For those of us of a certain vintage, the image of the evil dictator of Communist Russia, an ugly little man who resembled a pig, pounding his shoe on a table at the United Nations confirmed our worst fears that the possibility of a nuclear World War III was in the hands of a crude mad man. And that’s exactly what we were supposed to think.
According to most of the almanacs I consult regularly in preparation of these blog posts, it was October 12 1960 when Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party and Premier of the Soviet Union threw that famous temper tantrum.
But it turns out that it may have been September 23 or 29, or October 13 during the Plenary Meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York. It may have come in protest to a speech by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan or remarks by Philippine delegate Lorenzo Sumulong. He was visibly upset by statements of both men.
He may have banged his shoe at the podium…or at his seat in the Soviet delegation…or perhaps not at all.
And the old man was not really a dictator, as in the single, unquestioned authority of the nation in the way of Hitler, Stalin, or Third World generalissimos.
How could we have gotten it so wrong?
The trouble is, there is no documentation of the event in the official records of the United Nations. In the daily press it was not mentioned in reports on any of the possible dates. No footage could be found in the archives of NBC and CBC, both of which covered the General Assembly regularly and often broadcast important speeches live. Nor has any authentic photograph of the episode been found—more on that later.
Fuzzy accounts of the event have been pieced together from memories and memoirs, many of which don’t agree.The meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in the fall of 1960 gripped world attention, dominated U.S. news, and attracted top international leaders. In addition to Khrushchev's temper tantrums the session is remembered for the appearance of Cuba's Fidel Castro and a retinue in fatigue uniforms.
In retrospect, it is astonishing that the leader of one of the most powerful nations on Earth came to the major city of his chief rival to sit for hours daily over a span of weeks for the meeting of the Security Council. And he wasn’t the only one—Macmillan was only one of the top Western leaders who did the same, as did a parade of presidents, prime ministers, kings, and despots from lesser nations. If Dwight Eisenhower elected only to attend briefly to make his annual speech and to consult with world leaders in private meetings, the United States was represented at the top level by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles as well as the Cabinet level Ambassador to the world body. It shows how important the UN was viewed in those distant days.
Most historians now discount the possibility that the shoe came off in September. He did take to the podium, pounding his fists, in angry denunciation of Macmillan’s speech that day. Later an AP photo of that diatribe would be altered by someone, and a shoe inserted into Khrushchev’s fist. It was released and widely circulated by the media within weeks of the alleged event and not questioned at the time. Who made the alteration and how did get to the media? No one seems to know, but it has all the earmarks of a classic intelligence service disinformation operation.
The consensus now is that it was Sumulong’s speech on October 12 that was the trigger—if the event happened at all. The Philippine delegate rose in support of an anti-colonial resolution that had the support of the Soviets and their allies. The delegate spoke as a representative of a nation with a colonial past which had achieved its independence. Of course, the Philippines, while independent, were known as a staunch ally of their former colonial master, the United States. Although the resolution was tailored to the remaining colonial holdings of the Western powers, Sumulong strayed from the topic at hand to offer a slap at the Soviet Union:
…It is our view that the declaration proposed by the Soviet Union should cover the inalienable right to independence not only of the peoples and territories which yet remain under the rule of Western colonial Powers, but also of the peoples of Eastern Europe and elsewhere which have been deprived of the free exercise of their civil and political rights and which have been swallowed up, so to speak, by the Soviet Union.
An enraged Khrushchev was recognized on a point of order and rushed the podium. He shoved the Philippine diplomat aside and launched an extended diatribe calling Sumulong a “jerk, a stooge, and a lackey…a toady of American imperialism” and demanding that he be ruled out of order. Assembly President Frederick Boland of Ireland did caution the Sumulong to “avoid wandering out into an argument which is certain to provoke further interventions.” But Sumulong was permitted to continue his speech and Khrushchev returned to his seat in the Soviet delegation.
At least one person remembers the Soviet premier as using his shoe at the rostrum in this confrontation.Khrushchev, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, and others in the Soviet delegation pound their fists at their desks in protest.
But most agree that it happened after he sat back down. As the Filipino continued to speak, Khrushchev pounded both fists angrily on his desk, joined obediently by other members of the Soviet delegation and Eastern Bloc nations. In fact, he pounded so hard that his watch stopped or flew off his wrist—not speaking well of quality of Soviet consumer goods. According to a memoir by Khrushchev’s daughter Nina, confirmed by interpreter Viktor Sukhodrev who sat next to him, he looked down and saw his shoe, which he had removed for some reason earlier and spontaneously picked it up and began pounding the table. He never, as some reports had it, removed the shoe from his foot, a virtual impossibility in the cramped space of the desk and given his girth.The only evidence of a shoe--it rests on the desk in front of Khrushchev as the delegation listens quietly and evidently with some amusement.
Decorum at the session soon broke down and it was gaveled to adjournment by President Boland, who was being abused and booed from the Soviet bloc seats.
However, other accounts do not remember or mention the shoe at all.
To make matters even more confusing in his own memoirs Khrushchev remembered a shoe pounding incident but placed it in an entirely different context—a protest to remarks by a diplomat from Franco’s Spain. A later published edition, however, contained a footnote saying that the incident was misremembered.An English translation of Khrushchev's memoirs in which he gave a garbled and erroneous account of the shoe banning.
That United Nations trip is also remembered for Khrushchev’s own address to the world body in which he famously said of the United States, “We will bury you.” That was played in the U.S. press as a threat of nuclear annihilation. In fact, translators and linguists are unanimous that he had a different, less threatening meaning. He was quoting a well-known Russian proverb that means “we will survive you and see you in your grave.” It was a prediction of the triumph of Communism over capitalism as inevitable, but not a threat of war.
No matter what happened, Americans were soon convinced that Khrushchev was an arch-villain and dictator. In fact, although he had consolidated considerable power in the Party, Khrushchev was never able to rule alone. He was answerable to the Presidium of the Party and to the larger Polit Bureau, each of which included powerful rivals who limited his freedom of action.
Moreover, in the Soviet sense, Khrushchev was a liberal and reformer. He had presided over de-Stalinization of the Party. He had also loosened economic regulations, liberalized the still restricted freedom of writers and intellectuals to express themselves, and broke with the most aggressive military ambitions of hard liners. Western intelligence agencies undoubtedly knew all of this.
In fact, four years later Khrushchev was deposed by the hardliners led by Leonid Brezhnev.
But to keep up public support for continued high defense spending and the proclaimed policy of aggressive containment of Communism, it was necessary to paint the Soviet leaders in the same stark terms as the U.S.’s late enemies in World War II.
All of this should be kept well in mind as one after another leaders of small and weak nations are portrayed to the American people as, inevitably, Hitlers.