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Khrushchev Visits IBM: A Strange Tale of Silicon Valley History

When the world’s most famous Communist saw one of the West’s greatest capitalist enterprises, he found much to admire—in its food.

Khrushchev Visits IBM: A Strange Tale of Silicon Valley History

IBM president Thomas J. Watson Jr. (to the police officer's left) yuks it up with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (center) at IBM's cafeteria in San Jose, Calif. on September 21, 1959

[Photo: Carl Mydans, The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images]

In September of 1959, Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the Soviet Union and first secretary of its Communist Party, spent 12 days touring the United States. The trip—which occurred during a brief thawing of the Cold War, and was intended to thaw it further—included meetings with notables such as President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, and Eleanor Roosevelt; visits to American institutions such as a movie studio and a supermarket; and encounters with ordinary citizens, including both well-wishers and protesters. It captured the nation’s imagination and dominated newspaper headlines and TV news broadcasts.

Like many Americans who weren’t alive at the time and know anything at all about Khrushchev’s U.S. trip, I’ve been most familiar with it for what it famously didn’t include: a visit to Disneyland.

Despite not really understanding what the Anaheim theme park was all about, the irascible Soviet leader was incensed when his American hosts denied him access to it on security grounds. "For me the situation is inconceivable," he erupted, during an address at a luncheon on the 20th Century Fox lot. "I cannot find words to explain this to my people."

But Khrushchev’s U.S. trip deserves to be remembered for a lot more than that. And on November 18, PBS’s American Experience will document it in a program titled Cold War Roadshow. The episode features new commentary by Khrushchev’s son Sergei, who accompanied his father on the tour.

Among the stops which the show will cover is Khrushchev’s visit to IBM’s facility in San Jose, California on September 21. I didn’t know about it until I heard of Cold War Roadshow—but it’s a fascinating little slice of Silicon Valley history. And the producers were nice enough to provide Fast Company with this exclusive preview of the IBM portion of the show.

After watching that clip, I instinctively wanted to dig deeper into the story of Khrushchev at IBM. The more I learned, the more fascinating the visit got.

IBM Goes West

In 1959, Silicon Valley wasn’t yet known as Silicon Valley—the term didn’t appear in print until 1971—and was still in the earliest stages of becoming a center of technical innovation. Hewlett-Packard had been in business since 1939, but was a maker of scientific equipment, not computers; Shockley Semiconductor and Fairchild Semiconductor, the companies which kickstarted the chip business, were still obscure startups.

New York-based IBM, which first established operations in San Jose in the 1940s, broke ground on a major new facility there in 1956, devoted to both research and manufacturing. It was part of a West Coast expansion effort which also saw the company establishing new presences in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Seattle, and Portland.

In San Jose, the company acquired a couple of hundred acres of walnut groves—agriculture, rather than technology, still being the region's primary business. It cleared the land and erected buildings designed by John Bolles, a noted California architect who designed the San Francisco Giants' Candlestick Park shortly thereafter.

Bolles gave IBM a complex of low-slung, colorful buildings, complemented by touches such as modern sculpture, a reflecting pool, and a central cafeteria with patios for outside dining. Tiles on the exteriors were supposedly meant to evoke the punch cards used by computers of the era.

Vintage photos show an awful lot of male employees in jackets and ties at work at the facility—we’re talking about IBM in the 1950s, after all—but the goal was to create an environment for informal, convivial collaboration.

Part of IBM's newly completed San Jose campusPhoto: Arnold Del Carlo, Sourisseau Academy for State and Local History, San Jose State University

What IBM built was highly unusual in that era, and bore no resemblance to the company’s headquarters, which were then in a 20-story building on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. From the collegiate atmosphere to the attention given to keeping everyone well fed, it’s recognizable as a prototypical tech-company campus of the sort which modern giants of the valley such as Facebook and Google now occupy.

Invitation Accepted

IBM’s president at the time, Thomas J. Watson Jr.—son of the company’s founder—devoted a lengthy section to the Khrushchev visit in his autobiography, Father, Son & Co: My Life at IBM and Beyond. When he heard of Khrushchev’s planned U.S. trip, he saw an opportunity to leverage it to IBM's benefit, and sent the premier a wire inviting him to visit any of the company's plants. He learned that the offer had been accepted when Soviet officials showed up in San Jose to scout things out.

Watson knew that some IBM employees would be unhappy with the notion of the company hosting the leader of the Soviet Union—especially the refugees who the company had hired after Khrushchev crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1956. On factory bulletin boards, the company posted a statement from Watson saying that the visit was not an endorsement of the Khrushchev regime, offering any employee who was irate over the visit two days off with pay.

Khrushchev’s visit to Los Angeles, two days before he reached San Jose, had not gone well. Besides the Disneyland dustup, he squabbled over the relative merits of capitalism and communism with 20th Century Fox President Spyros Skouras at the aforementioned luncheon, in front of guests such as Sammy Davis Jr., Kirk Douglas, Marilyn Monroe, and David Niven. At another event, L.A. Mayor Norris Poulson told Khrushchev that Americans would fight to the death to preserve their way of life, whereupon Khrushchev threatened to cancel the rest of his U.S. trip.

The next day, in San Francisco, was far less tense. When the premier and his entourage arrived at IBM, a crowd estimated at a thousand had gathered, including citizens brandishing signs with slogans such as "AMERICA TOO WANTS PEACE" and "GOD BLESS NIKITA." The photographic evidence suggests that Khrushchev, wearing a white cap which had been given to him by a San Francisco longshoreman earlier in the day, was in a jolly mood.

Khrushchev (at center, in cap) tours IBM San Jose with IBM President Thomas J. Watson Jr. (the silver-haired gent to Khrushchev's left)Photo: courtesy of IBM

The way the visit began—with lunch in IBM’s cafeteria—made him even happier.

In a hall filled with hundreds of workers, Khrushchev and other Soviet dignitaries were presented with trays and told to join the line at the counter. In Father, Son & Co., Watson recalled giving instructions that the cafeteria should serve its standard fare, but that the food turned out fancier than usual.

According to Harrison Salisbury's coverage of the visit in The New York Times, the premier chose onion soup, a basket of fried chicken, fruit salad, iced tea, and a large glass of orange juice. The cafeteria provided plates and bowls that were intentionally on the small side to discourage people from taking too much, but "as we went along I noticed he was heaping his bowl with more and more food," Watson remembered.

IBM's cafeteria offered outdoor seating for alfresco diningPhoto: Arnold Del Carlo, Sourisseau Academy for State and Local History, San Jose State University

The concept of self-serve dining was so unknown in the Soviet Union that Sergei Khrushchev remembered Vyacheslav Petrovich Yelutin, the minister for higher education, failing to notice a gap in the counter, whereupon his tray of food fell to the floor with a clatter. But Khrushchev was smitten with the experience.

What did he like? Just about everything. He admired it so much that he went home and instructed Soviet factories to build cafeterias which mimicked what he'd seen in San Jose.

As he explained in his memoirs:

The management and the employees both ate their in the lunchroom. Like everyone else, we picked up our utensils and went to the window where they give out the meals, they put our food on our plates, and we went back to whatever table we chose, and once we had eaten that dish we could repeat the procedure and get another dish. It was a democratic arrangement. I think the management was deliberately trying to make a demonstration of democracy, and I admit that I liked it very much. In my speeches later on [back in the USSR] I promoted and encouraged this kind of food service for our factories: there was nothing superfluous anywhere in the operation. The surface of the tables in the lunchroom was plastic. All you had to do was wipe it with a damp cloth and the table was clean.

I was informed that the director of the factory also ate in that lunchroom. Unfortunately, in our country at many factories there are separate lunchrooms for the management and for the workers. A huge staff of service personnel has to be kept up. The service is no better for all that; actually, it’s worse. There are long waiting lines constantly, and the workers mutter their dissatisfaction against the way the lunch break is organized. That’s why I recommended to the leaders of our party and trade-union organizations that they adopt this American system.

After lunch, Watson, Khrushchev, and their respective entourages proceeded to the factory floor, where IBM manufactured the 305 RAMAC—the first computer which came with a hard disk. Hard disks themselves had been invented a few years earlier by an IBM team in San Jose led by Reynold B. Johnson.

Announced a year before Khrushchev's visit, the RAMAC had a capacity of a whopping 5 MB, using a hard-drive unit the size of two refrigerators. By storing programs and data on disk, the system ushered in the beginning of the end of the era of punch cards.

Ta-da! IBM's groundbreaking RAMAC computer, the pride of San JosePhoto: Arnold Del Carlo, Sourisseau Academy for State and Local History, San Jose State University

On the factory floor, Khrushchev buttonholed a couple of workers, grilling them on their salaries and expenses for groceries and housing. (According to Salisbury’s report in The New York Times, one made $118 a week, with monthly expenses of $80 for groceries and $100 for the house he was buying.) He gave them medals commemorating the Soviet’s Luna 2 space probe, which had landed on the moon one week earlier.

Khrushchev also "looked at some of the electronic brains that fire back answers to questions even more quickly than he does," snarked Douglas R. Cornell of the Associated Press. "There’s a difference, though. Khrushchev sometimes gets a lot hotter than the machines when he answers."

To make the RAMAC’s cutting-edge technology tangible to its guest, IBM had rigged up a demo which sounds like a 1950s equivalent of it teaching its Watson supercomputer (named for Watson Jr.'s father, IBM's founder) to play world-class Jeopardy more than 50 years later.

Reading Watson Jr. describe it in his autobiography, it sounds like it might still be fun to play with:

The computer demonstration we planned for Khrushchev was pretty dramatic. We had the RAMAC programmed to work like an electronic history book. You could ask it in any of ten languages for the major events of any year from 4 B.C. to the present. Of course, some years were not as eventful as others, but we had something for each year. If you said A.D. 30, for example, the machine would type out "Salome asked for and received the head of John the Baptist." And, more to the point, if you said 1917 it would reply "The Russian Revolution." This demonstration was dear to my heart because I’d thought it up myself.

History, as far as I can tell, doesn’t record what Khrushchev thought of Watson’s electronic history book. In fact, the main thing it says about his reaction to the RAMAC was that he was indifferent.

"Father did not pay any particular attention to the computers during his visit," wrote his son Sergei in Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower. "Only that expected of a guest, and no more."

During joint remarks at IBM's campus, Watson praised Soviet technical accomplishments—"your abilities in rocketry, your sputniks, your moon shot"—and called for greater understanding between the two superpowers. Khrushchev, however, had nothing to say about American technology, from IBM or anyone else. But he did repeatedly praise the cafeteria, and made some jokes about the meal which were probably funnier before being translated into English ("I’ve just left some potatoes behind, but I don’t think I’ll ask for a rebate on that").

Of course, witnessing the ambitious scale of IBM's operations may have put him on the defensive. "On our way back from San Jose, Khrushchev commented on the excellent IBM plant, but said that computers were very highly developed in the Soviet Union too; such things as A-bombs or the H-bomb could have never been developed in the Soviet Union if it hadn't had highly complicated and sophisticated computers," wrote U.S. State Department interpreter Alexander Akalovsky in a memo which recorded his conversations with the premier. "He also said that had he been in charge of the construction of the IBM plant, he would have built it as a two-story structure because, in his view, this was more efficient and economical."

And later that night, at a banquet at the Palace hotel in San Francisco, Khrushchev briefly referenced IBM's products—by commenting that he didn’t understand computers, but that his 24-year-old son probably did.

What did Khrushchev say about IBM’s computers in his memoirs? Not a word. And here's the kicker: He apparently forgot that the cafeteria he found so inspiring was at IBM. In fact, he seems to state that it was at the John Deere factory he visited a day later in Des Moines—which he writes about extensively, agricultural technology being something which he did care about. But as a footnote in the memoirs (edited by Sergei Khrushchev) notes, he was unquestionably referring to his meal at IBM.

Fifty-Five Years Later

Silicon Valley as we came to know it really started to boom around a decade after Khrushchev's visit. Between 1968 and 1976, iconic enterprises such as Intel, Atari, Apple, and Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center sprung up in the region. Though many tech companies built campuses resembling IBM’s San Jose outpost, the nerve center of the valley ended up being a bit to the north, in towns such as Cupertino, Menlo Park, and Mountain View.

Today, the work which began at the campus which Khrushchev visited continues six miles away at the IBM Almaden Research Center, which opened in 1986. A lot of extremely smart people are helping to create the future there, in a gorgeous setting nestled in rolling hills above the valley.

The multicolored tiles on the facade of Lowe's evoke similar ones on the IBM structure which it replacedPhoto: Harry McCracken for Fast Company

Much of the earlier San Jose campus is gone. Building 25, which Khrushchev visited, was once a candidate for historic preservation, but it was gutted by a mysterious fire in 2008; there’s a Lowe’s home improvement center now. Newly constructed apartments and houses occupy land where IBM's hard-disk division once stood.

Another section of ex-IBM land is now a public park, RAMAC Park—maybe the only one on the planet named after a computer.

A few of IBM’s buildings are still standing, but just barely. They’re deserted, in disrepair, and surrounded by chain-link fences and NO TRESPASSING SIGNS. Ominously, steam shovels and other construction equipment are parked nearby, suggesting that the surviving structures may not be long for this world.

An abandoned IBM building in San Jose which has avoided the wrecking ball (for now), with a remnant piece of disassembled sculpture in frontPhoto: Harry McCracken for Fast Company

Time marches on—more quickly in Silicon Valley than most places. But Thomas J. Watson Jr., who died in 1993, would surely find satisfaction in the fact that so many technology companies there continue to build themselves workplaces so reminiscent of the one he pioneered in San Jose in the 1950s. And I'd like to think that Khrushchev, who was pushed out of power in 1964 and died in 1971, might be impressed even today by how well the people who work on those campuses eat.

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