May/June 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 3
In 1959 I was a journalism student at the University of Minnesota, where I worked as a reporter for the school newspaper, the Minnesota Daily .
That September Nikita Khrushchev was touring the United States and was scheduled to visit an agriculture class at the not-too-distant University of Iowa at Ames.
One evening another reporter and I were sitting around the newspaper office when we started talking about driving to Ames to get an interview with the Communist leader. We were seniors, restless to be a part of the real world, and we asked ourselves, “Why not try? If it doesn’t work out, at least we’ll have had an interesting escapade.”
After a round of permission-seeking phone calls to the offices of the Minnesota governor, U.S. congressmen, State Department, and the FBI, we received two press passes by special delivery, courtesy of Lincoln White, chief of the News Division, Department of State.
Dressed in proper reporter’s attire (trench coats worn with collars stylishly upturned), we set off for Ames, arriving at a campus crowded with press, students, and security men. My friend began taking notes describing the scene, while I pressed forward to the home economics building, where inside Khrushchev was closely guarded.
Outside the front entrance stood a wall of highway patrolmen. They told me that no one was allowed contact with the Soviet leader. I cajoled them, summoning what wily and youthful charm I could.
Before I knew it, Nikita Khrushchev emerged.
I don’t know how I mustered the courage, but realizing that I had very little time I shouted to him. Perhaps because my coat stood out among the patrolmen’s uniforms, he came over to me and shook my hand—warmly, I might add. Without wasting a second, I asked him, “What is Russia doing about the new Kremlin plan on education?” I had read of a five-year plan heavy on Communist indoctrination and vocational training.
The surrounding security men were not pleased about the unscheduled handshake, but the translator rendered both my question and Khrushchev’s answer: “It is being implemented and the plan will be useful to students as well as to the people.”
Instantly Khrushchev was swept away, and a crowd of reporters and photographers swooped down upon me, wanting to know who I was and what Khrushchev and I had said to each other. I enjoyed my brief moment in the spotlight. The next day, the Des Moines Register included a mention of my “interview,” noting that I said, “I was so nervous I could hardly write down the answer.”
My friend and I drove back to school, where I managed to meet the challenge of writing—or “writing around”—an article based on one feeble question.
Eight months later, just weeks before my graduation, a letter was delivered to me at the newspaper office. It was addressed only: Nancy Smiler, Minnesota University, U.S.A.
Inside I found a Soviet periodical clipping containing a photograph of myself (yes, with trench-coat collar upturned), my name at the top in Russian letters, and a story about Khrushchev in Ames and an American girl who spoke to him.
When the article was translated for me, I was astonished. The story correctly reported that I was a fourthyear student and a “correspondent for the university newspaper.” But it also quoted me as saying that there was “a violent meeting in regard to [her] approaching Khrushchev.”
Moreover, the Soviet reporter wrote that American students “screamed, ‘We welcome your disarmament proposal,’” and that we “youths agree the result of Khrushchev’s visit will be the liquidation of the present socalled war.”
In my brush with global history, I had also been an unwitting instrument of Soviet propaganda.