It happened today - September 19, 2015
What happens when Mickey Mouse meets Communism? Sadly, we’ll never know, because on September 19 of 1959 while visiting the United States Nikita Khrushchev was told he could not visit Disneyland.
The Soviet leader threw a characteristically engaging yet childish fit. Already stung by the President of 20th Century Fox taunting him over his promise to “bury” capitalism, which prompted him to rattle his rockets publicly, when told he couldn’t go for security reasons he exploded that “I would very much like to go and see Disneyland. But then, we cannot guarantee your security, they say. Then what must I do? Commit suicide? What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place that can destroy me?”
All good questions. But he should have put them to his own security detail, because it was they rather than Disneyland or the American authorities who put the kibosh on the visit.
What strikes me as most significant about the episode, and in many ways the most charming, is that Khrushchev wanted to go. It’s part of the “World Revolution of Westernization,” to use Theodore von Laue’s phrase and book title. The cultural dynamism of the open societies produces an amazing range of things, from the trivial to the revolting to the delightful, in ways no one else can match.
The U.S.S.R never produced anything like Disneyland and would not have even if it had triumphed in the Cold War and lasted centuries. Concreteland and Gulagworld yes. Disneyland no. And Khrushchev had the decency to see that there was something wonderful there and to want to go even though the optics would have been highly embarrassing. He was also thrilled to have met Hollywood stars from Shirley MacLaine to Frank Sinatra and wasn’t ashamed to show it. And to his credit he got over his Disney snit and went on to have a civilized, if unproductive, meeting with Eisenhower.
There was a dark side to Khrushchev. He rose to power under Stalin, took a leading organizational role in horrible atrocities and was praised in that era as a “brass-hard Stalinist”. He could be a blustering bully, an impulsive adventurer and worse. But he was also the prime mover behind deStalinization and a curious and reflective man who, even visiting the West as the coddled and isolated leader of the Soviet state, recognized that it was not as the propaganda he’d been hearing all his life indicated.
After he was overthrown in 1964, and allowed to live, a fitting reward for his relaxation of Stalinism while in power, he dictated a frequently thoughtful, sometimes sensitive and generally honest memoir that eventually made its way to the West. Including his comment, on the ban on emigration he himself had ordered the Berlin Wall built to enforce, that “I think the time has come to give every Soviet citizen that choice. If he wants to leave our country and live somewhere else for a while, alright, we should give him that opportunity. It’s incredible to me that after 50 years of Soviet power, paradise should be kept under lock and key.”
For all his sins and mistakes, I believe he was at bottom a decent man. So I’m sorry he didn’t get to see Disneyland. I think he would have liked it, for all the right reasons.