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Fifty Years Later, Lessons Remain From Khrushchev’s Iowa Visit

Vlad Sambaiew
The Des Moines Register
August 2009

The Cold War, an emerging space race (remember Sputnik?) and the growing dangers of nuclear confrontation were the 1959 setting for a visit to the U.S. agricultural heartland by a Soviet leader committed to the triumph of communism. As it turned out, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's trip to Iowa helped pave the way to better relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. How did his visit contribute, over time, to welcome steps away from confrontation between implacable enemies?

Khrushchev was the Soviet leader who promised to "bury" the West, and pounded his shoe at the United Nations to protest perceived insults to Soviet foreign policy. Although not the most gifted diplomat, we were to learn that Khrushchev was surprisingly open to appreciating what others in the world did well. Iowa had much to offer.

His hosts, Roswell and Elizabeth Garst, invited the Soviet leader to Iowa in part to reciprocate for their meetings on agricultural issues in the U.S.S.R., including a session with Khrushchev and his wife Nina. By many accounts, Roswell Garst was a master salesman when it came to the virtues of U.S. hybrid corn and the equipment needed for efficient planting. In addition, the Garsts saw great value in direct people-to-people exchanges as a way to ease Cold War tensions.

They made a good bet. Khrushchev was highly impressed with the agricultural efficiency he saw at the "village" level. He remarked how individual Iowa farmers could do better than much larger Soviet farms given efficient production methods, the right equipment and a transport system that moved agricultural products quickly to consumers. He took this new knowledge back to the Soviet Union and applied it with decidedly mixed results.

Still, the Khrushchev visit to Iowa, and the earlier exchanges of agricultural specialists, underscored truisms still valid today - namely, the importance of dialogue, firsthand experience and learning from others. During his time in Iowa and elsewhere in the United States, Khrushchev discovered that the United States was not the caricature portrayed in Soviet propaganda.

People-to-people exchanges involving Iowa, Russia and the former Soviet Union have a long history beyond agriculture. Iowans and Soviet citizens walked across the state in 1986 as part of a peace march for global nuclear disarmament. The group visited Moscow, Iowa, and some later traveled to the Soviet capital as part of the citizen-diplomacy initiative. Iowa established a sister state relationship with Stavropol in 1988, an active relationship that continues to the present. Iowa communities have ongoing exchanges with several Russian locales.

In recent years, U.S.-Russia relations have again taken a turn for the worse. Both nations have routinely portrayed the other in negative terms. Mutual distrust and suspicions have grown over many political, defense and economic issues. We have returned to describing each other in stereotypes.

The 50th anniversary of Khrushchev's visit is an excellent opportunity to focus again on the importance of better U.S.-Russia relations, honest dialogue and shared need to tackle nuclear and other global challenges. As President Barack Obama said in Moscow in early July, "But I believe that on the fundamental issues that will shape this century, Americans and Russians share common interests that form a basis for cooperation."

The United States and Russia are working hard to achieve a new nuclear-arms reduction agreement this year. A successful accord will give a strong push to critical nuclear-nonproliferation treaty talks already planned for 2010 and a broader arms-control agenda that is essential to our common security.

It is clear that in today's highly interconnected world, we face many complex problems that cannot be solved by any one nation alone. Positive international cooperation is essential to reduce threats ranging from vulnerable nuclear materials to terrorism, and even piracy from failed states. Improved U.S.-Russia relations help set the stage for progress in these and other areas.

In sum, the Iowa commemoration highlights that citizens can help shape a better world through their efforts and support for positive international action on many levels.

Vlad Sambaiew is president of the Stanley Foundation.
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