Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cold War Roadshow (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The first show I watched last night on PBS was an American Experience episode with the intriguing title “Cold War Roadshow,” dealing with the 12-day visit of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to the U.S. in September 1959. According to the official synopsis on the PBS Web site, “For both men, the visit was an opportunity to halt the escalating threats of the Cold War and potentially chart a new course toward peaceful coexistence. For the American press, it was the media blockbuster story of the year.” The show turned out in a weird way to be a prequel to the one the same series had done several years ago, “Spy in the Sky,” for it suggested that Khrushchev’s visit to the U.S. had been a key road-not-taken in the history of the Cold War, a potential for reopening positive relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that got sandbagged when U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russian soil just a week before Khrushchev and President Dwight Eisenhower were scheduled to hold a summit meeting in Paris, following which Eisenhower had been scheduled to tour the USSR as a reciprocal visit to Khrushchev’s in the U.S. — and the remaining four years of Khrushchev’s tenure as Soviet leader were a series of hard-line bits of brinkmanship (including sending ICBM’s to Cuba) and his eventual overthrow by old-line Kremlin people who didn’t think Khrushchev was defending the Fatherland quite aggressively enough and who were particularly upset about the supposed “weakness” he had shown in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

What’s most fascinating about Cold War Roadshow is not only the sheer amount of footage that exists of the tour — including plenty of color home movies taken by Sergei, Khrushchev’s son, who is interviewed as part of the program and wryly admits at the end that he came to admire America so much he eventually moved here and became a U.S. citizen — but the bizarre mixture of fascination and revulsion with which he was greeted by the American crowds that came out to see him. After all, Khrushchev had been the target of American propaganda that had literally painted him as the most evil and dangerous man in the world — particularly via his oft-repeated quote that “we will bury you,” which was widely misinterpreted as a threat of war when he meant it as quite the opposite (as a statement that Communism was so obviously superior to capitalism that eventually the U.S. and the rest of the Western world would adopt it), and his actions (not mentioned here) in sending the Soviet army to crush the Hungarian revolt in 1956. At the same time the show makes clear how amazing it was that Khrushchev did make a state visit to the U.S. — as historian William Taubman says at the beginning of the show, “Stalin had never come to the United States. Hitler never came of course. Mao Tse-Tung never came,” and Eisenhower’s granddaughter Susan said it was “far riskier” to have Khrushchev come to the U.S. in 1959 than it would be to have Vladimir Putin visit now. Khrushchev had his share of disappointments; when he went to Los Angeles he got fêted at an official luncheon at 20th Century-Fox and was treated to watching a scene from the musical Can-Can being shot (he regarded the scene as morally offensive), but he was denied permission to visit Disneyland. The show indicates that was the “call” of then-L.A. Mayor Norris Poulson, but Disneyland was in Anaheim and Poulson couldn’t have prevented Khrushchev from going there (my understanding was it was the formidably Right-wing Walt Disney himself that nixed the idea of the Soviet premier setting foot in the Magic Kingdom).

It also includes an archive clip from Marilyn Monroe, who was famous for being late for her film shoots but came to the Khrushchev lunch right on time — causing Billy Wilder, who’d suffered her tardiness throughout the films he’d directed her in (The Seven-Year Itch and Some Like It Hot), to joke, “Finally we have someone who can get Marilyn to come on time. Now we know who should direct all her future pictures — Nikita Khrushchev.” And of course the show includes the famous anecdote of 20th Century-Fox president Spyros Skouras and Khrushchev clashing over the relative merits of capitalism and Communism, and in particular the potentials they offered for upward advancement, with Skouras saying, “I came here as a Greek immigrant and I worked as a busboy and I worked my way up and now I’m the president of a movie studio.” Khrushchev replied, “I grew up as a shepherd. And then I worked in a mine owned by the French. And then I worked in a factory. And now I’m the head of the Soviet Union.” Though little actually got settled at the summit meeting between Eisenhower and Khrushchev at Camp David that ended the trip, it was probably the most relaxed encounter between a U.S. and Soviet leader until Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik, and if it hadn’t been for that pesky spy-plane program and its incompetent pilot getting himself shot down the horrific tensions of the Kennedy years (including the near-annihilation of the world in a nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis) and the even harder lines that emerged when Lyndon Johnson replaced Kennedy and Leonid Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev, just might have been ended and the Soviet Union might have made a peaceful transition to a more liberal mixed economy instead of carrying on until it was unsustainable and then breaking apart at the end of the 1980’s. (When Putin says the breakup of the Soviet Union was one of the world’s great historical tragedies, I can’t help but think he was right; the world in general and the former USSR in particular would be a lot better off today if Gorbachev’s reform program had succeeded than they are now, with Russia an effective dictatorship again and most of the other former Soviet republics in the hands of kleptocrats.)