Khrushchev’s American Road Trip
In which the Russian leader ate a hot dog, tried to go to Disneyland, and was underwhelmed by the Empire State Building.
By Katharine Tarvainen
In the fall of 1959, Nikita Khrushchev became the first Soviet premier to visit the United States. Khrushchev said he was “curious to have a look at America” and had been trying to get an invitation from President Dwight Eisenhower for several years. During a Moscow meeting with visiting American governors in July of 1959, Khrushchev mentioned his wish to see America and, shortly after, an invitation arrived from the White House. Soviet Ambassador to the United States Mikhail Menshikov and U.S. Undersecretary of State Robert Murphy haggled over Khrushchev’s itinerary for several weeks before finally agreeing on a schedule that had the Soviet premier traveling to Washington, D.C., New York, California, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and back to Camp David. Both Eisenhower and Khrushchev hoped that the visit would foster a mutual understanding and potentially help thaw Cold War tensions.
This timeline details the most significant events of Khrushchev’s 12-day trip around the U.S., September 15–27, 1959.
Tuesday, September 15, 1959
1:00PM — Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, his wife Nina, son Sergei, daughters Julia and Rada, and son-in-law Alexei Adzhubei land at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C. Khrushchev had flown to the U.S. in the Soviets’ new Tupolev 114 aircraft, which could make the trip from Moscow to Washington without stopping. Before departing, Soviet engineers found cracks in the plane’s fuselage and advised Khrushchev to take a different plane, but the premier was determined to make an impression, and they made the long flight in the enormous plane without incident.
With hundreds of members of the public and the press in attendance, President Dwight Eisenhower gives welcoming remarks, and Khrushchev makes a short speech thanking Eisenhower for the invitation and stating his hopes that the trip will foster greater understanding between the two nations: “We have come to you with an open heart and with good intentions. The Soviet people want to live in peace and friendship with the American people.”
Khrushchev and his entourage then go to the Blair House, the official presidential guest residence, where they will stay during their time in Washington. That afternoon, Henry Cabot Lodge, the American Ambassador to the United Nations, who will serve as Khrushchev’s tour guide throughout his visit, visits him.
Khrushchev attends dinner at the White House. Both Khrushchev and Eisenhower give speeches about their hope for mutual understanding between their two countries and, in the Oval Office, Khrushchev presents Eisenhower with a replica of the Lunik II space probe that had successfully landed on the moon just the previous day. As the first man-made object on the moon, the Lunik II symbolizes a great victory for the Soviets over the Americans in the space race.
Wednesday, September 16, 1959
9:40AM — Khrushchev departs Washington, D.C. for the Agricultural Experiment Station in Beltsville, Maryland where he allegedly complains that the pigs are too fat and the turkeys are too small.
Back in D.C. for a luncheon at the National Press Club, Khrushchev reiterates his “sincere desire to achieve better relations between our two countries and promote peace all over the world.” After Khrushchev’s speech, National Press Club president William Lawrence asks the premier about his 1956 “Secret Speech,” in which he denounced Stalin. Khrushchev responds, “I shall not reply to this question, which I look upon as being provocative, and would like to take this occasion to deny any such malicious rumors and lies, which do not correspond to the truth.”
3:30PM — Khrushchev takes a driving tour of Washington D.C., ending at the Capitol, where he has tea with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He advises its members that Communism isn’t going anywhere: “The wart is there, and I can’t do anything about it.”
Thursday, September 17, 1959
8:22AM — Khrushchev takes a train to New York City, where he is greeted by Mayor Robert F. Wagner.
Evening — Khrushchev attends a dinner hosted by the Economic Club of New York. The New York Herald Tribune describes the gathering of 2,000 club members as, “one of history’s greatest concentrations of capitalists.”
Friday, September 18, 1959
Morning — Khrushchev and Henry Cabot Lodge drive 100 miles to visit former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at Hyde Park. After Khrushchev pays his respects at President Franklin Roosevelt’s grave, Eleanor leads him on a tour of the Roosevelt Memorial Library. The visit is rushed, as the Premier is due back in New York for a speech at the UN later that afternoon. Eleanor would later recall, “He enjoyed nothing. A man behind him all the time kept whispering, ‘Seven minutes, seven minutes.’”
3:00PM — In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Khrushchev discusses the damaging effects of the Cold War and the critical role the United Nations must play to achieve peace among the most powerful nations in the world. “People still live in constant anxiety about peace, about their future,” he says, “And how can they not feel this anxiety when, now in one part of the world, now in another, military conflicts flare up and human blood is shed?”
He also proposes solutions for the Berlin Crisis, which began in November 1958 when Khrushchev demanded all Western troops leave West Berlin. He ends his speech with a plea for universal disarmament: “Let us compete in who builds more homes, schools and hospitals for the people; produces more grain, milk, meat, clothing and other consumer goods; and not in who has more hydrogen bombs and rockets. This will be welcomed by all the peoples of the world.”
After Khrushchev’s UN speech, governor Nelson Rockefeller (NY-R) visits the Soviet premier at the Waldorf-Astoria to welcome him to New York.
Early Evening — Khrushchev tours Manhattan with Lodge by car. He would later reflect on his unenthusiastic impressions of the Empire State Building: “If you’ve seen one skyscraper, you’ve seen them all.”
Saturday, September 19, 1959
9:30AM — Before boarding a flight to Los Angeles, Khrushchev gives a speech thanking the people of New York for their hospitality, only expressing regret that he “had no opportunity of coming into contact with the ordinary people, the workers, who are the backbone of the life of the city, the producers of its wealth.”
12:09PM — Khrushchev and his party arrive in Los Angeles and drive to a luncheon hosted by 20th Century Fox President Spyros Skouras at the studio’s commissary, the Café de Paris. The star-studded event includes guests Gary Cooper, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe, among others.
During the lunch, Khrushchev discovers that his trip to Disneyland has been cancelled because Los Angeles police chief William Parker claims his safety cannot be guaranteed at the theme park. Khrushchev sends a note to Lodge saying he is “most displeased” by the turn of events. After Spyros Skouras gives a speech, Khrushchev takes the podium, thanking everyone for their hospitality and comparing Skouras’ rags-to-riches story with his own. He is still angered by his cancelled Disney trip, however, and ends his speech shouting and shaking his fist, “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.”
After lunch, Skouras escorts the premier and his party to watch the filming of the movie musical Can-Can. Frank Sinatra, who stars in the picture, explains, “This is a movie about a lot of pretty girls — and the fellows who like pretty girls.” As they began a racy dance number, Khrushchev’s disapproval becomes apparent. He would later state that, “there are moments in this dance that cannot be considered quite decent, scenes that would not be taken well by everyone.”
Evening — Khrushchev attends a banquet at the Ambassador Hotel hosted by Los Angeles mayor Norris Poulson. During his speech, Mayor Poulson proclaims, “Mr. Chairman, we do not agree with your widely quoted phrase, ‘We shall bury you.’ You shall not bury us.” This, along with other critiques of Communism, offends Khrushchev, who threatens to cut his trip short and return to the Soviet Union. He tells the stunned audience in the Ambassador Hotel Ballroom, “I am the first head of either Russia or the Soviet Union to visit the United States. I can go. But I don’t know when, if ever, another Soviet premier will visit your country.”
Later that night, Henry Cabot Lodge attempts to smooth things over, claiming he had “tried to talk Mayor out of this speech.” He assures Soviet officials that the remarks of local politicians do not reflect the views of the U.S. Government: “We have no control over local politicians… I want to deny most vigorously that we are instigating this… President would not invite [Khrushchev] and then want to make him unhappy. He wants his trip to be useful and interesting and successful.”
(Khrushchev would later admit he had no intention of leaving but felt “it was necessary to let this anti-Soviet person have it in the teeth, even though he held a high post.”)
Sunday, September 20, 1959
Morning — En route to San Francisco, Khrushchev’s train makes a stop in San Luis Obispo so the Premier can disembark and greet the crowd gathered on the platform. Khrushchev had complained to Lodge that he wasn’t getting enough opportunities to mingle with regular Americans.
In San Francisco, Mayor George Christopher meets Khrushchev at the train station, welcoming him to the city. Khrushchev would later recall that, “the mayor was very polite and left a very good impression.” (Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, would later state that this cordial reception was due to Eisenhower asking Mayor Christopher to do some damage control after what happened in Los Angeles.)
Evening — Khrushchev attends a private dinner hosted by United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther and six other union leaders. Reuther is a well-known labor organizer who spent time working at a Soviet auto factory in the 1930s. He challenges Khrushchev on topics ranging from Soviet labor unions, to East German working conditions, to the government’s censorship of radio broadcasts. Khrushchev would later reflect that, “the conversation left a bad taste in my mouth. Usually there is mutual understanding that gets expressed right away. In this case it didn’t happen, because our viewpoints were so utterly opposed.”
Monday, September 21, 1959
Khrushchev begins the day with a boat tour of the San Francisco Bay. He spots an aircraft carrier entering the harbor and remarks to Lodge that such vessels are big targets that would be easily destroyed should war break out. He then says he believes submarines to be the naval weapon of the future.
Afternoon — At the headquarters of the Longshoremen’s Union of the Pacific Coast, Khrushchev gives a brief speech and meets with union members, including union chairman Harry Bridges, who is speculated to have Communist affiliations. When the press asks Bridges to stand behind the much shorter Khrushchev, he responds, “I’ll stand behind him. He’s a good man. I may even give him a job.” This, along with Khrushchev trading hats with a union member — and wearing the Longshoreman’s cap the rest of the day — prompted media speculation that Khrushchev was trying to “stir up trouble.”
In San Jose, Khrushchev goes on a tour of IBM where he is allegedly more impressed with the efficiency of the cafeteria than with the computers.
After IBM, Khrushchev visits a supermarket outside San Francisco, causing a media frenzy. Khrushchev’s security forms a protective wall around the Premier as customers swarm him and photographers climb grocery displays to try to get a shot of Khrushchev inspecting American produce, deli meats and frozen dinners.
Tuesday, September 22, 1959
Morning — Khrushchev flies to Des Moines, IA and attends a reception by Governor Herschel Loveless and Mayor Charles Iles. During a short speech, Khrushchev remarks on a sign he saw stating, “We don’t agree with you on many questions, but we welcome you.” Khrushchev calls it “a sensible slogan.”
At a meat-packing plant in Des Moines, Khrushchev enjoys his first American hot dog, claiming, “We have beaten you to the moon, but you have beaten us in sausage making.”
Wednesday, September 23, 1959
Khrushchev drives to Coon Rapids, IA to meet with farmer Roswell Garst. The two had met in 1955 when Garst traveled to the Soviet Union to give lectures on using hybrid seed corn and modern fertilizers to produce high-yield crops. Khrushchev thought the Iowan farmer was “a very interesting conversationalist who knew agriculture well.” While in the Soviet Union, Garst sold thousands of tons of his hybrid seed corn. In addition to being a salesman, Garst also promoted the idea of “peace through corn.” In advance of Khrushchev’s visit, he told reporters that helping the Soviet Union plant better crops made strategic sense: “It would be dangerous for the world to have a Russia that is both hungry and has the H-bomb.”
Khrushchev tours Garst’s farm and learns more about his farming methods. The Soviet premier is particularly impressed with Garst’s mechanized system to feed cattle and his method of irrigating his fields through steel pipes and sprinklers — standard features on American farms, but not in the Soviet Union.
Throughout the entire visit, Garst and Khrushchev are followed by what Khrushchev later referred to as, “an enormous army of journalists, photographers, and movie camera operators.” Garst grows irate as the members of the press trample his crops and he starts throwing things at them and physically shoving them off his land — even leaving a boot print on one reporter’s behind. Despite the chaos, Khrushchev would later remark that the atmosphere in Iowa was “the most relaxed of the entire visit to America.”
Evening — Khrushchev flies to Pittsburgh, PA.
Thursday, September 24, 1959
Around Midnight — Mayor Thomas Gallagher meets Khrushchev and his party at the Pittsburgh airfield and presents the Premier with a symbolic key to the city. Khrushchev thanks him for the gesture, saying, “I highly value your confidence expressed in the fact that you presented me with a symbolic key of your city. I thank you and assure you that I want to be your friend and will never abuse your trust, and with this key I will only open those doors which you allow me to open; I shall not make a single step without your permission.”
Morning — Khrushchev tours Pittsburgh and takes note of the way the women are dressed: “I was surprised at how freely they were dressed… these women were walking around in shorts, blue jeans, and very lightweight dresses. I personally think that that’s practical.”
A months-long steelworkers strike prevents Khrushchev from visiting several factories, however the Premier does visit the Mesta Machine Company plant where more than 3,000 nonunion employees are still working.
Afternoon — Khrushchev attends a lunch in Pittsburgh where he discusses economics, culture and science. As this is Khrushchev’s last public stop on his U.S. tour, he thanks Henry Cabot Lodge for his hospitality, joking, “Mr. Lodge, if I may say so, must be glad: At last that ‘burdensome’ job… of accompanying me on my trip across America is coming to an end.”
Khrushchev returns to Washington, D.C. in preparation for a meeting with President Eisenhower.
Friday & Saturday, September 25–26, 1959
At Camp David, Eisenhower and Khrushchev discuss important issues such as disarmament, the situation in Berlin, and trade between their two nations. Though, at the end of their talks they agree, “the question of general disarmament is the most important one facing the world today,” they reach no solid agreement on the topics they discuss.
Sunday, September 27, 1959
2:00PM — Khrushchev and Eisenhower depart Camp David and return to Washington, DC by car.
At a press conference Khrushchev refers to the press “as my travel companions, my sputniks.” He says he has been “enriched” by his visit and that his talks with Eisenhower have helped both men “understand each other better.”
Late Evening — Khrushchev and his entourage depart from Andrews Air Force Base for Moscow.
Watch the American Experience film Cold War Roadshow online