Susskind Archive: Interview With Nikita Khrushchev
(David Susskind, Nikita Khrushchev, et al / DVD / NR / 2020 / MVD Visual)
Overview: October 1960. The Cold War was at it's zenith. Nikita Khrushchev visited the United Nations NY. David Susskind announces that he would appear on his show 'Open End'.
Negative reaction from both press and public followed. No Soviet leader had been interviewed by an American, much less live on TV.
DVD Verdict: As we all know now, the interview, which has not been seen in full since its original air date, went forward and the timing was impeccable.
It took place just after the infamous U-2 spy plane incident when tensions between the Soviet Union and the U.S. were at their height.
What resulted was a contentious, but open discussion comparing Soviet communism with American capitalism.
Setting the scene, in October 1960, Eisenhower was President and the election that put John F. Kennedy into the White House was less than a month away.
The Cold War was at its zenith. Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier was visiting the United Nations headquarters in New York City. No Soviet leader had ever been interviewed by an American, yet Khrushchev agreed to appear live on David Susskind's 'Open End'.
There was an immediate negative reaction to the announcement, even causing then F.B.I. director Hoover to ask What do our files show on Susskind? The program aired live on Sunday, October 9th on New York television station WNTA.
The two-hour conversation (through an interpreter) was very spirited and focused on two main topics: First, the virtues of Soviet styled communism versus American style capitalism, and second, would Khrushchev give his assurance that he would never initiate a nuclear war.
As Susskind reveals at the beginning of the show, none of the questions had been submitted in advance, nor the answers having been previously rehearsed. It's an honest, cold opening and one that, I must assume, still had the viewing public of the day (let alone today) questioning the complete validity behind it.
It's been said that Susskind had written more than a hundred questions for Khrushchev. While Ambassador Mikhail Menshikov indicated that Khrushchev was usually in bed by 10:45 p.m., Susskind was prepared if the premier felt the need to extend the dialogue into the early-morning hours.
Funnily enough, just before Susskind was out the door to head over to the United Nations for the program, he got some advice from his son, Andrew, then 6 years old. “Dad, whatever you do, don’t let Nikita Khrushchev declare war on your show,” he said.
Once the interview began, Susskind’s tone immediately took a confrontational tack. He became an advocate for America rather than a civilized interlocutor.
He was no match for the crafty Khrushchev, who barreled along with his standard bromides about how if people truly understood communism and socialism, they would embrace them.
At one point after a commercial break, Khrushchev is informed that one of the commercials during the break was for Radio Free Europe. The commercial depicted a communist soldier smashing a radio set with an axe.
Initially, this set Khrushchev off, but after a moment he said Well, alright, let them screen it. We are not afraid. This will only make us stronger. Let them do it.
When the program resumed, Khrushchev eventually calmed down and answered a few more questions. But with no prompting from Susskind, the premier stood up from his chair and appeared ready to leave.
Susskind stood to remove the microphone cord from around Khrushchev’s neck. As he reached for it, the feared Soviet leader gave Susskind a playful bear hug. (The embrace caused Susskind to stiffen up “like an unwilling virgin,” he later said.)
But there was also a bit of panic on Susskind’s face as he realized the interview was ending without generating any real news. He kept the discussion going, pressing the premier to categorically state he would never start a war.
As Khrushchev went on about how the Russians wanted friendship and peace with the United States, he noticed he was no longer wearing his microphone and wondered out loud if viewers were hearing his remarks.
“How tricky you Americans are,” he said. Susskind assured Khrushchev he could be heard as they continued to talk for nearly another half-hour more.
Sukhodrev, eager for the night to end, removed his microphone and nervously rubbed his fingers over the top of it. It made a scrapping sound that viewers heard at home. “I felt this could go on forever,” he recalled.
Running at a stunning 215 minutes and filmed, obviously in black and white, complete with the aforementioned English and Russian translator present, the show is followed by an extensive panel discussion that includes people such as: Dean Edward Barrett of Columbia School of Journalism, Henry Shapiro, James Wechsler, Max Lerner of New York Post, Marguerite Higins and Joe Newman of New York Herald Tribune, Eugene Lyons of Reader's Digest, Blair Fraser of McLean's Magazine & CBC, Harry Schwartz of New York Times, Frank Kanif of Hearst Newspapers and More!
This is a Full Screen Presentation (1.33:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs.