Page last updated at 09:25 GMT, Friday, 6 November 2009

CIA files reveal Cold War leader's anger

By Dominic Blake
BBC News, Portsmouth

Communist Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev
The Ordzhonikidze brought Nikita Khrushchev on a diplomatic visit

A bad-tempered dinner party between Soviet leaders and the Labour Party during the Cold War may have changed the course of history, top secret CIA documents reveal.

Observations of the "fiasco" dinner in 1956 were made in the North American intelligence reports into the first visit to the Western world by leaders of the Soviet Union.

The documents, which also observed the British public's reaction to the Soviets as well as Soviet threats of hydrogen bomb experiments, were obtained by the BBC under Freedom of Information laws.

Communist Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin came to Britain in April 1956 on board warships that docked at Portsmouth.

The CIA intelligence reports show the British government saw the trip as both a diplomatic opportunity and a propaganda hazard.

[Khrushchev] added the threat that the USSR had plenty of space to experiment with the hydrogen bomb
CIA documents

It was desperate to avoid the kind of triumphant tour the Soviets had enjoyed on recent visits to India and Burma, and deeply concerned about Soviet efforts to forge links with the Labour Party, then led by Hugh Gaitskell.

The Soviets spent eight full days in Britain, and their schedule included three days of talks at Downing Street.

They had dinner with Prime Minister Anthony Eden twice, and visited him at Chequers.

But Bulganin and Khrushchev appeared surprised and frustrated with the cool reception they received from the British public.

The classified CIA documents state: "For the most part crowds have greeted the Soviet leaders in silence, or with more jeers than cheers.

"Khrushchev has shown his irritation by intemperate and even threatening remarks."

Bad to worse

Meanwhile, the CIA, MI6 and the Naval Intelligence were all involved in a mission which put divers under the Soviet warships at Portsmouth.

One of the frogmen, Cdr Lionel Crabb, famously vanished during the operation on 19 April 1956, forcing the British authorities to cobble together a hasty cover story.

The Royal Navy said he was feared drowned in Stokes Bay - some miles to the west of Portsmouth Harbour.

Since then, a Russian frogman claimed he cut the Englishman's throat as he caught him placing a mine.

Commander Lionel "Buster" Crabb
British diver "Buster" Crabb disappeared during the Soviet visit

And the man who formally identified a headless body of a diver as that of Cdr Crabb has said he was told to lie.

Cdr Crabb's fate is still a closely-guarded secret.

From the Soviet point of view, the diplomatic mission went from bad to worse.

A dinner with Labour Party leaders on 23 April 1956 is described in the CIA reports as "a fiasco", undermining the Soviet plan to establish ties with Western European socialists.

"Khrushchev antagonized the Labor (sic) leaders by repeating charges he made in India that Britain and France had urged Hitler to attack the USSR, and by defending the Stalin-Hitler pact," the CIA documents said.

"He further angered them by warning that if the West persisted in re-arming West Germany, the USSR would have no alternative but to seek an alliance with those forces in West Germany who desire an alliance.

"He added the threat that the USSR had plenty of space to experiment with the hydrogen bomb."

'Simple-minded man'

Labour leaders replied with a plea for the release of Soviet Social Democrats and trade unionists in the USSR and satellites, which Khrushchev angrily rejected.

"Khrushchev was heard to say that he found it much easier to talk to the Conservatives than to the British Labour Party," the documents continue.

"His surprise and anger was matched by their disgust at his performance, and one described him privately as a 'simple-minded man who would be capable of holding only a secondary position in a British trade union'."

Of all the developments, Khrushchev's clash with the Labor Party may have the most lasting effect in Britain
CIA documents

Meanwhile, Soviet propaganda claimed the visit was a great success.

Pravda reported crowds of thousands cheering to welcome Bulganin and Khrushchev in their public appearances with only "occasional hostile shouts" and anti-Soviet posters carried by "hooligans".

Nothing was said about the disastrous Labour Party dinner.

A CIA review of the visit, dated 3 May 1956, states: "Bulganin and Khrushchev must be acutely conscious of the striking contrast between the small, cool and sometimes hostile crowds which greeted them in the streets of British cities and the cheering throngs they met in India.

"Khrushchev's angry response to this contributed to the failure of the visit from a public relations point of view."

In its summary, the CIA said: "Of all the developments, Khrushchev's clash with the Labor Party may have the most lasting effect in Britain.

"His abrupt dismissal of demands for the release of social democrats brought a rare degree of unity to the opposition. A resolution criticizing party leader Gaitskell's conduct toward the Soviet visitors achieved only 10 votes at a 26 April meeting of the Parliamentary Labor Party."

Gaitskell later told Khrushchev it was impossible for him to accept an invitation from the Communist Party to visit the USSR.

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