Nikita Khrushchev
© Getty Images
Nikita Khrushchev tastes his first American hot dog, September, 22, 1959.
In September 1959, Nikita Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit America. It was a remarkable event and a seminal moment in the Cold War.

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' to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) 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 brutal excesses 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 gainsaid 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. And it is here we return to a fascinating episode in the history of the Cold War, when the Soviet premier, at President Eisenhower's invitation, embarked on a two-week tour of the US on 15-27 September 1959.

Khrushchev, in his multi-volume memoirs, left behind a treasure trove of personal reminiscences and recollections of the tour. With refreshing candor, he confesses that when the invitation to visit the US arrived it took Moscow by surprise. "We had no reason to expect such an invitation," he writes. "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."

His sense of pride at the shift in Washington's stance towards the Soviet Union, though, is 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."

A revealing insight into the culture within the Soviet leadership is provided by the wrangling that took place over who should be part of the delegation to the US: "The question came up of whether or not to take our wives. When Bulganin and I went to Geneva and London, we left our wives at home. Leaving them behind was one of our legacies from Stalin's time. Stalin was very suspicious of anyone who took his wife on a trip with him... In general, we had always considered it unbusinesslike - and a petty-bourgeois luxury - to travel with our wives."

At the time of Eisenhower's invitation, Khrushchev's leadership was beset by crises at home and abroad. His previously mentioned speech to the 20th Congress of the CPSU, beginning the process of de-Stalinization, had the unintended consequence of catalysing anti-Soviet sentiment across the Eastern bloc, most explosively in Hungary. Meanwhile, the Cold War had got the point where it was more than justified to hold to the belief that World War III was a question of when, not if.

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'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."

Apart from the series of talks the Soviet delegation held with their US counterparts on various subjects and matters of common interest, the tour took in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh, before culminating in private talks with Eisenhower at the President's Camp David retreat.

Khrushchev's recollection of a dinner held in his honor during his visit to Los Angeles, bringing together the city's most wealthy and influential dignitaries, is revelatory: "The meal was delicious and lavishly served," he writes. "No sour cabbage soup for these people."

But things took a decidedly negative turn when the city's mayor addressed the dinner and in the course of his remarks insulted the Soviet Union. Khrushchev felt compelled to respond in kind in his own address to the assembled guests: "Mr. Mayor, 'I said,' "I'm here as a guest of the President. I didn't come to your city to be insulted or to listen to you denigrate our great country and our great people. If my presence is unwelcome, then my plane is always ready to take me straight back to the Soviet Union."

Khrushchev's meeting with the head of the US auto workers' union, Walter Reuther, provides another fascinating insight into the worldview of a man who'd been reared in the belief that communism heralded the future. "I studied Reuther closely... here was a man who had betrayed the class struggle... He made as much money [as head of the union] as the directors of the biggest American corporations, like Ford. In other words, the capitalists had bought him off."

Ultimately, the attempt to achieve a breakthrough in US-Soviet relations over the course of the tour failed. "I could tell Eisenhower was deflated," Khrushchev writes. "He looked like a man who had fallen through a hole in the ice and been dragged from the river with freezing water still dripping off him."

But no matter, at least this son of Russian peasants was able to take comfort in the fact that getting ready to fly back to the Soviet Union with the rest of his delegation, the Americans "still hadn't found a set of proper stairs high enough for our Tu-114."

Though the tour failed to produce the outcome sought by both leaders, it is testament to the political courage of President Eisenhower that he reached out and invited his Soviet counterpart to visit the country during a period of extreme hostility within Washington to Moscow.

Indeed it is arguable that without his prolonged visit to the US in 1959, Khrushchev may not have been so willing to accommodate JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis three years later in 1962 - the reason being that only in visiting the country or countries of his adversaries is a leader able to humanize it beyond the realm of geopolitical differences.

In 2018, due to the unbounded anti-Russia fever that has Washington in its grip, it is highly unlikely that any such visit to the US by Russian President Vladimir Putin will be taking place anytime soon, nor to Russia by his US counterpart, President Trump.

In this respect at least, the hard lessons of the twentieth century have been lost.

John Wight has written for a variety of newspapers and websites, including the Independent, Morning Star, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, London Progressive Journal, and Foreign Policy Journal.