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This Soviet Leader Was Barred From Visiting Disneyland For One Bizarre Reason

By Mathew Cohen

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The date was September 15, 1959, when Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev arrived in the United States with his wife. At a time when Cold War tension between the United States and the USSR was at boiling point, Khrushchev’s tour of America seemed to come at an opportune moment, especially since a personal meeting with President Eisenhower awaited the Communist Party First Secretary at the end. But what started as an enjoyable and promising trip soon turned sour, with one ludicrous moment resulting in Khrushchev’s visit to Disneyland being canceled — and the rest of his time in America taking an ugly downward turn.

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As Soviet Premier Khrushchev landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland with his wife and children, a warm welcome awaited him. With hundreds of onlookers in attendance, American President Eisenhower greeted the family, and Krushchev thanked him for his hospitality. While it seemed as if there may have finally been a glimmer of hope for peace, this feeling didn’t last long.Keep Watching

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That night, Khrushchev attended an elegant dinner at the White House, during which both the Soviet Premier and Eisenhower gave speeches about their hope for understanding between the two nations. This was followed by a meeting in the Oval Office when Khrushchev gave Eisenhower a replica of the Lunik II space probe that had landed on the moon the previous day. Already, the two were getting competitive.

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Over the next few days, Khrushchev and his family took in the sights and sounds of New York City. After being greeted by Big Apple Mayor Robert F. Wagner, the Krushchevs enjoyed gatherings with the Economic Club of New York, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the United Nations General Assembly. After a tour of Manhattan, Khrushchev would be on a flight to sunny Los Angeles — towards Walt Disney’s incredible new theme park.

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Despite his initial politeness, Khrushchev exhibited his unfiltered opinions throughout his trip. As Eleanor Roosevelt recalled during their meeting “He enjoyed nothing. A man behind him all the time kept whispering, ‘Seven minutes, seven minutes.'” After seeing the Empire State building, an unimpressed Khrushchev proclaimed, “If you’ve seen one skyscraper, you’ve seen them all.” But what did Americans think of this Soviet leader?

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Up until this point, numerous prominent Americans had the honor of meeting the Soviet Premier. He certainly wasn’t camera-ready, to say the least. With a mole on his cheek, a potbelly, and a gap between his teeth, Krushchev was a rare sight, especially given his peculiar table manners. Still, his trip would become even more intriguing.

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Before departing New York City, Khrushchev gave a somewhat controversial farewell address. After commending the people of New York for their hospitality, the Soviet leader surprisingly expressed regret, stating that he wished to meet the ordinary New Yorkers who are “the backbone of the life of the city.” Still, the main controversy was yet to come.

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That Saturday morning, Khrushchev arrived in Los Angeles, where he was incredibly keen to come into contact with the finest talents that Hollywood had to offer. As soon as he disembarked the aircraft, he and his family were whisked away to 20th Century Fox, where he and his wife were soon to be wined and dined. But things weren’t all that peachy.

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First up on the tour of the 20th Century Fox Studios was a visit to the sound stage for the movie Can-Can. As soon as he set foot on the set, Khrushchev was swarmed by cast members of the hit musical. Female stars Shirley MacLaine and Juliet Prowse were first to greet the Russian statesman, with MacLaine even greeting him in broken Russian. And this was just the start of the festivities.

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While MacLaine attempted to engage the Premier in an impromptu dance, Khrushchev politely declined, allowing the cast to perform a number from their new movie. Soon enough, Khrushchev came face-to-face with legendary crooner Frank Sinatra, who acted as impromptu master of ceremonies for the event. But the thrills and spills didn’t end there.

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Shortly after being surprised by Sinatra, Khrushchev came face-to-face with Marilyn Monroe. According to Monroe’s maid Lena Pepitone, “They told Marilyn that in Russia, America meant two things, Coca-Cola and Marilyn Monroe” — a line which prompted Marilyn to attend. Little did the elated Khrushchev know that his trip was soon to take an unpleasant turn.

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Following the tour of 20th Century Fox, Khrushchev and the extensive list of Hollywood icons all headed to the Café de Paris for a lavish lunch. As expected, the venue was packed to capacity with the finest A-listers that Hollywood had to offer. Once the meal was done, Khrushchev headed to the Los Angeles Town Hall. There, he ran into his first major hiccup.

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Mbarrach / Wikimedia Commons

While at the town hall, Khrushchev was introduced by 20th Century Fox President Spyros P. Skouras. As a Greek immigrant to the United States as well as a success story resulting from capitalism, Skouras was highly opposed to Soviet ideologies. During his speech, he made his strong views known.

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In reference to an earlier speech of Khrushchev where he spoke of “burying” capitalism, Skouras stated that Los Angeles was not looking to “bury” anything, but would be ready to meet any challenges. These words infuriated Khrushchev, who became convinced that this was part of a campaign to anger him while on tour. Khrushchev would not allow Skouras’s remarks to slide.

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Speaking directly to Skouras, an enraged Khrushchev declared, “If you want to go on with the arms race, very well. We accept that challenge. As for the output of rockets — well, they are on the assembly line.” US politician Henry Cabot Lodge did his best to smooth things over, explaining that Skouras’ remarks did not reflect the views of the national Government. That temporary peace didn’t last for long.

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Eager to forget the events that took place at the Los Angeles Town Hall, Khrushchev redirected his focus to his highly-anticipated trip to Disneyland. While eager to give his wife and kids a vacation to remember, the Soviet Premier was greeted by yet another wrench in the works.

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While Khrushchev was being transported in a motorcade, one onlooker threw a tomato at his vehicle, only for the squishy substance to hit the car of William Parker, the Chief of Police at the Los Angeles Police Department. While a seemingly harmless incident, the security concerns for the Khrushchev camp grew tenfold.

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Following the “tomato” incident, Parker and the other members of Krushchev’s security detail began to grow concerned about the potential security threats that could arise at a crowded public place such as the bustling Disneyland theme park. Yet again, the Soviet ruler would become enraged during what was supposed to be a harmonious trip.

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In addition to using a Geiger counter to test Krushchev’s food, US authorities decided that allowing Khrushchev and his family to enter Disneyland would pose too great a security threat for the family. Naturally, the Soviet ruler was not amused by this change of events.

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Infuriated that his Disneyland trip had been canceled, Khrushchev let loose on the security staff: “What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place that can destroy me?” Nevertheless, the Russian Premier continued the Californian leg of his tour before heading up to Camp David for a crucial summit with President Eisenhower.

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While the summit enabled the two leaders to discuss important topics such as disarmament and the situation in Berlin, no notable agreements were reached. Even with Eisenhower and Khrushchev stating that they had developed a greater understanding of one another, this summit did nothing to halt the building Cold War tension.

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America was already flirting with war after Russia had deployed nuclear weapons in Cuba, 90 miles from the U.S. coast. The resulting tensions lasted only a month but instilled a permanent fear in U.S. officials that Russia might try a second round. Sure enough, shortly after the Crisis ended, Americans heard the Soviets had lost a submarine in Pacific waters.

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If the Soviets found the submarine first, they’d have the upper hand if they wanted to start a nuclear war. But if Americans found it first, they’d finally hold the key to Russia’s nuclear secrets. The clock was ticking. Understandably, the Soviets were in a panic.

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Wikipedia / CIA Photo | Public Domain

Somehow, the submarine they’d managed to misplace was one of their most advanced nuclear vessels, known as K-129. It was stocked with weapons and the Soviet Union’s biggest military secrets, and after sinking for unknown reasons, it’d ended up somewhere deep in the Pacific Ocean. When the U.S. caught wind, the CIA formed a secret search party of their own.

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Unlike the Soviets, who were using outdated methods to find the submarine, the Americans used modern Air Force tracking technology. After only a few weeks of searching, their system picked up a signal 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii. At first, it seemed like a good sign, but problems quickly arose.

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If this signal did belong to the lost submarine, they were in trouble: it was over 16,500 feet below the surface. Nobody had ever retrieved a large object from that depth before. The attempt would cost billions of dollars. However, news of Russia’s growing arsenal and nuclear advancements had also reached U.S. officials, and they desperately needed intel to prevent another crisis. Was the expense worth it?

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According to the researchers, not only would the submarine contain Soviet-made nuclear weapons, but even better, it’d hold top-secret code books with crucial Soviet intel. That was all President Nixon needed to secretly approve the project, and in 1969, he gave it the go. After all, the U.S. had just landed men on the moon; Americans were bursting with national pride and felt confident they’d find K-129.

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Facebook / Haditechnika Lexikon

Before they could begin, the CIA needed to solve a seemingly impossible task: lifting the submarine up from the ocean floor. They considered using a sudden rush of gas pressure, but such a move could damage the vessel and activate any weapons onboard. The team would have to find a safer solution that wouldn’t put them, or nearby civilians, at risk.

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The solution the CIA came up with was dubbed “Project Azorian.” The mission: to build a giant, hollowed-out ship, equipped with a claw-like structure. This claw would pull K-129 up from the ocean floor and into the hollow space, which they named the “moon pool.” Experts estimated a dismal 10% chance of success — but failure wasn’t even the biggest concern.

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The Americans feared that taking the submarine could lead the Soviets to accuse them of piracy, which could then cause another nuclear standoff. To avoid this, they needed a solid cover-up. How could they construct a giant ship with the purpose of excavating K-129 without the Russians getting wind of their plan?

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The answer lay in media gossip. In 1972, a champagne-popping ceremony was held with dozens of rich attendees to celebrate the completion of a new ship. According to the press, it was a scientific vessel, called the Hughes Glomar Explorer, which would do deep-sea excavations for underwater research. Howard Hughes, the business magnate, was even said to have bankrolled it. The public never guessed the truth.

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In reality, the CIA had gotten Hughes to play ball, naming the ship, which was secretly Project Azorian, after him. Hughes agreed to fein responsibility for financing the ship so foreign officials would never guess the government was invovled. Although the 618-foot-long Explorer was scheduled to sail from the Atlantic Ocean, then secretly make its way over to the Pacific, the CIA had more work to do to convince the press.

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Due to the exclusion of reporters at the big launch, the Los Angeles Times said that the ship was “shrouded in secrecy.” No one, not even Hughes, had an answer to where the ship was headed. However, the press was accustomed to bizarre behavior from the reclusive Hughes — and when they eventually lost interest, the plan was ready to set into motion.

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Snappy Goat

With the perfect cover up in place, the ship took off. It was so big, however, that it wouldn’t fit through the Panama Canal. To make it to the Pacific, the Explorer would have to travel south through the Atlantic, all the way to the tip of South America, then loop around and head back up north. And before heading to Hawaii, it needed to make a pit stop.

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The ship secretly docked in Long Beach, California, where workers stuffed the hold full of supplies. To properly search for K-129, the team would need nuclear waste handling equipment, advanced machinery, diving suits, and more. The only element missing was the most important of them all: the giant claw meant for grabbing K-129 from the ocean floor.

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The claw, which was given the nickname “Clementine,” was built on a floating barge off the coast of San Francisco. When the Explorer came near, the barge opened up its roof to reveal the claw, which was then transported up through the moon pool of the ship. The barge then returned to the mainland unnoticed, while the ship sped out to sea — but the danger wasn’t over.

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Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain

On deck, Explorer crewmembers stacked hundreds of crates, in fear of Soviet helicopters trying to board. It was a tense ride until they finally reached the signal’s location. When they did, Clementine was released, and the claw descended thousands of miles below the water’s surface, growing closer and closer to the signal. Finally, it hit something!

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Clementine grasped onto the object, affirming that this was indeed K-129. Now, the team was tasked with pulling the vessel up through thousands of miles of pressure without destroying — or detonating — the objects onboard. As K-129 was lifted up from the ocean floor, more problems arose as quickly as the submarine itself did.

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Bellona Foundation / Wikimedia Commons

Pieces of K-129 began to break off, including some of the arms and parts of the vessel. But Clementine continued to yank, keeping a firm grasp on the main hull. Finally, the submarine roared to the the water’s surface and up into the moon pool. But celebrations weren’t in order yet — the CIA still needed to investigate K-129. And the things they discovered in the Soviet submarine were initially too dangerous to reveal.

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Courtesy of the International Spy Museum

For years, the CIA said the mission had failed. Vince Houghton, coordinator for the International Spy Museum, said, “[The CIA has] allowed that belief to be what everyone understands, but why would they not?” However, civilian sleuths realized that the CIA had dropped $300 million, or $2 billion with inflation, on the job, and knew there had to be more secrets. Sure enough, the first confirmed discovery from K-129 was a gruesome one.

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Wikipedia / U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Rob Gaston | Public Domain

Aboard the submarine were the bodies of several Soviet soldiers, whom the U.S. gave proper military burials at sea. The ceremony was filmed, but it wasn’t sent to the Russian government or the families of the deceased until 20 years later. By then, other questions had arisen: were there also nuclear weapons on board? Did the CIA discover Russia’s biggest military secrets? Luckily, the International Spy Museum got answers.

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Courtesy of the International Spy Museum

The museum holds K-129’s battered control panel, showing just how damaged the vessel was upon recovery. Visitors can also view the wig worn by CIA deputy director Vernon Walters during his secret visit to the Explorer‘s celebration party. The CIA refused to say whether they found top-secret Soviet resources…but the fact that the exhibit is in a museum is a major clue to its importance. Moreover, we have clues about how K-129 sunk in the first place.

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Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Image

According to pictures surfaced in the 2010 documentary, Azorian: The Raising of the K-129, there was heavy damage in the left missile tube, indicating that a weapon may have detonated unexpectedly. But there are many theories out there today, including a sudden flood, collision with a larger vessel, and even a fist fight on board. Houghton explains why this billion-dollar mission stands out:

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Photo by Ian Tyas/Keystone Features/Getty Images

“It’s so bold, so ambitious, and it almost was guaranteed to fail,” says Houghton, adding that Project Azorian remains “legendary within the [intelligence] community.” Five decades later, the CIA continues to look back on Project Azorian to inform their top-secret missions. Many are almost too wild to believe, and some were actually catastrophic “failures,” even more so than Azorian supposedly was.

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