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DIPLOMACY: The Education of Mr. K.

7 minute read

Little more than a week has elapsed since the head of the Soviet government arrived in the U.S., and any unprejudiced person can see how much the atmosphere in this country has changed . . . A peculiar contest has developed between American cities and small towns as to who can extend a warmer and more cordial welcome to the emissary of the great Soviet people.


The image of the emissary of the great Soviet people as he rocketed about the U.S. last week indeed pictured a change. The cymbal clashings of threat and arrogance that Nikita Khrushchev produced earlier in Washington, New York and Los Angeles had only evoked the hostility that the U.S. felt was due the top Communist boss anyway. But after Los Angeles (TIME, Sept. 28) things changed. San Francisco was friendly and Conductor Khrushchev brought up his muted strings. While the theme never changed, the U.S. relaxed, sat back to listen and watch—even to drum a little counterpoint. Result: a grand show, spiced with pathos, comedy, touches of heavy drama, acrobatics—everything, in short, except Eliza and a cake of ice.

In Des Moines, Khrushchev ate his first hot dog with the excitement and exuberance of a kid at his first ball game. (“Well, capitalist,” he boomed to Official Escort Henry Cabot Lodge, whom he needled throughout his trip, “have you finished your sausage?”) He patted the cheek of a Lithuanian woman who came to plead for the freedom of her two children behind the Iron Curtain, promised to arrange a reunion. He played a cheerful role in a Marx Brothers farce in an Iowa cornfield. He joshed Democrat Adlai Stevenson for talking to him: “Do you think you will be investigated by the Bureau of Un-American Affairs?” In a burst of generosity he handed his wristwatch to a Pittsburgh steelworker who offered him a stogie. He bowed his head respectfully for the luncheon invocation in Pittsburgh (where his aides had told him religion was important), and he paid his respects to Pittsburgh’s Roman Catholic Bishop John J. Wright, who had counseled courteous treatment.

Tovarish. Mobs crowded Nob Hill in San Francisco to cheer Khrushchev as he arrived at his hotel. Happily he waved back, reappeared at his hotel window to bask in the spontaneous welcome. “You have charmed me,” he glowed at a civic dinner—and added, without the customary clangor, “but you have charmed my heart, not my mind. I still think that our system is a good system.”

Khrushchev began to play fast and loose with his timetable. After canceling one San Francisco supermarket visit, he decided to invade another, and brought bedlam with him. He rolled unannounced into the hiring hall of the International Longshoremen’s union, embraced the union’s Red-lining Boss Harry Bridges as tovarish, genially swapped his felt hat for a longshoreman’s white cap. Wearing his new cap, he paid a call on International Business Machines Co. President Thomas Watson Jr., toured the IBM plant at San Jose, watched a thinking man’s brain as it chattered through its electronic paces, lined up for lunch in the company cafeteria. There, for the first time he uttered a telling sentence that upset a hoary party line: “We want to have friendship with the American people and the American Government—and I draw no line of distinction between the people and the Government of the United States.”

Pigs & Digs. For Kukuruznik (corn man) Khrushchev, the big treat of the week was his trip to Iowa for an inspection of advanced farming practices, corn and beef production near Coon Rapids. His host: crag-faced, cranky Millionaire Roswell Garst, who has been to Russia twice to sell corn seed to the U.S.S.R. There amid the alien corn the Premier of the U.S.S.R., Garst, and the tenuous U.S.-Soviet relations nearly got trampled for good under a 300-man brigade of shouting, shoving newsmen (see PRESS).

Khrushchev happily drove on. At Ames, where he toured the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, he was at his bubbling best. More and more, as tensions slacked, he made Brahmin-born Cabot Lodge his straight man. Said he in a hog barn: “In all his life, Mr. Lodge probably hasn’t taken in as many smells as today.” When it came time for the predictable message, Khrushchev was, as always, prepared: “These Soviet and American pigs can coexist—why then can’t our nations coexist as well? . . . If I may say something in a joking manner—slaves of capitalism live well. But slaves of Communism also live well.”

“Don’t Be So Sure.” In Pittsburgh, the skies were uncommonly dark in the absence of the glares from strikebound steel hearths, but the city’s lights were blazing as thousands of people choked the streets near Khrushchev’s hotel, gave him the biggest, loudest welcome of the whole tour, even awarded him his first “key to the city.”

Charging into an operating steel factory, the Chairman missed not a thing, questioned one worker about his wages ($85-$90 a week), hefted tools, examined huge machines, freely offered his comments. When a guide showed him a machine and said, “I’m sure that you have better ones in your country,” the New Nikita replied without a trace of rancor: “Don’t be so sure. We have better ones; we have the same kind—we even have worse. I don’t say that all you have is bad and all we have is good. We can learn from you.”

Mandate. Before Khrushchev left, Pennsylvania’s Democratic Governor David Lawrence reminded him at a dinner that both parties stand firmly behind President Eisenhower. From Khrushchev came a response that made it clear that he was growing alert to U.S. nuances. Said he: “I want to interpret your words [not as a threat but] as a mandate of your confidence and your love to the President, and for that I take heart . . . Our Soviet government has the support of the people. Before I left, the same thing was said to me: ‘Khrushchev, go to America, strive for peace, but stand firmly on your own two feet.’ ”

Late that afternoon Khrushchev & Co. flew back into Washington worn and rumpled. Under Secretary of State Robert Murphy led the proper but perfunctory greeting party. Crowds waved amiably—this time at a familiar figure—as K.’s limousine swept him back to Blair House. Within an hour he was showered and dressed for a reception at the Soviet embassy, then headed off to a private dinner with two dozen businessmen to sound the old brassy warning that U.S. willingness to disarm and trade would prove whether the U.S. wanted war or peace.

But at trip’s end, even the suggestive threat had a mellow note. In some strange way—some way that had nothing to do with issues of substance or policy—Nikita Khrushchev and the U.S. had come to a grudging mutual acknowledgment that each party was standing firmly on his own two feet, and not likely to be easily shaken in basic underpinnings.

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