A 50-Year-Old Russian TV Show That Changed History
In spring 1958, I was about to graduate from Columbia College and head off as a draftee for a two-year stint in the Army. We were in the thick of the Cold War. Eisenhower was president and in Russia, a bellicose, bald little tyrant named Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Communist Party, was claiming missile superiority over the United States and constantly threatening us with nuclear annihilation.
The mainstay of American defense was a growing fleet of giant Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses that the Strategic Air Command (SAC), under super hawk Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, kept in the air 24/7, loaded with nuclear bombs and missiles, and ready to head into Russia on receipt of a coded order over the radio. America's Cold War strategy was MAD-Mutually Assured Destruction-whereby if one of the big firecrackers on either side went off, each of us would blow the other to hell. Kids in schools were taught to dive under their desks in air raid drills, and back yards all across the land had fully stocked bomb shelters.
These were very tense times.
In April 1958, for a brief and glorious moment, all the angst and terror vanished amid a sudden lovefest between the people of Russia and America.
It was a one-night stand, to be sure, but oh my, it was thrilling.
The Texas Phee-nom
In the 1950s and early 1960s, television was not a worldwide medium. For example, in order to bring the television coverage of Winston Churchill's funeral in 1965 to an American audience, the raw kinescopes (black-and-white movies of what the TV cameras saw) were flown over to the U.S. on a 707 jet airliner, edited in transit and shown here later in the day.
The first reports from Moscow were sketchy. An obscure American pianist had won something called a piano competition and had created mayhem in the Russian capital. As reported in the April 21, 1958, issue of TIME: