My connection with the Soviet Union, and later Russia, did not begin in Europe, as one might expect. No, that opportunity arose in Iowa in September of 1959 when Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, came to visit Roswell Garst at his farm near Coon Rapids.
The visit to an Iowa farm by a Soviet premier was totally out of character with the combative nature of American-Soviet relations during the Cold War. No Soviet leader, from Lenin to Stalin to Malenkov, showed an interest in visiting America. Instead, Khrushchev included, Soviet leaders focused on promoting communism and vanquishing the capitalist world led by the United States. The U.S.S.R. held a lead in the “space race” at the time of the Khrushchev visit and had become a military super power with a vast store of nuclear weapons.
So what was missing in the Soviet pursuit of world domination? For one thing: corn. Khrushchev had been responsible for agricultural production during the reign of Josef Stalin and realized how badly the Soviet Union lagged behind the United States in that sector. He learned of Roswell Garst’s success in multiplying corn production with hybrid seed, purchased large quantities of the Garst product, and became acquainted with the Iowa farmer.
I had worked as a detasseler in the cornfields of the Garst & Thomas Company and often ate sack lunches with other teenage employees on the lawn of Roswell Garst’s unpretentious farm. Garst, who preferred to be called “Bob,” often came by to greet and exchange small talk with his hired hands. By all appearances he seemed like any other Iowa farmer. I had no idea of his involvement in a major seed corn enterprise with the Soviet Union and of his relationship with its leaders.
At the time of Khrushchev’s arrival, I was employed as a security guard at the Iowa Air National base in Des Moines where his plane would land and park during his visit. Security arrangements were extensive, involving local authorities and agents from the State Department, the FBI, and the Secret Service, as well as officers from the 101st Airborne Division. I was assigned to the front gate, my usual post, to check credentials for admission to the base.
Three Boeing 707s landed in Des Moines on September 22, 1959, and taxied to the Air Guard base at the far end of the runway. One airplane carried Nikita Khrushchev and his entourage. Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Khrushchev’s tour guide, arrived in a second plane with his staff. The third 707 was occupied by a multitude of reporters, photographers and other journalists.
Dressed in my Air Force blue uniform and carrying a loaded .45, I manned the front gate and verified entry passes. During normal times my post had little activity. Indeed, I spent much of my time in the adjacent gate house studying for classes at Drake University. But this was anything but a normal time.
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Government agents were everywhere: inspecting, examining, scrutinizing. A contingent of troops from the 101st Airborne Division surrounded the three aircraft with military precision, fully armed and shoulder-to-shoulder. Reporters and cameramen jockeyed for position. Curiosity seekers lined the outer fence.
In a whirlwind schedule, Khrushchev arrived one day, visited the Garst farm the next, and left Des Moines the same evening. When a bus load of journalists returned to the base, the first of the entourage to arrive, I entered to check for press credentials. While doing so a reporter from TASS, the Soviet sponsored press agency, growled, “Don’t tell me this isn’t a police state!”
The Soviet reporter’s brusque comment stunned me. I was only doing my duty in a friendly manner, or so I thought, and not anticipating being caught in the middle of Cold War hostility.
The many vehicles of the Khrushchev-Lodge caravan arrived shortly thereafter, extending down McKinley Avenue as they approached the gate entrance where I stood at attention. For security reasons they were moving rapidly along the street lined with people carrying such signs as “Come Back, Nina,” an allusion to Khrushchev’s wife who accompanied him, and “Make Peace,” a reference to the fear of Soviet nuclear weapons at a time when many people were building bomb shelters in their backyards.
I hoped to get a good look at the Soviet premier when his limo reached the gate entrance. I didn’t. I stood close enough to touch his car, but it passed so quickly I only saw the shine of Khrushchev’s bald head.
As passengers on the three aircraft boarded and prepared to depart, I was relieved of gate duty by my supervisor and went to watch the proceedings from a bank above the flight line. A group of photographers stood on the runway, hoping for one last photo of the Soviet leader. The short and portly Khrushchev provided that opportunity when he came to the door of his plane. In the glare of the cameramen’s floodlights, he waved a farewell in my direction, an audience of one. I waved back.
The 707s roared off into the night. The base emptied. I finished my shift and went home.
A few short years later I would see Khrushchev’s face again, this time in Moscow in the form of huge banners draping the sides of multistory buildings as part of the 1963 May Day parade.
I was among the first Westerners allowed behind the Iron Curtain separating the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist West. I visited again in 1993 in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and witnessed the newfound Russia’s struggle to develop a viable economy. When I returned again in 2013, I discovered the Russian economy, although now yet at Western standards, had improved considerably from the miserable circumstances of the 1990s.
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By intent and good fortune, I visited the Soviet Union, and then Russia, at pivotal times in the history of the world’s largest country. From the Cold War superpower on alert with nuclear missiles aimed at the U.S. to the collapse of communism to the emergence of modern Russia, I have observed developments in a nation that remains a primary rival of the United States. In weeks to come I will share these observations, starting with an interesting, sometimes eerie, trip behind the Iron Curtain.
• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. He has written two books: “Apron Strings,” a humorous memoir of an Iowa upbringing, and “Lillian’s Legacy,” the true story of a supposedly unsolved murder in a small Iowa town. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org