Sep 16

Communist Tourist Nikita Khrushchev visits San Luis Obispo


An estimated 2,500 people crowded the railroad station in San Luis Obispo to see Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Photos courtesy San Luis Obispo County Historical Society

khrushchev-in-slo1113.jpgSeptember, 20, 1959

If you did not live through it you won’t have the memory of the unspoken cloud of fear touching your life in unexpected ways. My clearest memory comes from about 1967.

It smelled dank crouching with the rest of my first grade class under damp coats in the windowless hallway of Sabin Elementary School. Denver, Colorado winters would fill the coat racks with snowy galoshes that students would push out of the way as they sat heads between their legs, waiting for the all clear to sound. Duck and cover drills were supposed to protect us from the glass shards of exploding classroom windows as nuclear Armageddon rained down. Even at that age I knew that it was a desperate exercise. Why bother going home if it was blown off the map?

Enter most powerful world leader ever to tour San Luis Obispo County. Nikita Khrushchev arrived here 50 years ago. At the time Soviet Union and United States of America circled each other warily.
The Soviet leader had already been quoted a few years earlier saying “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.”
Politicians in both nations had regularly demonized the other in attempts to consolidate power at home. The nuclear age was barely 14 years old and America’s attempts to get rockets into space during that era were often spectacular failures. The Russians had been first to every milestone on the road to space. The world watched on new media of glowing television screens every time a leader from one super power visited the other.

Author and former Washington Post reporter Peter Carlson has written a fascinating and very readable book about long strange trips that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made to America when the winds of the Cold War were blowing strong. The book title echos the style of a 1950’s newspaper headline
K Blows Top
A Cold War Comic Interlude,
Starring Nikita Khruschchev,
America’s Most Unlikely Tourist

Carlson has kindly offered to introduce us to the colorful and unpredictable Soviet leader and why he came through San Luis Obispo County.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was 65 when he rolled through California in 1959. By then, he’d been ruling his communist nation for about five years. He was a short, fat, bald dictator with a scathing wit and a hot temper. He loved to travel and when President Eisenhower invited him to meet at Camp David, he asked if he could also travel around the United States for “10 to 15 days.” Ike reluctantly agreed and Khrushchev toured Washington DC, (where he argued with senators) New York, (where he got stuck in an elevator in the Waldorf Astoria hotel), and Los Angeles (where he met Hollywood stars and watched the filming of the movie “Can-Can”). Then he  took the train ride to San Francisco that resulted in his brief whistlestop in San Luis Obispo. From there, he went on to San Francisco, Des Moines, Pittsburgh and Camp David before flying home.

kblows-top.jpgKhrushchev wanted to visit both LA and SF. His American hosts could have arranged for him to fly or drive between those cities but they opted for the train because they wanted him to see the Vandenberg Air Force Base, where Atlas missiles aimed at the Soviet Union were visible from the train.  The State Department figured that if Khrushchev saw American missiles, then Eisenhower could insist on seeing Soviet missiles when he made his planned trip to the Soviet Union in 1960. Knowing that, Khrushchev shrewdly made a show of looking the other way when passing Vandenberg so he wouldn’t have to show Ike his missiles. It was another of the many weirdly nutty strategies of the Cold War. The train stopped in San Luis Obispo because Khrushchev wanted to mingle with crowds and had protested that American security guards had prevented him from doing that in NY and LA. So he waded into the crowd at the station and shook hands like a campaigning politician. And the crowd was so friendly that when he climbed back on the  train, he told Henry Cabot Lodge, his official tour guide and the US ambassador to the UN: “I want you to notice one thing. The plain people of American like me. It’s just those bastards around Eisenhower that don’t.”

As Carlson outlines in his book, another reason Khruschchev and his family had time to come through San Luis Obispo was they were denied trip to Disneyland. You’ll have to read K Blows Top for details of the international incident that arose over a canceled visit to a capitalist theme park.

Quoting from the Saturday September 21, 1959 edition of the Telegram-Tribune [complete with two misspellings]:

Premier Khruschchev Mixes With Friendly Crowd at Depot
Visit Takes Police By Surprise

khrushchev-in-slo1123.jpgA vastly curious and well behaved San Luis Obispo gazed in wonder, in awe and in great excitement at the premier of Russia yesterday.
Those who actually saw Nikita Khrushchev when he stepped from his special train at 1:15 p.m. number in the hundreds, although the crowd gathered at the depot was estimated at about 2,500.
His approach was signalled by the whirring overhead of several flights of big helicopters, bearing the U.S. Army insignia. Some flew ahead of the Khruschev train, while others hovered in a protective pattern.

Under Guard

All tracks in the Southern Pacific depot area were heavily guarded by the San Luis Obispo police department, and the sheriff’s office, special railroad officers and by state department security officers.
The crowd started arriving early at the depot, swarming about the barriers police had erected to hold spectators about 20 feet from the track over which the train would pass.
“Everyone was friendly and no hostility was shown,” the chief of police, William Schofield, commented today.
He said the crowd was “typically American” in ferver and enthusiasm such as shown at a football game or a bargain sale.
Authorities were informed before the arrival of the Khrushchev special that the premier would step from his train, but they were told to concentrate attention on the last two coaches.

Change in Plans

The train was already pulling into the station when they were told of a switch in plans, and asked to concentrate security on the sixth coach.
This lead to a breakneck dash for the heavy covey of officers already assembled at the earlier appointed place.
As the train came to a halt, scores of newsmen aboard dashed from the steps and toward the area where Khrushchev was going to take his brief four minute stroll.
When the smiling premier alighted from his coach, the crowd surged forward across the barriers in good natured determination to get near the Russian visitor, an to see him closely.
Police were taxed but seemed swayed by the courteous attitude shown by the pressing throngs, and the commendable deportment.
One woman lost her shoe in the crush of spectators, and looked real amazed when it was picked up and returned to her by none other than Nikita Khrushchev.
Khrushchev sauntered slowly down the platform, shaking hands with several people who pressed closely enough to him despite the burly Russian guards and the state department forces surrounding him.
Among those to feel the Khrushchev handclasp was the county recorder, Jack Brown.
The Russian premier even picked up one little tot, but quickly turned him over to a policeman when the youngster became frightened and sobbed.
In returning to the train, Khruschev waved a farewell as newsmen scampered to get back aboard as a loud speaker warned them of immediate departure.
The crowd quickly dispersed as the special section of the Daylight pulled out slowly heading for San Francisco.
The name of San Luis Obispo appeared prominently in news throughout the world this morning, all reflecting on the pleasant nature of the brief stop and the friendly attitude of the reception in this city.
A few pickets strolled along the station platform urging disarmament and peace in the posters they displayed. Hundreds of cars lined the S-P tracks throughout San Luis Obispo County, with heavy concentration at Pismo Beach, Oceano and Paso Robles.
Again only good-natured waving of hands at the passing train greeted the premier’s eyes.
When the train skirted the Cal Poly campus here many students lined the tracks to observe the memorable sight.

1959-09-21-khrushchev-sloa.jpgThe paper also had a large article on how many of the wire service photos from the whistle stop were processed at Cal Poly with the help of journalism professor John Healey. It was a little ironic the paper showed an interest, at the time they did not put much staff effort into local photography. That would change in the next decade.

One of the UPI photos transmitted around the world was 9-year-old Sinsheimer Elementary School student Tracey Hasslein. When the crowd pushed forward she was caught in the front of the wave and got to meet Khrushchev long enough for a picture. Her father George was the founding dean of School of architecture at Cal Poly.

This post is the result of several contributions.
Thanks to author Peter Carlson for starting things off with an introduction to K. The 1950′s are a strange part of our history and Carlson has crafted a page turner.

I was put on to his book thanks to a good review via e-mail from Photos from the Vault reader Tiffany Abeloe.
The last special thank you goes to the folks at the San Luis Obispo County Historical Society for the photographs. When a short sighted person at the Telegram-Tribune threw out a treasure trove of images someone from the historical society rescued and preserved them and other volunteers and staff have archived them so that they can be found again. Check out the crowd photos, you can see the old depot that would be torn down in the 1970′s and the artifact of a water spout to refill steam engines. In one photo placards of protesters can be seen in one photo. Today more media aware protesters regularly spin their cards so that they can be seen by photographers in all directions.

Bill Morem updates the story at San Luis Obispo.com with where Tracey Hasslein is today and an alternate translation of the “We will bury you” statement.

The Los Angeles Times had extensive coverage of the Khruschev visit. Revisit it in the Daily Mirror.

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