In October 1960, the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in a veritable paroxysm of uncontained rage, forcefully banged his shoe on a desk at the United Nations to object to a speech critical of his nation. Or so the story goes.
The image of the red-faced and blustery Khrushchev — well, to be strictly accurate, no image of the famed shoe-banging incident ever was recorded, so the whole red-faced and blustery part may not be entirely on the money — became, to many, the image of the Soviet Union at the time. Angry. Forceful. Maybe a tad dangerous. Maybe a little over the edge. The Cold War was at its full-blown standoffish, below-zero chilliest at the time. To paranoid Russia-phobic Americans, an angry Soviet — especially one so brazen to actually use his loafer as a veritable hammer — was downright scary.
Unfortunately, especially if you enjoy a good Cold War drama, the shoe-banging affair may well be more histrionics than history. More exaggeration than exactness. As verifiable facts go, the story of Khrushchev and his shoe at the U.N. is notable mainly for one reason: its lack of proof.
"My personal position is that it's too good to be true, and if it actually ever happened, we would have had more corroboration, more witnesses and probably pictures, because this is the kind of stuff that gets caught on cameras," says Anton Fedyashin, a history professor at American University in Washington D.C. and former director of the school's Carmel Institute for Russian Culture & History. "So as far as the shoe-banging episode, per se, is concerned, I don't think it ever actually happened."
But you know what? Even if it didn't happen, even if Soviet shoe leather never met podium (or desk or lectern or wherever), it could have.
That story, true or not, is soooo Khrushchev.
The Story Behind the (Fake?) Story
In October 1960, The New York Times ran an article about a U.N. session that was a certifiable, front-page worthy mess. The headline:
CUT SHORT TO END
HECKLING BY REDS
A subhed unambiguously declared:
His Shoe on Desk
The story, written by Benjamin Welles, spelled out the specifics in its very first paragraph:
According to the report, Lorenzo Sumulong, a member of the Philippines delegation, was accusing the Soviets of "swallowing up" parts of Eastern Europe when Khrushchev erupted. The report also included a photograph of Khrushchev, seated at his delegate's desk, with a shoe sitting clearly atop it (see image below).
Important to note: The Times did not have a picture of him holding the shoe. Or banging it.
Political scientist William Taubman, who has written or edited at least three books on Khrushchev, including a 2003 biography, "Khrushchev: The Man and His Era," wrote an article for The Times in 2003 that included several interviews of those around Khrushchev on that day and their recollections of the events (or non-events). Another Times reporter said it never happened. A KGB general said it did. A U.N. staffer said no. Khrushchev's interpreter said yes. Others said no.
The official U.N. record is inconclusive. Time magazine has run a photo of the incident, though it was doctored. The Poynter Institute's PolitiFact took on the subject and the later suggestion that a third shoe might have been involved, but found that the shoe-banging never took place. Other outlets have shot down the story, too.
Khrushchev was known to bang his fists on lecterns and desks on occasion. But a photographer present at the time of the alleged shoe-banging, interviewed by Taubman, was adamant in his belief that shoe-to-table never happened.
"Did he bang his fists at the U.N.? Yes he did, because that we actually have footage of," Fedyashin says. "I have a feeling that this whole shoe incident has been sort of rolled up, by imaginative minds and even more imaginative tongues, in with the fist-banging. So, yeah. [That] would have been perfectly in character."
The Character of Khrushchev
In 1953, Khrushchev assumed power in the Soviet Union after the bloody reign of Joseph Stalin, inheriting a country already at odds with its World War II ally, the United States. At stake was no less than the worldview of which country provided a better path for its people: the Soviet Union and socialism or the U.S. and its version of democracy.
To many emerging countries seeking a path to modernization — socialism or democracy — the answer wasn't as clear-cut as it might seem now in the West. Khrushchev was generally improving his country, pulling it through de-Stalinization, freeing prisoners and easing censorship. China was even then emerging as a potential powerhouse after going communist. The U.S. had fought communism to only a draw in the Korean War (which ended in 1953).
In 1957, the Soviets stunned the world by launching the first Earth satellite, Sputnik, and followed that in 1961 with the first manned spaceflight. Meanwhile, the world watched in 1957 as the American military was forced to help integrate a high school in Arkansas to satisfy a new Supreme Court ruling.
"Imagine if you're an African and you're looking at that," Fedyashin says. "Whose path to modernization are you more likely to follow?"
The stage was set for a brash man of the people like Khrushchev, a largely uneducated leader who was given to bouts of both anger and warmth. Khrushchev was a man whose often common speech endeared him to (at least some of) his people, someone whose belief in socialism was genuine, and someone who was eager to show his strength, and that of the Soviet Union, to the world.
Khrushchev's stage was the United Nations. "This, during the Cold War, was the great theater of competition," Fedyashin says.
"When it came to the superpower standoff, he really went out of his way to compensate for both his own and the Soviet Union's weaknesses by sort of projecting confidence, power, virility and a certainty in one's self," he adds. "And this led him occasionally to sort of switch from this sort of inclusive, peaceful, coexistence mode to these occasional threats against the West, and sort of these open challenges, these crazy gambles."
Like banging a shoe? Maybe?
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