Khrushchev in the Land of Lincoln

Article excerpt

Byline: Adam B. Kushner

Nikita Khrushchev was the face of the Soviet Union for 11 years, yet to this day he is defined in the West by one image: banging his shoe furiously upon a U.N. delegate's desk. Was he a short-tempered but essentially good-natured buffoon, or was this the man whose childish overreactions would instigate nuclear war? According to Peter Carlson's diverting new book, KaBlows Top, he was both. The folksy farmer-cum-pol was an adroit politician, but he was a rube in strategy and diplomacy. On a 1959 visit to America, it showed.

A novelist couldn't have invented a wackier Cold War interlude than Khrushchev's trip: a midlevel State Department functionary misconstrues instructions from Dwight Eisenhower and accidentally invites the premier to meet the president at Camp David and to tour the United States. Khrushchev breathlessly accepts. Ike can't possibly retract. Madcap hilarity ensues.

Americans knew Khrushchev as the hard-bitten Soviet honcho who had just ordered the Allied powers out of West Berlin (or else!) and told a room full of Western diplomats, "We will bury you." But the hairless tyrant who scrambled around America for two weeks--babysat by the weary U.N. ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, and antagonized at every turn by Vice President Richard Nixon--was more enigma than enemy.

Touring the country, Khrushchev one moment played the statesman who de-Stalinized the U.S.S.R.; the next he threw a tantrum when his American security detail wouldn't let him go to Disneyland. …