“And I say, ‘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? …”
On Sept. 19th, 1959, Nikita Khrushchev’s now-infamous 13-day trip to the United States was soured only a few days in upon his arrival to Los Angeles. Met with hostility almost immediately, Khrushchev was shellshocked to find out that California, being “a bastion of leftism in the United States,” was far more critical of his visit at every level of educated society than what he had experienced in Washington, D.C. and New York City only a few days prior.
Learning of his California itinerary only the night before, Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev was surprised to see that his jam-packed three-day schedule included tours of public housing projects in Los Angeles, a visit to Los Angeles Town Hall, a Hollywood tour of 20th Century Fox with Spyros Skouras, a “celebrity” luncheon with Frank Sinatra, and an afternoon excursion to IBM HQ in San Jose — the final of which inspired Khrushchev’s love for self-serving cafeterias.
However, the single-most important landmark to the Khrushchevs was not overtly political, state-sanctioned, or even pre-planned.
They wanted to visit Disneyland in Anaheim.
“…but just now I was told that I could not go to Disneyland. I asked: ‘Why not?’ What is it, do you have rocket-launching pads there? I do not know.”
The day began similarly to any other day of the coast-to-coast trip — a U.S. state-funded visit to a capitalist institution of relative Western cultural significance. As Khrushchev arrived at Century City on Pico Boulevard, he was warmly greeted by the cast of the 1960 musical Can-Can, including Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, and Juliet Prowse, amongst others. Khrushchev was morally appalled by the display of song and dance, calling the performance — and America culture, by extension — “depraved” and “pornographic.” He apparently retched at the sight of exposed women’s thighs as he heckled the “hedonistic” costume design — in contrast to the modesty, humility, and uniformity of Soviet fashion.
Khrushchev abruptly requested to be excused from the event after co-star Shirley MacLaine attempted to engage him (in broken Russian) in an “impromptu dance sequence” on the film’s sound stage.
Following an awkward string of events that left the Chairman disgruntled and his wife, Nina Khrushcheva, uncomfortable, Frank Sinatra hosted a luncheon at 20th Century Fox’s HQ — at their elegant Café de Paris — that was also attended by vocal anti-communist Spyro Skouras — the studio’s president at the time.
The luncheon crowd numbered 400 — featuring some of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time. Tony Curtis, Elizabeth Taylor, and even Marilyn Monroe were in attendance. A handful of other stars, such as Bing Crosby and Ronald Reagan (ironically), turned down invitations in protest.
Murray Schumach of The New York Times called the event — and the scramble for invitations — “one of the angriest social free-for-alls in the uninhibited and colorful history in Hollywood.”
Many of the stars were not familiar with Nikita Khrushchev, U.S.-Soviet relations, nor what the luncheon actually entailed. Lena Pepitone, Marilyn Monroe’s maid, even said:
“Marilyn, who never read the papers or listened to the news, had to be told who Khrushchev was…but the studio kept insisting. They told Marilyn that in Russia, America meant two things, Coca-Cola and Marilyn Monroe. She loved hearing that and agreed to go….She told me that the studio wanted her to wear the tightest, sexiest dress she had for the premier.”
When Monroe was barred from wearing skimpy clothing — in order to accommodate Khrushchev’s traditional sensibility — she said “well, I guess they don’t have much sex in Russia.”
The exact narrative of events pertaining to the botched Disneyland trip are disputed to this day, but most firsthand accounts are certain that the seed was planted — and, subsequently excavated in brutal fashion — at the luncheon. Bob Hope, attending the luncheon as a representative of United Artists, claimed that he told Nina Khrushcheva that she “ought to go to Disneyland…it’s wonderful,” which prompted her to clandestinely pass a note to her (allegedly inebriated) husband claiming that she wanted to leave Los Angeles for Anaheim. According to Hope, this triggered Nikita to ask his Secret Service detail if such a trip was possible.
Within five minutes, the LAPD rejected the request ostensibly under the parameters that they could not secure the amusement park in such a short timeframe, nor had the personnel available to provide effective security for the Khrushchevs outside of their pre-determined tours.
In response, an eavesdropping Frank Sinatra reportedly leaned over to David Niven and said “screw the cops…tell the old broad that you and I will take them down there this afternoon,” in reference to Mrs. Khrushcheva — supposedly as an excuse to leave a luncheon that was becoming increasingly hostile.
What followed was a tirade for the ages, as Khrushchev’s “lifelong” plans to visit Disneyland were unilaterally rejected by William H. Parker — then-Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.
“And just listen — just listen to what I was told — to what reason I was told. We, which means the American authorities, cannot guarantee your security if you go there. What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken over the place that can destroy me? …this is the situation I am in — your guest. For me the situation is inconceivable. I cannot find words to explain this to my people.”
Interestingly enough, this last-minute Disneyland trip was apparently on both the LAPD, NKVD, and even the KGB’s radar for nearly three weeks before Khrushchev’s 1959 visit even took place.
According to media reports and now-declassified documents, Gen. Nikolai S. Zakharov met with LAPD Chief Parker a month prior to Khrushchev’s visit with the intention to discuss the possibility of an unplanned trip to Disneyland. Parker expressed significant concerns over such a request, as Anaheim resides in Orange County — outside of the LAPD’s jurisdiction. Such an escort was apparently impractical, with the personnel requirements and planning being much more complex than Khrushchev’s visits to previously secured locations.
However, it remains unclear if this excuse was actually legitimate, given that the LAPD and Secret Service notably provided escorts to Disneyland previously for a variety of foreign dignitaries and former U.S. President Truman — alongside lesser-known Soviet officials.
When Parker suggested the omission of an unplanned Disneyland trip from Khrushchev’s schedule, neither Gen. Zakharov nor the United States State Department objected. Either Khrushchev’s security detail forgot to inform him of such a discussion, or he intentionally used the “Disneyland ban” for propaganda purposes in order to launch a seemingly well-rehearsed attack on U.S. hospitality — or, the lack thereof. The State Department maintains, to this day, that plans existed for Nina Khrushcheva and her daughters to visit Disneyland on Sept. 19th, and she withdrew her request at “the last minute” of the 20th Century Fox luncheon “in order to remain with her husband.”
There are also reports that the Khrushchevs requested alterations to a potential Disneyland trip while on the plane to Los Angeles, therefore further complicating contingencies made by the LAPD, and making such a trip impossible given the last-minute changes to personnel and available resources. However, these details cannot be verified.
Interestingly enough, four Soviet journalists were accidentally routed to Disneyland instead of the studio at 20th Century Fox, and ended up spending the entire day at the park — complete with parades, rides, and pictures with costumed Disney characters. Reports after the event allege that these journalists told the Khrushchevs that Disneyland is “nothing like anything that exists in the Soviet Union…you would have loved it” — thus angering Nikita further.
Following a tense debacle that left Nikita and Nina fuming at the luncheon, an impromptu debate — or, argument — was instigated by known anti-communist activist Spyro Skouras — then-president of 20th Century Fox. Skouras, a Greek immigrant with relatives who were lost during the Greek Civil War, took advantage of such close proximity to the Soviet leader to call him out over the infamous “we will bury you” speech given to Western ambassadors in Warsaw on Nov. 18th, 1956.
Skouras accompanied Khrushchev on a visit to Los Angeles Town Hall, where he off-handedly commented that “although Los Angeles isn’t interested in ‘burying’ anyone, we are certainly up for the challenge.”
Khrushchev, already enraged that he was not able to visit the Magic Kingdom, retorted off-script:
“If you want to go on with the arms race, very well. We accept that challenge. As for the output of rockets — well, they are on the assembly line. This is a most serious question. It is one of life or death, ladies and gentlemen — one of war and peace.”
In response, Los Angeles mayor Norris Poulson said:
“We do not agree with your widely quoted phrase ‘We shall bury you.’ You shall not bury us and we shall not bury you. We are happy with our way of life. We recognize its shortcomings and are always trying to improve it. But if challenged, we shall fight to the death to preserve it.”
It is important to note that, just days before Khrushchev visited Los Angeles, the Soviet Union launched a surprise missile from the Far East that landed on the Moon — causing an unintentional influx of UFO sightings in Southern California.
Khrushchev reportedly remained frustrated for the last few days of his California trip. After a brief visit to San Francisco, he traveled to San Jose to visit the headquarters of IBM — where he was much more interested in the cafeteria food than he was about computer systems. This, in addition to rumors that he has been incredibly hungover following the previous day, ended the California visit on an unproductive note before flying to Des Moines, Iowa later that evening.
“The Disneyland Debacle” has been subject to a wide array of rumors and misinformation since 1959, but one thing remains clear — the Khrushchevs’ crushed dreams of visiting the “cream of the American people” at Disneyland led to a sour mood that would hang as a fog over the rest of the trip, ultimately culminating in an unproductive — if not historic — meeting with President Eisenhower at Camp David later that week.
Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 trip to the United States has gone down in history as featuring some of the most bizarre, borderline “bruh moments” of Cold War diplomacy — complete with corncob eating competitions, botched Disneyland trips, heated arguments with non-observer passerbys on the streets of Manhattan, and so much more.
However, after everything we know about the historic event and with nearly 80 years of retrospective commentary, the Disneyland disaster remains as one of the most interesting — if not mildly humorous — events in Khrushchev’s career as First Secretary of the Soviet Union.
Alexander Leslie is a foreign policy analyst, freelance journalist, and has an M.A. in Eurasian, Russian, & East European Studies from Georgetown University. His interests include U.S.-Georgia relations, energy politics, and studies in counterterrorism policy.
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