REVIEW BY DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit.com online magazine
Global warming? Ebola? The ruthless armies of ISIS? Sure, they’re all critical global concerns we must address as concerned humans. But half a century ago, American life was transformed by the first visit of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. As a population, “we” lined the streets to see his entourage pass through our nation. What is most remarkable about this? We stood along his motorcade route in stunned silence.
As the documentary about this world-changing 1959 visit explains: Americans were so terrified by the power of this man to touch off a global nuclear war that we didn’t know how to respond.
Khrushchev intended this visit to serve as a full-scale public relations campaign to win over American public opinion. He grinned almost constantly. He showed off his own family and warmly hugged any American children who came within arm’s reach. But his short temper often trumped his charm offensive.
When the mayor of Los Angeles insulted him at a public banquet, Khrushchev exploded. He roared back that Soviet factories were pumping out missiles like sausages and, if Americans wanted to go toe to toe with the USSR, they’d find themselves in a war to end all wars! The film footage from that day shows the mayor’s face going from a confident grin to a jaw-dropping expression of fear at what he had touched off.
One of the best things about this fascinating documentary is the decision by filmmakers Robert Stone and Tim B. Toidze to include interviews with two adults who were children on the front row of this first visit by a Soviet leader to American soil. Susan Eisenhower is Ike’s daughter and now is a highly respected consultant on international commerce. Sergei Khrushchev is the son of the former Soviet leader and an author and consultant as well. These two “kids” provide revealing commentary on what was taking place in that often shocking tour.
One insight? Khrushchev’s son admits that his father had a very short fuse when confronted with insults. At the infamous Los Angeles banquet, when he began boasting about turning out missiles like sausages, the Soviet leader was flat out lying. It was just angry bluster, the son tells us. In fact, the Soviets had produced very few missiles at that point. Of course, that angry exchange left Americans quaking in our boots—and led to increased spying and a dramatic escalation of Cold War confrontations into the early 1960s.
Any American who was a child in that era remembers the “duck and cover” drills we all learned in public schools. This documentary shows a brief clip of the way we did it: Boys and girls all dropping to the floor of our classrooms, crouching under our desks and covering our heads with our hands. Today, the idea seems like the darkest of comedy.
But then, when it comes to global issues right now, Pew reports “Americans don’t care.” Nearly 4 out of 5 Americans told Pew pollsters this year that they want our leaders to focus on domestic issues and stop worrying about global concerns. However, national security remains an almost universal concern and 3 out of 4 Americans told Pew that “preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction” should be a top national priority. However we may balance those two attitudes—Pew reporting does show that Americans are no longer worried about a worldwide nuclear war ending life as we know it. And that certainly wasn’t the case when Khrushchev flew back to Moscow in 1959!
Watching this hour-long snapshot of America’s nuclear anxiety half a century ago is certain to make you feel more thankful this month!
WANT TO SEE THE FILM?
- PBS NOVEMBER 18—The American Experience series will air the documentary on November 18, 2014. Here’s a PBS page with all the details (including a link to search for local TV listings) and lots of “extras.“
- GET THE DVD—Amazon will start selling the DVD version of American Experience: Cold War Roadshow in December. It’s a perfect choice to spark discussion in your small group early in 2015.