the number of press, radio and TV people following Khrushchev around on his trip – the first of the modern “media events”. The media presence caused a near riot in a San Francisco supermarket during a visit and drew a violent reaction from Khrushchev’s Iowan corn growing friend who threw fertiliser over the news crews trampling his corn crops.
The book is not a detailed story of the politics of the era but manages to look back at some of the humour of the situation now that we are sure that the bogeyman of the USSR has been consigned to the dustbin of history. And Khrushchev got to meet Marilyn Monroe who said publicly that he looked at her ‘as a man looks at a woman’, proving that those Commies weren’t completely beyond the pale of human experience. Privately she was less than impressed but she done her duty for the studio by turning up on time in a low cut dress.
Khrushchev lasted five more years in power prior to becoming the only leader of the USSR to be deposed and forced into retirement. His mercurial and somewhat liberal policies as well as his economic failures turned his comrades against him.
In the 1960’s the Soviet model of economic development increasingly bumped into its growth constraints and the socialist calculation problem proved to be intractable and insoluble. Computers would never develop a non price mechanism that could get the right number of pants and shovels to Vladivostok in May. The Soviet planning and political systems were unable and unwilling to adapt their top down command and control models and the USSR and Eastern Europe fell further and further behind the capitalist West where market based price signals drove the allocation of economic resources, especially consumer goods. Khrushchev’s successor Brezhnev was similarly unable or unwilling to allow any meaningful cultural, economic or political change to occur on his watch through to the early ‘80’s, thus setting the USSR on the path to destruction which played out in 1989 and 1991.
In his retirement Khrushchev wrote his memoirs which were smuggled out of the USSR and published in the West where they became a best seller (political memoir class) while remaining banned in Russia until after the expiry of the USSR.