rating: 5 of 5 stars
So here’s a wacky premise: the by-turns jovial and irascible leader of the United States’ sworn enemy, in the shadow of mutually assured destruction, tours the nation at the personal if accidental invitation of the President, with family and a rabid media circus in tow. Hilarity, with a frisson of doomsday, ensues. Even better? It’s all true.
In 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev embarked on a historic, bicoastal jaunt across the U.S. While the trip culminated in a (not particularly fruitful) meeting with Eisenhower at Camp David, for most of the ten days “K” (as the space-starved headlines dubbed him) and his wife and children were tourists—albeit tourists with State Department escorts, tight security, and a phalanx of reporters and photographers recording their every move. Honestly, there are so many stranger-than-fiction anecdotes contained in this marvelous tome that I must quell my urge to just pour out all of them, or otherwise you wouldn’t read the book—so here are three indelible images to pique your interest: The American Dental Association patriotically refusing to relocate their convention from the Waldorf-Astoria Ballroom for a government-sponsored luncheon in Khrushchev’s honor (one telegram of support read KEEP ON EXTRACTING THE POISONOUS FANGS OF COMMUNISM). Mrs. Khrushchev, as grey and serviceable as a block of Moscow flats, seated between Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra at a dinner at the Warner Brothers studio commissary (she showed them pictures of her grandchildren). The dictator’s red-faced public tantrum over being told that, because of security concerns, he would not be allowed to go to Disneyland—a chilling reminder that, as much fun as the whole thing seemed on the surface, the nuclear annihilation of most of the world turned on the temper of a short-tempered man.
It would be difficult to write a dull book with such killer material; Peter Carlson’s writing, though, goes past engaging into delightful. He brackets the “surreal extravaganza” of the 1959 trip with the stories of two other important visits: then-Vice President Nixon’s to Moscow the previous year, which resulted in the infamous “kitchen debate” on the set of a corporate-sponsored American Exhibition; and Khrushchev’s return as part of a U.N. delegation in 1960, bizarrely punctuated by his taking off his shoe and pounding it on his desk while making a point, an enduring image of the Cold War, “probably,” wrote K’s granddaughter Nina L. Khrushcheva in 2000, “the only war in which fear and humor peacefully coexisted.” K Blows Top walks that line with gusto.