Most North Americans remember Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian dictator, as the guy who banged his shoe on his desk at the UN in 1960. Few recall that the shoe-banging was preceded by a 1959 visit to the U.S. in which Khrushchev, or K as he was headlined in the press, toured the country and captivated the world with his comic, belligerent, threatening, childish, and just-plain-offbeat antics. This hugely entertaining book chronicles that cross-country adventure. Drawing on contemporary news reports, modern interviews, and memoirs written by some of the participants, it’s a story about a poorly educated but extraordinarily powerful man who became, for a brief time, a pop-culture icon. Here was a man who could quite literally bring about the annihilation of the world (or so he frequently claimed) meeting Hollywood icons, eating hot dogs, mugging for the press, arguing with President Eisenhower, making fun of Vice President Nixon, and behaving as though he was unaware of the widespread social turmoil caused by his visit. The book is consistently informative and funny, but there are episodes that are strangely surreal—for example, the showdown between the State Department and the American Dental Association over who got to use a certain hotel ballroom (the dentists won). This is a fine example of popular history at its most engaging—anecdotal but informative and written with great feeling for the comedic side of current events.
This review originally appeared in Booklist, April 2009.