This Day In History: September 15

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Nikita Khrushchev becomes the first Soviet head of state to visit the United States. During the next two weeks, Khrushchev’s visit dominated the news and provided some dramatic and humorous moments in the history of the Cold War.

Khrushchev came to power in the Soviet Union following the death of long-time dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953. Many observers believed that Khrushchev, a devoted follower of Stalin during the 1930s and 1940s, would not provide much difference in leadership. He surprised them, however, by announcing that he sought “peaceful coexistence” with the United States and denouncing the “excesses” of Stalinism. During the late 1950s, Khrushchev continued to court a closer relationship with the United States and often praised President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a man who also sought peace. In 1959, the U.S. and Soviet governments shocked the world by announcing that Khrushchev would visit America in September and meet with Eisenhower face to face.

Khrushchev’s first day in America was mostly taken up with formal receptions and a motorcade from the airport to downtown Washington. At the airport, Khrushchev announced that he had arrived in America “with open heart and good intentions. The Soviet people want to live in friendship with the American people.” Groups of spectators and several military bands lined the way of the motorcade procession from the airport, and Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and Mme. Khrushchev sat together in the back of a convertible to wave at the crowds. Once in town, Khrushchev almost immediately sat for a nearly two-hour talk with Eisenhower and his advisers. Longer and more involved talks were scheduled for later in the Soviet leader’s visit. “Because of our importance in the world, it is vital that we understand each other better,” Eisenhower declared at a state dinner that night. Khrushchev agreed, adding that friendship was necessary “because our two countries are much too strong and we cannot quarrel with each other.”

During the next few days, Khrushchev took the opportunity to tour the United States before his summit meeting with Eisenhower. Although Khrushchev’s trip was more of a goodwill visit than an opportunity for significant negotiations, the tour provided some moments of high drama and low comedy, particularly during the Soviet leader’s trip through California.