It was September of 1959 and young Toritto, who had just turned 17 years old, was working full time in the mailroom of what would become Citibank in New York City. I had graduated the previous May from Lafayette High in Brooklyn on a Thursday and went to work on Monday. I was now a working man; even my father treated me differently.
I met my first black man close up in that mailroom. We ate lunch together, me because I was too poor to buy lunch everyday and he because few restaurants cared to serve him. Over those lunches he spoke of his experiences with Jim Crow and southern segregation, something I knew absolutely nothing about. It wasn’t taught in schools.
And that’s when I found out. Nikita Khrushchev – the arch commie villain of the world was coming to New York. He was the reason I did “duck and cover” under school desks. He who had bombs – big bombs. The evil one – the devil incarnate.
And I would be able to see him with my own eyes. He would be the first Soviet leader to visit America, a remarkable event and a seminal moment in the Cold War. Even Stalin never visited.
Born in 1894 the son of poor peasants in Russia, Khrushchev’s life charts what is arguably the most dramatic period in Russian history, straddling the First World War, the 1917 February and October revolutions, the 1918–1922 civil war that ensued thereafter, the upheavals of the 1920s, followed by the five year plans and purges of the 1930s.
It also takes in the Second World War and the post-Stalin period, a period in which Khrushchev was personally and politically central with his infamous 1956 ‘secret speech’ criticizing the excesses of Stalin to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow.
For a leader whose political career was closely bound up with Stalin’s, the speech was considered by some to be an act of treachery – a cynical attempt to salve his own conscience by distancing himself from the brutality of his predecessor. Others considered the speech courageous and necessary, beginning the thawing out of a sclerotic political culture within the upper echelons of the Party and government that was incompatible with the times, thus allowing the country and its people to breathe more easily.
Regardless of the whys and wherefores, what cannot be said is that Khrushchev’s peasant background and homespun style belied a leader who was willing to take risks at home and also on the international stage. “He well understood the crucial distinction between doctrinal purity that looks good on paper and policies that pass the all important test of being applicable to real world conditions, ensuring that he could never be accused of being a prisoner of fixed ideological positions. The fruits of such a worldview were never more evident than in a foreign policy defined by the objective of peaceful coexistence with the West.”
According to Khrushchev’s multi volume memoirs, the invitation from Dwight Eisenhower to visit the United States on a tour came as a complete surprise. “We had no reason to expect such an invitation,” he wrote. “Our relations had been extremely strained… America had been boycotting us completely… and now, suddenly, this invitation. What did it mean? A shift of some kind? It was hard to believe.”
Issues of nuclear armaments, Berlin and Hungary loomed large.
His sense of pride at the shift in Washington’s stance towards the Soviet Union, however, was unabashed: “We’d come a long way from the time when the United States wouldn’t even grant us diplomatic recognition. We felt pride in our country, our Party, our people, and the victories they had achieved. The main factors forcing the President [Eisenhower] to seek improved relations were our economic might, the might of our armed forces, and that of the whole socialist camp.” In this context, a visit to the United States brought with it the opportunity to alleviate tensions between East and West that were pregnant with risk.
Khrushchev would bring along his wife Nina, his grown children, a son and two daughters and his son-in-law, arriving at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington to a 21 gun salute. Khrushchev’s abiding pride in the achievements of the Soviet system was manifest as soon as the Tu-114 aircraft bringing him to the US on a non-stop flight from the Soviet Union touched down in Washington and the Americans lacked stairs of sufficient height to reach the door. “They hadn’t known our plane was such a giant. We could see wonder in their eyes as they looked at it. They’d never seen anything like it, and they certainly didn’t have anything like it themselves, nor would they have one for a long time.”
The Tu-114 was the only aircraft in existence at the time that could make the flight from Moscow to Washington non-stop. America indeed had nothing like it and wouldn’t for years.
Khrushchev and his party would be escorted on tour by Henry Cabot Lodge, the bluest of American blue bloods as he traveled from Washington to New York, on to Los Angeles and San Francisco, Des Moines, Iowa, Pittsburgh and closing with meetings with the President at Camp David.
Henry Cabot Lodge was worried about security. He had enough agents around Khrushchev to place him in a virtual cocoon. It was estimated that there were some 25,000 virulent anti-communists in the country who would gladly take a pot shot at the Soviet leader given the opportunity. Lodge didn’t want to think of the consequences if something happened to any of the visitors on American soil.
And so the Soviet leader had dinner with Ike, agreed to meet later at Camp David for further discussion and after a tour of an agricultural facility in Maryland headed to New York – by train.
Khrushchev’s arrival in New York can only be characterized as somber, as it had been in Washington. Young Toritto was in the crowd lining the streets as he rode my in an open car, surrounded by security. Most people didn’t know what to do. You don’t cheer. He was a commie. You don’t boo; he had bombs. So you stood silently as Khrushchev waved his fedora and smiled at the crowds. He and Nina looked like any Russians one would meet at a lower East Side tea house.
That night he made a speech before the Economics Club, a group of ultra-capitalists if there ever was one and laid a wreath at the tomb of FDR in Hyde Park. In Hollywood he rubbed shoulders with the stars and was insulted in a speech by the Mayor of Los Angeles. Khrushchev rose, took the podium and rebuked him publicly. He as here at the invitation of the President and, if he wasn’t wanted he could board his Soviet aircraft and go home at anytime . But he wasn’t here to be insulted personally or have his country insulted publicly.
Nikita, Shirley Maclaine, Nina and Frank Sinatra
Disney Land was cancelled as too great a security risk. Khrushchev was outraged; he wanted to see Disney Land. No dice. “Do you have rocket launching pads there? …What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera or plague there? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place that can destroy me? And I say I would very much like to go and see Disneyland. For me such a situation is inconceivable.”
On a train ride north to San Francisco, at a stop in San Luis Obispo, Khrushchev saw crowds of people gathered at the station and insisted on getting out of the car and greeting them. Finally, he had some touch with the common folks.
In Iowa he had his first hot dog. In Pittsburgh he met labor union leaders. At Camp David he met with Ike.
Little in the way of diplomatic progress was made. Neither side wanted war however and they agreed to meet in Paris for a summit and Khrushchev invited Ike and Mame to Moscow for visit in kind.
The Soviet leader returned to Moscow to a heroes welcome. The USSR was finally recognized by the United States as an equal world power. But the summit in Paris never happened.
Gary Powers in his U-2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet Russia. Ike admitted he ordered the flight even after Khrushchev tried to let him off the hook by stating he thought it was ordered by some rogue military officers. Ike however fessed up leaving Khrushchev no choice but to cancel the summit as well as the invitation to the USSR.
Thus the Cold War got colder culminating in the Cuban missile crisis of 1963.
I stood there that day and watched a peasant man and his peasant wife ride by to silence. He came seeking respect for his country. In Hollywood at a dinner, Spiros Skouras, a Greek film magnate at the time spoke of his success in America, a poor boy who came here with nothing, and how it was only possible here.
Nikita Khrushchev took the podium. I was a poor peasant boy with two years of schooling – and I am Chairman of the USSR! It is possible in my country as well!
After the fall of the USSR, Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita’s son who was on the trip came to the United States taking a position at Brown University as a professor of 20th century Russian history and moved into a house in Cranston, Rhode Island, about a mile and a half from my former home.
In 1999 he became an American citizen.
He died last month on June 18th.