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A Blow For Democracy

June 2024
3min read

In the fall of 1959 I was working at an IBM engineering and manufacturing plant in San Jose, California, one of the few well-established technology enterprises in northern California at the time. One day word came that Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the U.S.S.R., would arrive within the next several days. To just about every American then, he represented all that was wrong in the world, and his in-your-face style of confrontation ensured that people had strong opinions about him.

It is unlikely a similar visit could occur today. Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi are the best current comparisons, and it’s not hard to imagine what would occur if either one of them came to this country and tried to go to Disneyland.

In preparation for Khrushchev’s arrival, IBM supervisors advised everyone holding negative views about the visit to stay home. Diplomatically, all the bomb-shelter signs—and there were a lot of them—were removed. According to most press accounts, there were four or five security people, both uniformed and plainclothes, for every IBMer. One friend said to me, “That’s about right.”

Khrushchev had received a very mixed welcome in Los Angeles, and he had been furious when, for security reasons, the police chief had barred him from visiting Disney’s park. But news accounts reported that his attitude had begun to soften as he traveled up the California coast. He seemed less petulant when he arrived at our site, and everyone at the plant greeted him with honest enthusiasm. He sensed it and seemed to enjoy himself, handing out Lunik medals (in commemoration of the unmanned Soviet lunar probe) to several IBMers he stopped to talk to. The only problematic time was when he got into the area where I was.

We watched his party coming down the hall: Khrushchev; Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.; Thomas J. Watson, Jr., IBM’s chairman; and others. In front was a tall, well-dressed, very American-looking security man carrying a vinyl briefcase with both arms folded across his chest and one hand tucked inside the case. As he went by me, I could see that inside the case he was holding a gun in a ready-to-fire position. That was a little sobering. I was told afterward that of the plainclothes security people, the most American-looking were probably KGB. How that could be I don’t really know, but I am convinced that man was.

What Khrushchev really wanted was to get out on the manufacturing floor to hobnob with the “workers.”

In our area Premier Khrushchev was to receive a demonstration of a computer-based manufacturing planning and control system. Those of us who had participated in its development were permitted to stand close to him during the presentation. For nearly half an hour Khrushchev stood about fifteen feet from me, facing in my direction, while a Russian-speaking IBMer described the system.

The presenter, a remarkable man by the name of Eddie Corwin, had been a soldier in the Polish army. Captured during the German-U.S.S.R. invasion of Poland, he spent the remainder of the war in prison. Company folklore has it that at the end of the demonstration, Khrushchev asked Corwin where he had learned Russian; when he was told, Khrushchev’s face froze and he turned his back.

While Corwin was speaking, Khrushchev had never really looked at our faces; we may have been too tall for him to bother with. As the demonstration proceeded, I think he began to realize that he was being held captive at a presentation that he couldn’t have cared less about—a description of parts requisitions, bills of material, routings, job orders, and other esoteric stuff. What he really wanted was to get out on the manufacturing floor to hobnob with the “workers.”

As I watched him, I had the oddest feeling that I had seen it all before. The frown, the head toss, the folded arms were very reminiscent of newsreels of Benito Mussolini puffing and posturing on a Roman balcony before an adoring crowd. There was even a slight physical resemblance: the stature, the bullet head.

Khrushchev left and in a speech later that evening in San Francisco acknowledged that he had liked the reception he had received in San Jose but that he had really hated the demonstration. Not too long afterward, in the spring of 1960, a U-2 went down over Sverdlovsk and a planned summit conference between Khrushchev and Eisenhower was canceled. Khrushchev violated decorum at the U.N. by pounding his shoe on his desk, and later the Berlin Wall went up. The Cold War began in earnest.

Since then I have often thought about that day in San Jose. I firmly believe that we struck a blow for democracy. For almost half an hour we bored the leader of the unfree world to death!

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