BackStory producer Andrew Parsons talks with Sergei Khrushchev and Liz Garst about the unlikely friendship between their father and grandfather – Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Iowan Roswell Garst – and the agricultural diplomacy they waged in the 1950s.
JOANNE: OK, now back to our discussion of the history of US-Russia relations. We’ve been talking about surprising moments before the Cold War, but even during that decades-long rivalry, there were a lot of unexpected encounters between the two world powers.
For example take Nikita Khrushchev’s tour of the United States in 1959. That surprised a lot of Americans, because just a few years earlier, the Soviet leader said the USSR would “bury” the West. And now he’s grinning and shaking hands with Americans.
ED: Most surprisingly, Khrushchev only requested meetings with two people. One, not surprisingly, was President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The other was a farmer from Iowa.
That farmer, Roswell Garst, had met Khrushchev before. In fact, they considered each other friends.
A few years ago, BackStory producer Andrew Parsons looked into how the powerful Soviet leader struck up this unlikely friendship.
ANDREW PARSONS: Liz Garst was eight years old when Khrushchev came to her grandfather Roswell’s farm. She says they were oddly compatible.
LIZ GARST: I did have the impression he was like my grandfather. He was sort of loud, had a big belly, a big belly laugh, and was just a little bit scary.
ANDREW PARSONS: She says Khrushchev’s high profile made the day a bit of a circus. The news media swarmed the two men.
And then there was the security. Her grandmother couldn’t even make a simple meal for the Soviet leader without officials butting in.
LIZ GARST: As one of the security procedures, they had two food tasters– one American and one Soviet food taster– taste each dish an hour before lunch to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. The whole hour before lunch, we did not let them out of our sight, just praying they would die of food poisoning. As an eight-year-old, that was just beyond exciting.
ANDREW PARSONS: Khrushchev was on his way to Camp David to discuss pressing matters, like this big arms race that was threatening World War III. So why was it so important for him to stop in this American farm?
In a word, corn. Ever since he rose to power six years earlier, Khrushchev had been crazy about corn. While the arms race was important, so was feeding a massive population with a long history of famine.
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: The goal of my father was to improve the life of the Soviet people.
ANDREW PARSONS: This is Khrushchev’s son, Sergei. His father knew that in America, corn mostly fed lucrative meat and dairy industries.
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: So his first priority was to increase food production– and most important, meat and dairy products. So the agriculture was one of his main priorities at the time.
ANDREW PARSONS: In 1955, Khrushchev set a goal to create what he said would be an Iowa-style corn belt in the Soviet Union. Four years before that famous televised visit, he even sent a delegation to Iowa to take some notes on how it was done. Liz Garst says that’s where her grandfather first appears.
LIZ GARST: The delegation was hosted by Iowa State University. And Roswell always thought that he was way ahead on technology, compared to Iowa State University.
ANDREW PARSONS: By technology, she means hybrid corn seed, which yielded huge harvests. The problem was that the state government hadn’t scheduled the Soviets to go anywhere near Garst’s farm. But Garst had other plans.
He intercepted the head of the delegation and invited him to tour his land the next day.
LIZ GARST: Roswell said, so tonight, keep your mouth shut. Tomorrow morning, you load your delegation up in Iowa State’s cars to go on their planned tour to Newton. And at the last, minute just refuse to get in their car. And I’ll drive up in my car, and I’ll open up the passenger door, and you just get in my car.
So that’s how it happened. Roswell basically kidnapped him from underneath the nose of Iowa State.
ANDREW PARSONS: The Soviets returned home with a 400-page report on Iowa corn. And Garst’s use of hybrid seeds and nitrogen-rich fertilizer stood out. He soon found himself sitting with Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow, drawing up contracts to sell his seeds.
It was this meeting in 1955 where the two men struck up their unlikely friendship. Their surface-level motives were clear. Garst got big contracts from the Soviet government, and Khrushchev got technology that could help his massive collective farms.
But Sergei Khrushchev says there was something else. The Soviet Premier came from humble roots, and he really liked the image of a self-made American farmer.
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: And I remember Garst. He was a strong man, big, a real American farmer as I understood at that time. Hard-working person. And my father was also a hard worker– not only in the politics, but when he was a metalworker in the factory, of course.
It increased their sympathies to each other. Two hard workers, they understand each other.
ANDREW PARSONS: But selling American farming to the Reds wasn’t all smooth sailing. At first, the State Department was skeptical about Garst’s adventures in the East and only reluctantly gave him the license to sell.
And the Soviet corn belt? That didn’t exactly pan out either. Liz Garst said corn was planted everywhere, including where it couldn’t be sustained, like Siberia.
LIZ GARST: A common joke of this era in the Soviet Union is someone says to Mrs. Khrushchev, Mrs. Khrushchev, your husband’s planting corn every place but on the moon! And Mrs. Khrushchev says, shh, don’t give him the idea!
ANDREW PARSONS: And technology wasn’t always applied consistently, even on fertile soil. The Soviet leader later claimed this wasn’t his fault. He said in a rush to please him, the Soviets just planted hybrids too quickly in too many places.
Though yields improved overall, the program wasn’t nearly as successful as it should have been. Khrushchev later wrote in his memoirs, “corn was discredited, and so was I.”
Garst’s short-lived attempt at American foreign policy was a big deal in the early ’50s. At the time, few Americans traveled to the Soviet Union. But by 1960, both governments had embraced the idea of cultural exchange.
Khrushchev even said in 1959 that this corn diplomacy helped pave the way for his dealings with Eisenhower. His son Sergei says Garst’s impact was more than just agricultural.
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: He became not only the farmer who sold his product. Through this, he became the politicians who just put one of the first cracks on the Iron Wall and was helping to move from the Cold War arms race to the normal competition between two economies.
ANDREW PARSONS: Khrushchev had used the image of Garst, and of Iowa in general, in state television, Soviet newspapers, and pamphlets. And it formed a lasting impression.
By the 1980s, the Iron Curtain had opened wider. And the first privately-owned family farm in the Soviet Union was established. Its name? “Iowa.”
ED: Andrew Parsons is a producer on our show.