RIA Novosti interviews historian Igor Dolutsky
Question: Fifty years ago, on September 15, 1959, Nikita Khrushchev started his first visit to the United States. What could you say about the importance of this visit?
Answer: I would agree with Khrushchev's own assessment. Tremendous piles of ice had been created during the Cold War, and the visit's only achievement, as Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs, was "to break the ice which froze Soviet-American relations." The two sides managed to melt some ice, if only because Khrushchev went to the other side of the ocean as the country's leader for the first time in Soviet history. I'm talking about the time 50 years ago, and the visit's achievement. Favorable conditions for the development of bilateral relations took shape at that time. Dwight Eisenhower was going to pay a reciprocal visit to the Soviet Union, and expectations were high. At any rate, addressing the nation at Luzhniki on his return home, Khrushchev said that the stage was set for the end of the Cold War, and that the U.S. president was ready to finish it. The future looked very bright.
Q: What could you say about the visit now, 50 years after?
A: There is no doubt that this was a breakthrough in Soviet-U.S. relations. People who were literally balancing on the brink of war, managed to come closer together and listen to each other.
Some two weeks before his American visit, Khrushchev met with Senator Humphrey. He told him how many missiles the U.S.S.R. had, and asked him where he lived. The senator replied he lived in Minneapolis. Khrushchev took a map, encircled the city with a pencil, and said: "When we strike at the United States, I will order our forces not to attack your city." Khrushchev was making threats all the time. He said that one bomb would be enough to destroy Berlin, and five bombs would obliterate Britain. But despite all this rhetoric, he stood for peace. During his U.S. visit, he realized that the United States was not at all eager to fight.
Q: What contribution did Khrushchev make to changing bilateral relations?
A: Krushchev was a very contradictory politician. He had a vague idea of what was happening in the world. On the one hand, he was very curious about life abroad, and this is why he wanted to go there so much. He spent a year practically fishing for an invitation to America. In many respects, this visit was his own initiative.
Khrushchev was a blackmailer. He was bluffing all the time, and behaved arrogantly because he felt that the Soviet Union was weaker. He kept boasting about missiles, saying that they were produced like sausage at home. In the meantime, we had only four intercontinental missiles at that time. Khrushchev realized that America was stronger, and this feeling prompted him to be impudent. He was constantly asking for trouble.
Nevertheless, he was clever enough to understand that the arms race was pointless, and that a reasonably adequate level was enough. One day, he was walking and thinking in horror all the time: "Just imagine, America can destroy us 20 times over...," but then he concluded: "We can only destroy America once, but that's enough." He realized that the Soviet Union had enough weapons for destruction, and that helped him sleep well. Khrushchev was at least 30 years ahead of his time in realizing that the arms race was senseless.
Q: How did his relationship with Eisenhower change during the visit?
A: Their relationship was awful. They did not understand each other. Because of lack of confidence, Khrushchev was worried all the time that he would be laughed at. At the same time, he wanted to rebuff anti-Soviet politicians.
Having met with Eisenhower in Switzerland before, he decided that the U.S. president was weak, and he could have a go at him. His arrogant behavior affected their discussion, and several times they were on the verge of a quarrel. But the main point is that they did not quarrel. The Soviet leader realized that he was not doing the right thing.
During the last two days of the visit, the presidents talked informally. Eisenhower took Khrushchev to his rancho and showed him how he lived, what he did in his free time and how he went hunting. Khrushchev was very interested in all this, and they did not quarrel, which was important. They started to understand each other, although initially Eisenhower was ready to break off all relations, and Khrushchev threatened several times that his plane was ready, and he could leave anytime. They did what Stalin could not have been expected to do. They met each other halfway. The Soviet leader saw that the U.S. president was different, but not an enemy. He realized that it was possible to develop bilateral relations.
Q: Could you say a few words about the prelude to this visit? Perhaps you could tell us some interesting new facts.
A: Khrushchev prepared well for this visit. In January 1959, he sent Anastas Mikoyan to the United States. Mikoyan inspected everything, travelled all over the country, and met with American senators and diplomats who had worked in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
As for the prelude to the visit, it was not very favorable. Khrushchev was blackmailing the West with his intention to incorporate West Berlin into East Germany's sphere of interest, and generally tried to oust our wartime allies from the city. Berlin was a painful subject, and Khrushchev pushed for it all the time. He used to say: "Look at German Chancellor Adenauer. If you pull down his pants, you will see from behind that Germany is divided into two parts. If you look at the front, you will see that West Germany will never get it up again." He was arrogant and rude whenever he could get away with it.
Nevertheless, the outcome of the visit was good. Khrushchev persuaded his American counterpart to exchange national exhibitions. The U.S. exhibition arrived in Moscow together with Vice President Richard Nixon, and ours went to the United States.