WW2 didn’t end, it came back from the graveyard as the zombie Cold War. Instead of demobilizing, armies pumped up threat displays that brought the Concerned Scientists’ clock to a few seconds from nuclear doomsday. J Edgar Hoover saw spies under your bed. The CIA imagined a scary “missile gap.” As a fifth grader, I shivered when an older kid pointed out that on the map the Soviet red splotch was much bigger than “our” US.
I thought about this as I was watching “Cold War Road Show,” an old PBS video about Nikita Khruschev’s 1959 visit to the US. You remember the bald, role-poly Soviet premier who baffled Washington because unlike most soviet apparatchiks, he tried to be personable.
On the runway in Washington the girl greeting the Premier with flowers wasn’t expecting a big hug, so Uncle Nikita seems to be grappling her to him. Was the hug spontaneous? just theater? Was his body language blurting something out?
Khruschev could be unpredictable—that is, personal. After Stalin’s death he surprised the world by blowing the whistle on the reign of terror. Having survived Stalin and Stalingrad in WW2, he seemed to be promoting a Cold War “thaw.”
In the Cold War, big money hated “Communist” talk of sharing the wealth—now it’s “socialism” and “dependency.” The military industry on both sides hated talk of peace treaties that could stall careers and spoil lunch. They still do.
As Nikita was landing in Washington in 1959, I was on a school trip to admire two white Nike missiles. They slowly cranked up out of a meadow, then slowly cranked back down. If the missiles worked, they’d bring down a Soviet bomber with a live H-bomb in a Boston suburb. Even I could see this was a stupid trick.
What if Khruschev was tired of the insanity?
The PBS film calls his visit a road show. But there was frigidity in the air. The ceremonies were politely artificial. When Nikita tries to do something unscripted, it’s poignant. As he waved his hat to spectators from an open Cadillac, they watched him with blank faces frozen by years of propaganda. Was he only mimicking FDR and Churchill in wartime newsreels? Or were the high spirits real?
Both sides were trying to score points. In LA, when the conservative mayor baited the guest with the “We will bury you” quote, the guest called him out on his rudeness (“You’re trying to make me uncomfortable”). To appear personal, ordinary, and vulnerable, Nikita took huge risks. Was he posing to embarrass the Americans, or did he mean it?
Journalists gaggled at every stop and enforced formulas. “I’d like to see Disneyland,” grumbled Nikita. If America’s so safe, why do they say security puts Disneyland off limits? Hollywood was so secure they made Mr and Mrs K watch cameras film a tacky dance and underpants routine from Can Can: the kind of precision sex routine that makes you homesick for factories.
No wonder Henry Cabot Lodge, the US guide, phoned Ike for advice about how to cope with sprained etiquette. The tour did include a corn farmer in Kansas whose hybrids Khruschev found pretty interesting since part of his job was feeding people. Americans didn’t know what to think.
At Camp David, Ike and Nikita strolled around with an interpreter. They had concerns in common, since Ike was also worried about a military industrial juggernaut being out of control. But with tyrannical slogans such as BETTER DEAD THAN RED in the air, it’s unlikely they got very personal.
Still, Khruschev went home with plans for Ike to visit Russia. But the plans crashed months later when the Soviets shot down a US spy plane. Then Kennedy’s sneaky Bay of Pigs invasion spurred the sneaky installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba. And a crisis to boost budgets. Before long the havoc in Vietnam led to the corporate military binge of the Reagan years, which led to the fairy tale that Reagan’s two-fisted military spending toppled the Berlin Wall.
The ironies are terrific. The Soviets’ supposed lust for “world domination” has infected the “global policeman,” who has military bases and NSA bugs all over. The wealthy cronies in Putin’s Kremlin have their counterpart in Wall Street and high-frequency lobbying. And today we have the four trillion dollar War on Terror paid for by bayoneting medical care and food stamps.
It’s possible that Khruschev’s visit was a post-traumatic moment. Everybody, especially the Soviets, knew someone killed in WW2. The mania for nukes and spying kept deathanxiety alive and insidious. So each side wanted to be the hero whose triumph could justify the pitiful insanity and grief of WW2.
You might wonder if Khruschev’s clumsy bear hug signaled an ambivalent but genuine impulse to ease years of emergency nerves. He wasn’t the only one. Only a few years later, in his Great Society program, and for the first time in American history, President Johnson called for a comprehensive national effort to improve the lives of marginal Americans. LBJ, too, was a bear-hugger. And like Khruschev’s dream of a good working class refrigerator, Johnson’s Great Society was drowned out by bugles and bubbles. In the Soviet world the dream had to wait for 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev started giving glasnot and perestroika bear-hugs—until a coup gave him the boot.
Khruschev’s bear hug reminded me of Iran’s recent compromise on a nuclear treaty—and the hysterical efforts to sabotage it. The gunslingers are all shooting at the agreement: Iranian and US hardliners, Sheldon Adelson’s hirelings. They all favor infallible abstractions.
Former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton cried “Bomb, Bomb Iran” (NY Times, March 26, 2015). Bolton thinks in terms of a “gold standard,” “inescapable conclusions,” and “inconvenient truths.” In his mind bombing another country means pushing button “A” rather than button “B.” The bombing “should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran.” As if there really are an “opposition” and a “regime” like two pieces on a game board to be cleverly switched around.
This sort of barking led to the reckless US invasion of Iraq that helped destabilize the whole region. But it has another drawback too: the hardliner mentality sees behavior as computer programs and mechanics. Calculate the ballistics and the cue ball will drop “regime change” into the corner pocket. The “enemy” is not real to him.
Psychology is not real to him.
We’re ambivalent creatures. It’s how we’re built. Instead of being trapped in reflexes, we imagine alternatives. We sometimes fasten on one option and drive out others, but evolution seems to favor experiment, persuasion, and adaptation.
What if Khruschev’s body language, that clumsy bear hug, was a half-formed thought? A blurted wish to escape from the vicious grind of 20th century history. How you interpret his behavior reveals something about us as well as him. Have a look: <<http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/roadshow/(link is external)
See what you think.