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Khrushchev Visits America – A Cold War Comedy of Errors, Act II

In September of 1959, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States on an unprecedented goodwill trip spanning several days, thousands of miles and which was covered by a huge press corps. In stark contrast to the finely orchestrated tours and campaign stops that are common nowadays, the visit was a series of flubs and fiascoes, which led people to criticize the ineptitude of the State Department. And yet the chaos of the first leg of the trip, detailed in Act I, was nothing compared to what was to come in San Francisco and Iowa.

In Act II, Khrushchev’s Cold War Comedy of Errors continues with disastrous press encounters and an unwilling host whose petulance led to the corn battle at Garst Farm. Richard Townsend Davies, who was an integral part of the trip, describes the myriad problems of “an abysmal failure” in PR.

Go here for Khrushchev’s “kitchen debate” with VP Richard Nixon. Read other Moments on Russia/the USSR. For a look at modern-day visits, go behind the scenes on a POTUS visit.


“This thing is a disaster”

Q: When you started the whole thing rolling, had it had any precedent? Had anyone with that big an entourage landed in this country before that time?

DAVIES: No, there wasn’t much precedent. Of course there had been important official visits, but none which had aroused this interest and had become so huge a media event. Certainly there had been nothing like that before the Second World War, and nothing really before Khrushchev. So we didn’t really know how to handle it. We had little experience.

The upshot of Khrushchev’s blowing up that evening in Los Angeles was that he really had us where he wanted us in effect, and stories were written in effect saying how inept the U.S. Government and the State Department had been and were being in handling this man, and that was fairly accurate.

Well, we went up to San Francisco on the train the next day. The reason for going on the train was that he was supposed to see Vandenberg Air Force Base, where they had an early generation of missiles — were they the Jupiters? — and they were visible from the train window.

So the idea was — and it’s rather simplistic — the idea was, we’ll go by there, and these missiles will be up…they’d be up and he’d see them, and he’d say, “Oh, gracious, these people are powerful, I’d better watch it.” As a matter of fact we were much more [powerful]. They were way, way behind, they didn’t have anything like that.

Well, as a matter of fact when we went by Vandenberg Air Force Base, Khrushchev made it a point to be giving an interview to a number of correspondents sitting with his back to the window through which one could see Vandenberg Air Force Base, and he never looked out the window.

In fact one of the correspondents said, “Oh, Mr. Prime Minister, we are passing Vandenberg Air Force Base.” And Khrushchev said, “Yes? So?” You know, that kind of thing. He made it a point not to look at the missiles. I mean it was pretty obvious to him what this was all about.

In San Francisco — I don’t remember. The thing became a fog in my mind. If we got two or three hours’ sleep per night we were lucky — we, the people in the press party – because we were up with the correspondents until they had gotten settled, then we got to bed, and then it was a question of bags in the corridor at four a.m., and be downstairs ready to load into the cars and buses at 4:30, because the press party left an hour ahead of the plane in which Khrushchev was riding, so it would already be on the ground before he arrived, and left also an hour ahead when he departed from a place — we left an hour before he did.

So we were on the go long before anybody else, and were up after anybody else, and although as I look back on it now, I was quite a young fellow and had pretty good stamina, after two or three days of this, together with the tensions produced by dealing with these hundreds of not only disgruntled but angry correspondents — they were angry because they contended, or some of them did, that Joe Reap was only giving his friends the opportunity of being members of the pool.

Q: Was that true?

DAVIES:  I don’t really know whether it was true. I had other things to do, I had other responsibilities, but people whom I knew quite well in the press corps were coming to me absolutely livid, to the point that finally in Des Moines [famed columnist] Scotty Reston got hold of me and said, “This thing is a disaster,” and I said, “Well, it looks fairly catastrophic to me too from that point of view.”

And he had a big story the next day, all based very largely on what I had said, and I said it’s a disaster because Jim Hagerty — I don’t blame the guy — passed the buck to Linc White, and Linc White passed it to Joe Reap.

On the Verge of Hysteria in Des Moines

By that time Khrushchev had already been in the United States four or five days, maybe longer, because he had arrived, he’d spent a weekend with President Eisenhower at Camp David, and then as I remember he went back there at the end of his visit. So it had already been four or five days with very, very little sleep, and trying to take care of all the details that had not been taken care of beforehand. It was just one calamity after the other.

The thing that broke our backs in Des Moines was that the press party arrived there at about 6:00 a.m. Khrushchev was supposed to arrive at seven or eight, or something like that, and those in the pool stayed at the airport to welcome him, and the rest of us went into Des Moines, and we went to the hotel, where our rooms were booked, only to find that there was some kind of farmers’ convention going on there, that the farmers were having their final session that morning, and that they would not be out of their rooms until noon — that was the checkout time — and we would not be able to check in then until after the rooms had been made up, so it was a prospect of two or three o’clock in the afternoon before these people who were dead beat could [get into their rooms].

All of us were [beat]. We had been going on all 12 cylinders for days on end, and all they wanted to do was get into their rooms and lie down for a while until the first event took place — I don’t remember when it was, around noon — and get a shower and shave, and there was no possibility of doing so.

There was a colonel there from the Iowa National Guard. I don’t remember the man’s name. You know, the kind of thing that gets me about this country… this guy had no real obligation or responsibility, but he performed so beautifully. I mean you find people who step into the breach. This man did have a role to play, but it was quite a subsidiary role: he was supposed to ensure that the facilities at the airport were available. Well, in fact he did so much.

In the first place I said, “You know, this is impossible, Colonel. There are no rooms, and these guys are absolutely about to eat me alive; we’ve got to find rooms for them.”

He went to the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, and he said, come on with me. We tramped across the street, and went to the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, and those people said, “We’ve got a list of boarding houses and people who will take boarders.” And in a matter of an hour we parceled out these guys and said, “Okay, you go to such and such a street, number such and such, and there is a lady there who has two beds, and you can check in there and come back here by three o’clock this afternoon, and we’ll have the hotel room for you.”

The Colonel managed to get a room somewhere and set up a press room in a matter of a couple of hours, with the help of the Des Moines Register or the Tribune — the Des Moines paper. I mean he did everything, and frankly we were no help to him, all of us were on the verge of hysteria, we were just absolutely bushed.

Anyway this Colonel, whose name I forget, is one of the unsung heroes, and I’ll never forget the guy as long as I live. We were there less than 36 hours perhaps, but he was A-1. Well, Khrushchev arrived, and as I say the first event was some kind of civic luncheon, I don’t know what it was. Then we went out to the Garst farm, which was a matter of 120 miles away from Des Moines….

The Garst Farm — “The next catastrophe is about to happen”

We went by bus….It was a long bus ride, but down there in Iowa it’s laid out in these quarter sections….

It’s a most impressive state, and seeing it from the vantage point of Russians — because one thing they don’t have is any kind of decent roads, and here the state, the entire state, or at least all the arable part of the state, is just one grid — you look at it from the air — of roads. Every quarter section – I don’t know how many acres it is — is surrounded: there would be the main macadam roads, and then there are these very fine, excellent dirt roads, dividing the quarter sections, and you can go anywhere in the country with a tractor or a wheeled vehicle, which you cannot do in most European countries, and much less so in the Soviet Union. So this was enormously impressive.

Garst — Roswell Garst — had been in the Soviet Union several times, attempting to interest not Khrushchev — because I don’t know that he had ever seen Khrushchev before; maybe he had, but I don’t know — but the Ministry of Agriculture, in growing corn, maize.

Garst himself was not only a corn raiser but also a breeder of seed corn, and a sort of geneticist, and he had his own company which raised and sold seed corn, and he had a particular variety which he thought would go well — I don’t know. He was a very enterprising man; he and his sons had this beautiful farm and a terrific seed company.

So he had invited everybody out to the farm, but like everybody else he hadn’t counted on this absolute mob, in the literal sense, of 250 or 300 wild correspondents.

I can’t remember the name of the little village near which the Garst farm is located, but the only provisions that had been made there to feed the correspondents involved the ladies of the local church chapter making some I should say rather meager sandwiches, which they were selling for rather fat prices, something like a dollar a sandwich, which in those days for a piece of bologna between two pieces of Sunshine bread was regarded even by people who were on expense accounts as a little steep, you know, and 25 cents for a bottle of Coke, which in most places cost a nickel. And particularly out there in this little Iowa crossroads it appeared to be steep, so that was another cause for complaint.

I missed the bus somewhere. I was always missing the bus. There was always somebody who had left his or her bag behind, and it was just one thing after the other. I never succeeded in getting on the press bus, but every place — again I speak of these Americans who just impress the heck out of you.

This Colonel from the Iowa Air National Guard — he was an airman — got hold of an Iowa State trooper, who had a beautiful late model car — I don’t know what it was — all fitted out with sirens and flashing lights and things, and he said, “Look, Mr. Davies here, this is very important, he’s got to catch up with the press bus.”

I never had such a ride in my life. This guy would turn on the siren, and we set off at 110 miles an hour down these beautiful, straight Iowa highways, and going around corners at 80 miles an hour on two wheels up these dirt roads between the quarter sections, trying to find the press bus, and we finally caught up with the press bus, just as it reached the Garst farm. So we could have taken it easy, there was no hurry, really. (laughs)

I didn’t even know where I was going, but I was walking such a fine line, that I don’t know why, but for some reason it seemed so important that I catch up with the press bus. The reason it was so important was, I felt, now the next catastrophe is about to happen, and I’ve got to be there. I couldn’t prevent it, but at least if I was there I would know what was happening. (laughter)

The Great Corn Battle of Garst Farm — “They can’t come on my property”

So we got to the Garst farm, and Roswell Garst was appalled. He said, “Gosh, nobody told me you were going to bring all these correspondents.”

And I said, “Gee, Mr. Garst, you know, Mr. Khrushchev is fairly well known and…”

And he said (shouting), “Well, they can’t come on my property,” says he.

I said, (laughs heartily) “Mr. Garst…”

At that point I was hysterical, and I said, “Mr. Garst, you tell them, I ain’t gonna tell them. You tell them. You’d better say something.”

He said, “Well, I’ll get the dogs out here.”

I said, “Now, Mr. Garst, now really, please. There’s Scotty Reston here, and Bob Considine, and your name will not be Garst, your name will be Mud from here on.”

And Roger Mudd [from CBS News] was on the trip. There were all kinds of people around.

At any rate, with ill grace — and I don’t blame him — he said, “I don’t want them, they’ll tramp down my corn.”

I said, “Well, they probably will, but…”

So Khrushchev got down in this silage pit. It was a new method that Garst had devised for making silage: they hollowed out the side of a slope, dug it out with a backhoe or a bulldozer, and then there was a continuous belt which carried the corn cobs in there, and these corn cobs were heaped up — the corn was dry, it had been dried I guess — and then they threw it into some kind of a machine that stripped the kernels off, and then it chopped the cobs up to make silage.

There was a big hole there, and the cobs went in there. If anybody had slipped in there — and I was afraid somebody might — we would have had some AP reporter in among the silage.

But here all these guys were crowded around this pit, which was just made out of earth, there was no bracing or anything, and we were trying to keep them back from the sides of it. And that was the famous scene where Roswell Garst started throwing corn cobs at the correspondents.

Q: I never knew that.

DAVIES: Oh yes, that was a great scene, and Nikita joined in, you know. He thought it was all great fun. (laughter)

Q: But Garst was serious?

DAVIES: Oh, yes, he was mad, he said, “GET BACK!” And he was quite right – it was dangerous. If the earth had caved in, somebody could have broken a leg, and he could have been sued. I don’t know, whatever….

But the whole thing was fairly hilarious. Looking back on it it was hilarious. At the time with all those State Department people who were there it was — Foy Kohler was sort of leading the State Department group and advising Henry Cabot Lodge.

But by that time this traveling three-ring circus had settled down to a level of what I would call routinized catastrophe. I mean something went wrong every day, but by that time we all expected something to go wrong. And finally we got back.

“The visit was an abysmal failure”

But there were constant stories all along the line about the catastrophes, and about how badly this was handled. You know the way the press is when they get on to something like that. It was regarded as a scandal, and it was a scandal certainly.

So when we got back to Washington I was so furious with the whole damn thing that I wrote a memo — I can’t remember to whom I wrote it now, maybe it was to Foy Kohler [Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs who was later Ambassador to the USSR during the Cuban Missile Crisis] who was sort of in charge of this, maybe it was to somebody else — complaining, saying, damn it, it could have been handled better.

And it could have been, with a little more planning and a little more forethought, and a little better organization. But Joe Reap had just really thrown up his hands on the first day and said there’s nothing any of us can do about this, and hadn’t tried.

Well, I don’t know, you have to put it down under the heading of Education, but in terms of the kind of political objectives that we had hoped might be accomplished — of impressing Khrushchev with this country — his visit was an abysmal failure, because he and his advisers figured out — they succeeded in getting the upper hand almost from the outset, and they never relinquished that advantage.

So the whole thing to me was a lesson in the ineptitude or the [lack of foresight] of [the persons concerned].

You really have to plan these things very, very carefully; you have to have somebody clearly in charge; nobody was in charge of the whole thing… There should have been very careful thought given to where he went, and ways worked out so that the press did not dominate the whole thing the way it did and get in the way and turn it into nothing but a media event. Well, so much for all that.

As you said – and you are quite right – it was unprecedented. We’d never done anything like that before, certainly nothing on that scale, and we were all kind of learning by doing.