Los Angeles, California. September 19, 1959.
Nikita Khrushchev had been the victim of three assassination attempts that he knew of. He was sure his security detail had kept more from him. It was simply an unpleasant reality of being a highly visible, fairly controversial world leader in dangerous times. In any time, maybe.
So be it. However controversial, he would, at least, be remembered as someone who did things.
What was he going to remember? That the mayor of Los Angeles had a rotten idea of how to entertain foreign dignitaries.
“Why aren’t we going to Disneyland?” asked his daughter, offering Nikita a welcome reason to avert his eyes from the Can-Can dancers. “I thought we were? And Mr. Hope said it was very nice, too. Magical.”
“But this, too, is magic,” Khrushchev said wryly (in Russian; he could occasionally employ some tact). “This is America, where anyone can be whatever they want, and live the American dream, and some Americans, they dream of flashing their undergarments in front of foreign men.”
His daughter raised an eyebrow, and he shrugged apologetically. “Apparently I would be endangered by the sickening wholesomeness of it all, or something. But perhaps you can go to Disneyland with your sister and mother.”
She looked at him pityingly. “I’ll bring you back a stuffed Mickey Mouse.”
“You do that,” he said.
Mayor Poulson glanced back curiously, and Khrushchev smiled, his tight, polite, civilized, I-could-have-you-killed-but-will-sign-autographs-first smile, and said, “I look forward to seeing your housing projects after this—such generosity of spirit your politicians have, with the public funds.”
The mayor looked suspicious (as he had since they had first been introduced), but once in the car and on the streets of his city, he became positively voluble.
“Fascinating, indeed,” Khrushchev interjected at appropriate intervals, and he said it with the same face he said, “Ochen’ vkusno!” every time his mother-in-law cooked them golubtsy, and it was a lie only he and anyone else who tasted it would ever know.
Late that night, after an interminable banquet, the esteemed Colonel General Nikolai Zakharov (head of Soviet Security Police, and of Khrushchev’s guard; ever-present, and often-scolding) told him, after having gone over the hotel room for bugs, that Walt Disney was strongly anti-communist, and probably refused to cooperate with police to let the appropriate security measures be taken.
“Bah!” said Khrushchev. “The man’s too much of a capitalist to turn away a media circus out of righteousness. No, there’s something else at work here. The Americans are tricky creatures. But—it is just a park, and we have those at home, yes?”
Zakharov looked at him pityingly. “Yes, we have marvelous parks at home. And marvelously long queues, as well. So.”
Khrushchev thought morbidly of the banquets here and the bread lines back home, and the sacrifices one made for a cause. And, more pressingly, of the sacrifices one made for international relations. “Ugh, but that housing project was depressing. More depressing even than Poland, where the people lined up to see me like I am royalty, and they have this nicely-wrapped package they would like to throw under my carriage. It is like I am on house arrest, here, only the house is not my own. I, Nikita Sergeyevich, Leader of the Not-Quite-Free World! Not allowed to visit Disneyland.”
He had been shuttled from Washington to New York, to here; he was scheduled to go to Des Moines, of all places. He was entitled, in light of such agony, to go one place he actually wanted to.
“As you say, Premier,” Zakharov conceded. “As you say.”
Khrushchev idly flipped through the brochures on the hotel room’s desk. Stopped on a particularly glossy one that advertised, in slightly swirling pink letters, The Happiest Place on Earth.
He curled his lip and tipped back the rest of his vodka more quickly than he was prone to.
“Nikolai Stepanovich,” he called.
“Can we bomb Disneyland?
“It’s not advisable. It would offer no tactical advantage, and seems likely to cause a general outcry.” Zakharov paused, apologetically. “Everyone loves Disneyland.”
Khrushchev nodded gloomily, waving his glass toward an overstuffed Mickey Mouse (a figure in garish red shorts, with overly large gloved hands, purchased by his daughter at a convenience store on their way back from the projects) in acknowledgment. It wasn’t even the ugliest thing he’d acquired on this trip; the Americans’ gifting taste in artwork was either highly suspect, or a particularly expensive way of expressing their disdain for him. “Damn right they do.”
He dreamed of Dvinas over Disneyland, of rocket men, of flames and chaos and the end of an American dream.
He dreamed of riding on a roller coaster for the first time, of feeling like flight, like a child, like magic.
The next morning he calmly ate his toast in the hotel lounge; he dabbed a napkin to his lips; he excused himself. All standard things. He left a note in his hotel room, on the pillow by his still-sleeping wife, that explained he would be back in time to catch the train. He ducked out the service exit, hailed a cab, and told the cabbie (from Latvia, as it turned out, and with Opinions Khrushchev Needed to Hear) to head to Disneyland. He thought, a little regretfully, of his security detail, of the police chief who had been so well-meaning, of his wife and daughters who would be so disappointed, but—they were still asleep, and together so much more recognizable, and it would be brief, his visit; no one would expect him to be there; nothing could hurt him in a land of dreams. It would be fine.
He had to be back by noon. No problem; he would be back.
If Nixon got to evade the Secret Service and ride the Monorail, then so did he.
Anaheim, California. September 20, 1959.
The insistent escort of park security that greeted him just past the turnstiles was probably the first sign that Khrushchev had overestimated his ability to fly under the radar; their deposit of him in front of a row of armed submarines was certainly the second.
He, a leader who had stared down Malenkov and (mostly) outmaneuvered Molotov. Surprised by a man who drew talking mice, made them sing and dance and steer steamboats.
“The eighth largest such fleet in the world,” Disney said, with all the enthusiasm of a showman. “Not quite as impressive as yours, maybe”—and here he winked, somewhat awkwardly, Khrushchev felt—“But it gets the job done!”
“Very charming,” Khrushchev said.
“Shall we pose for a picture?” Disney asked.
“I think it best there be no photographic evidence,” Khrushchev said coldly.
Disney looked a little put out.
“Well. If that’s the way you want it. Be my guest,” Disney said with a sweep of his arm. “Explore the Seven Seas!”
Khrushchev scowled disapprovingly, but he stepped forward anyway. He was curious. It was Disneyland.
He let himself be shown around; he listened to Disney go on and on about his plans for the future, for tree houses, haunted houses, audio-animatronic presidents, UFOs.
Khrushchev had talked with Eisenhower about a military arms race. He thought, perhaps, that this man could give both of their armies a run for their money.
(They had also discussed the potential expansion of tourism between their countries, and Khrushchev tried not to think about how to coax people with this in their backyard to be guided through the kremlins and kolkhozes of his country by an Intourist flunky.)
Disney ushered him into Frontierland, past employees in period costume, parents juggling bags and cameras, and far more children than should ever be let loose in one place.
Well, Khrushchev thought, looking around at the chaos. It’s definitely not gangsters or cholera. He was not yet ruling out the possibility of rocket launch pads.
He roamed the park, aware of Disney’s friendly arm upon his elbow, and Disney’s jingoism in his face, and, every now and then, a whispering parent’s curious stare at the back of his neck.
They came upon a shooting gallery, and Disney asked: “Want a shot?”
Khrushchev had the true passion for the hunt; he could handle a puny toy .22.
“You know, the bullets in these things are real,” Disney said casually, as he picked off a fast-moving dove. “None of those cheap carnival tricks here!”
Khrushchev did not flinch, but it was a near thing. He had now spotted at least 35 ways the park provided to handily assassinate a foreign premier: shooting gallery fun gone awry; kicked by an unruly mule on a trip across the Frontierland desert; dropped from a suddenly un-cabled cable car; strangled in the cogs of a nausea-inducing ride; run over by a whirling teacup; pushed overboard from a Jungle River Boat and left to drown beside an animatronic hippo; and worse. None were ends befitting the dignity of his office.
Yet by the time he glanced at his watch, and regretfully expressed that he had to leave, train to catch, he was still entirely alive and well. He had not even had to stand in line once, for having a park owner at hand was its own kind of magic.
“You know, Mrs. Disney really wanted to meet you,” Disney said, patting Khrushchev on the back quite heartily. “But you surprised us, showing up at the last minute like that!”
“Yes, yes, the armed submarines—a hallmark of the unprepared,” Khrushchev replied drily. “Thank you for your last-minute hospitality.”
“Well—never said we weren’t prepared,” Disney said with a wink. “Former Boy Scout and all! If you’re ever in town again, you should see my Silver Buffalo!”
Khrushchev thought his English was very good; he had been assured of this by many. He remembered his favorite translator’s advice: If it does not make any sense, it is probably an idiom. If it is accompanied by a wink, it is probably about sex.
In the interest of international diplomacy (or, rather, in the interest of someday being allowed to visit this place at greater leisure), he smiled vaguely and politely, stepped into the waiting taxi, and gave them the address to his hotel. This driver, fortunately, did not recognize him at all.
His security team scolded him, the LAPD contingent looked strangely shifty-eyed about the entire thing, and his wife gave him a look that said they would talk about this later, but on the whole, his escapade went rather unremarked. He read the Soviet papers with some amusement, as they took offense on his behalf that the Americans would think to curtail his movements.
No, he thought smugly to himself, I am Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev; I go where I like.
And he let himself be shuttled onto the train to San Francisco, to meet more frustrating people and see more tiresome things.