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Remembering the Cold War and Khrushchev’s visit

The talk of a possible rebirth of the “cold war” between Russia and the United States sends my mind spinning back in time.

I can remember the historic Nikita Khrushchev visit to Iowa in September of 1959. Looking back more than five decades has a way of clouding the happenings, but a few events still stand out in my mind.

I was working part-time at the Ames Daily Tribune while attending college. When the news first broke that Soviet Premier Khrushchev and his family were coming to Iowa, everyone at the Tribune was ecstatic. Not only did his schedule call for a stop in Coon Rapids at the Roswell Garst farm, plans included a visit to the Iowa State campus.

What made the approaching story so exciting was the fact that this was the first time a Soviet leader had ever visited the United States, and a big part of his itinerary was going to take place in Iowa (which usually got snubbed for major news events).

All this was happening during a time when relations were at an all-time low between the two countries. The cold war was at its height. The situation was so bad people were building bomb shelters in their backyards, almost like they build patios today.

As the big day approached, everything began to get more messed up. I don’t know if there had been serious threats on his life, but plans would change from hour to hour.

I can still see the Tribune’s editor, Rod Riggs, constantly running his hands over his skimpy flat-top hair cut as he read the constant changes taking place. He hovered over the printouts from our UPI teletype machine. He remarked that it seemed every newspaper in the world was yearning to get in on the story.

Rod’s observation proved to be right! When Khrushchev finally did show up in Iowa, he brought with him more than 600 media folks. It was a mess, to put it mildly. Rod sent a reporter and photographer to cover the action in Coon Rapids. Later he learned they received an education on how not to behave by observing the “big shot news folks.”

The Tribune’s photographer happened to be in the barnyard where Roswell Garst was showing his livestock operation to Khrushchev. Reporters and photographers kept pushing closer and closer. Several times Garst warned them to back off, but no one gave any ground. He remarked to Khrushchev that the reporters were bigger pests than the flies.

Finally, Garst reached down, grabbed some fresh corn silage and threw it directly at the reporters. They nearly ran over each other getting out of the way.

Because of such tight security, no one seemed to know the route the motorcade would be taking back to Des Moines, so National Guard soldiers were posted along nearly every road between Ames and Des Moines.

Evidently someone had misjudged how many soldiers it would take. One of the Tribune employees was in the Guard, but had been told he wouldn’t need to report for duty. About noon, he received a call that they needed him and off he went.

This really caused some excitement at the paper, with everyone speculating why he had been called up. It turned out that the motorcade had changed route, went down the blacktop running from the west edge of Ames to Slater and then over on Hwy. 210 to U.S. 69. Somehow that news had gotten out soon enough that hundreds of curious folks lined the streets of Slater as Khrushchev rolled through town.

This all took place nearly 55 years ago. Today, relations between Russia and the United States seem to be bit friendlier (at least I haven’t heard of anyone building a bomb shelter in their back yard lately).

Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times. He and his wife Sharon live outside of Cambridge.

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