Khrushchev charmed the city on visit


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This week's G-20 summit opens 50 years to the day that Pittsburgh warmly welcomed Nikita Khrushchev, the first Soviet leader to visit the United States.

The year was 1959 and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, worried about escalating tensions between the U.S. and the communist superpower, invited Khrushchev, whose 13-day tour from Washington, D.C., to New York to Hollywood to Pittsburgh drew exhaustive media coverage.

Intensely curious about this charming but explosive son of a coal miner, Americans turned out to meet or catch a glimpse of him. Youngsters, who regularly practiced scrambling under their school desks in case of a nuclear bomb attack by the Soviet power, were equally fascinated.

Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman, along with his fifth-grade classmates, awaited the motorcade outside Colfax Elementary in Squirrel Hill.

"We were sort of aware that there was a Cold War going on and that the Cold War was with this guy," he said.

(Security was far less stringent during Khrushchev's 17-hour visit to Pittsburgh; Principal Hedwig Pregler knew the Soviet leader would travel Beechwood Boulevard and ordered pupils to bring their midday meal to school and eat it outside.)

For Mr. Fineman, the scene on Sept. 24, 1959, contained a major disconnect between what he saw and knew about Khrushchev.

"We were just delighted. We were old enough to know that he was the leader of a giant country that was supposed to be our enemy," he said, adding that when he jumped up to wave, Khrushchev waved back.

"He looked like your grandpa or your uncle. He was this bald, little guy in the back of a car waving a gray fedora and smiling a jack-o-lantern smile. So how dangerous could the Cold War really be ... if they let him into Pittsburgh?" Mr. Fineman wondered.

Dangerous enough, it turned out, to last through the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and end with the Soviet Union breaking apart in 1991.

As successor to the ruthless Josef Stalin, Khrushchev held power from 1955 to 1964 and "loved to mix and mingle with the masses," said William Taubman, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the leader.

While his U.S. tour offered plenty of chances to do that, Khrushchev "had an agenda of trying to ease the Cold War but also to get Western recognition of the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and especially East Germany," Dr. Taubman said.

U.S. leaders feared the Soviets would, "turn over control of access to Berlin to the East Germans and we didn't recognize the East Germans. ... You could imagine a war beginning at the heart of Europe."

For Khrushchev, "The diplomatic goal of the trip was to get Eisenhower to agree to a summit where he hoped to nail down an agreement on Berlin and Germany," said Dr. Taubman, Bertrand Snell professor of political science at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

By today's standards, Khrushchev's U.S. tour looked like a campaign swing. He landed at Andrews Air Force Base and attended a state dinner at the White House. He visited New York, where he hobnobbed at a cocktail party with wealthy capitalists like John D. Rockefeller III.

Then it was on to Los Angeles. In Hollywood, he lunched with Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and other famous actors, although Ronald Reagan boycotted the event.

He stopped in San Francisco and Iowa before arriving in Pittsburgh, which reminded him of Donetsk, the coal mining region where he grew up. In West Homestead, he also visited Mesta Machine, one of the few steelmakers not participating in a national strike.

He stayed at the Carlton House, which was torn down and now is the site of the BNY Mellon Center, Downtown, and office workers turned out to greet his motorcade. He also spoke to a luncheon crowd of 450 people at the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland.

Roxane Stewart, a retired high school French teacher who lives in North Versailles, was a 13-year-old high school freshman when she saw the Soviet leader outside the former Schenley Hotel in Oakland, now the Pitt Student Union.

"He was sitting in the back seat of a convertible wearing a light blue suit ... and he was smaller than I thought he was going to be. I guess I thought he was going to be a great, big ogre. He was smiling and waving. I was so shocked. I never thought he'd be smiling," she said.

"How can he smile? He's such an awful person," she wondered at the time.

He ended the U.S. trip meeting with President Eisenhower at Camp David and at his Gettysburg, Pa., farm.

Journalists who met Khrushchev knew he was imperious but found him engaging. Broadcaster Marvin Kalb, then a CBS correspondent, had lived in Russia in the mid-'50s and met the Soviet leader several times.

"I remember meeting him in 1956 and he was the sort of man who could charm you. He would tell jokes. He would put his arm around your shoulder, which was hard for him to do because I'm 6-foot-3 and he was about 5-foot-4," he said.

Although Khrushchev had served as Stalin's court jester, "He was not inhibited in any way. So, the contrast in the American mind between this dark shadow of Stalinism and this opening image of a new kind of Soviet leader was quite remarkable," Mr. Kalb said.

Max Frankel, retired executive editor of The New York Times, said Khrushchev was "Lyndon Johnson-like. He was full of stories and very colorful in his rhetoric. He was a helluva story for that reason, so much so that the censors did not let us report his words. He was salty. It wasn't just off-color language. It was his manner. He was just rude and crude in some of his comments."

Khrushchev attempted an impossible balancing act of trying to ease restrictions, retain control and improve life for residents of the Soviet Union.

While he was succeeded by men like Leonid Brezhnev, Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin, "None of these people was the kind of explosive, dramatic, free-wheeling political character that Khrushchev was," Dr. Taubman said.


Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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