Robert Frost Confronts Khrushchev
It was characteristic of Robert Frost that in his mid-eighties he should stand up to the most demanding occasions of his career. His triumphant tours of England and Scotland were followed by his trip to Israel and by his reading at the Inauguration, and then, at President Kennedy’s urging, he accepted the invitation to visit the Soviet Union. This is what took place, as recorded by F. D. REEVE, poet, critic, and professor of Russian literature at Wesleyan University,who served as Mr. Frost’s interpreter.
BY F. D. REEVE
THE mountains of the Caucasus lay beneath us like brown fishbacks on an azure sea. We were flying at 10,000 feet. The whole world was bright. Down in the olive-dark valleys there were roads and rivers, lying like twisted wisps of thread on a dark carpet. You could see houses and long barns and fields.
We were a planeload of vacationers, of pale city people headed for three weeks of watermelons and sun. Except four of us. Four of us were vacationers of a kind, all right, but we weren’t coming for watermelons and sun. Besides me, there were Robert Frost, Aleksei Surkov, poet and representative of the Soviet Writers’ Union, and Anatoly Myshkov, an able translator from the American desk of the Soviet Foreign Office.
Frost had dozed intermittently during the flight. The plane had hummed along, vibrating soporifically as machines do, and Frost had kept napping. The others talked.
Ever since the end of July, when President Kennedy had asked Frost to go, the poet had thought of the role he would play, of how he wanted to see Premier Khrushchev. To the President’s request to represent the United States in a cultural exchange, Frost had replied by letter on July 24 :
DEAR MR. PRESIDENT:
How grand for you to think of me this way and how like you to take the chance of sending anyone like me over there affinatizing with the Russians. You must know a lot about me besides my rank from my poems but think how the professors interpret the poems! I am almost as full of politics and history as you are. I like to tell the story of the mere sailor-boy from upstate New York who by favor of his captain and the American consul at St. Petersburg got to see the Czar in St. Petersburg with the gift in his hand of an acorn that fell from a tree that stood by the house of George Washington. That was in the 1830’s when proud young Americans were equal to anything. He said to the Czar, “Washington was a great ruler and you’re a great ruler and I thought you might like to plant the acorn with me by your palace.”And so he did. I have been having a lot of historical parallels lately: a big one between Caesar’s imperial democracy that made so many millions equal under arbitrary power and the Russian democracy. Ours is a more Senatorial democracy like the Republic of Rome. I have thought I saw the Russian and the American democracies drawing together, theirs easing down from a kind of abstract severity to taking less and less care of the masses: ours creeping up to taking more and more care of the masses as they grew innumerable. I see us becoming the two great powers of the modern world in noble rivalry while a third power of United Germany, France, and Italy, the common market, looks on as an expanded polyglot Switzerland.
I shall be reading poems chiefly, over there, but I shall be talking some where I read and you may be sure I won’t be talking just literature. I’m the kind of Democrat that will reason. You know my admiration for your “Profiles.” I am frightened by this big undertaking but I was more frightened at your Inauguration. I am glad Stewart [Udall, Secretary of the Interior] will be along to take care of me. He has been a good influence in my life. And Fred[erick] Adams [Director] of the Morgan Library. I had a very good talk with Anatoly Dobrynin [Soviet ambassador at Washington] in Washington last May. You probably know that my Adams House at Harvard has an oil portrait of one of our old boys, Jack Reed [John Reed, the newspaper reporter and author of Ten Days that Shook the World, who is buried in the Kremlin wall], which nobody has succeeded in making us take down.
Forgive the long letter. I don’t write letters but you have stirred my imagination and I have been interested in Russia as a power ever since Rurik came to Novgorod; and these are my credentials. I could go on with them like this to make the picture complete: about the English-speaking world of England, Ireland, Canada, and Australia, New Zealand and Us versus the Russian-speaking world for the next century or so, mostly a stand-off but now and then a showdown to test our mettle. The rest of the world would be Asia and Africa, more or less negligible for the time being, though it needn’t be too openly declared. Much of this would be the better for not being declared openly but kept always in the back of our minds in all our diplomatic and other relations. I am describing not so much what ought to be but what is and will be — reporting and prophesying. This is the way we are one world, as you put it, of independent nations interdependent — the separateness of the parts as important as the connection of the parts. Great times to be alive, aren’t they? Sincerely yours,
Frost’s eminence at eighty-eight allowed him the privilege of assuming a simplicity that was not naturally his. It also constrained him to require of himself and his intelligence a solution, or the formulation of a “problem,” in dramatically simple but profound terms. He wasn’t pretending to be a sailor boy, but he felt he represented his people. He was going to see the chief political officer of the Soviet Union — the other great country in the world, Frost often said — and he would have liked to have proposed a gesture as simple and as meaningful as the sailor boy’s. Nevertheless, for all his repetition of the sailor boy’s story and for all his talk of a horse trade with the Russians, he himself was aware that the world had changed since the 1830s, since his own boyhood in the 1880s, even since his first popular success in the 1920s, and he was unsure that the political role he would have liked to play was playable at all. Still, he said, he was going to tell the Russians what he meant — but he half doubted that they would understand.
Frost had flown back to Moscow from Leningrad Wednesday morning, September 5. Wednesday evening he gave a poetry reading at the Foreign Literature Library. He didn’t know that Secretary Udall was going down to Gagra the following morning to see Premier Khrushchev. We tried to find out if anything could be done to have Frost invited also, but though arrangements for Frost’s visit had been initiated some time previously, nothing seemed forthcoming; and we knew Frost would be piqued, would feel deceived, would raise hell and curse us all out if he didn’t go. One of us even tried to reach the airport Thursday morning before the plane left, but the secretary’s party left earlier than announced, and we missed them. When he heard about it, Frost was annoyed — he said all his friends were running out on him — but he was mollified by our insisting that Secretary Udall surely had had to go on his own business and maybe he was arranging Frost’s visit, too. Frost finally dismissed the incident with a wave of his hand, as if to say we were all damned liars and no-goods (he regularly twitted translators about “cheating” on him), and turned to the activity at hand — taping a television poetry reading and discussion with Yevtushenko and Surkov. He had given two readings to large and unusually enthusiastic audiences. He had acquired a sense that he was respected and liked sincerely as a poet there in that alien land. He was confident, though extremely tired.
On Thursday evening, as we dined at the Jack Matlocks’ (he was an officer of the American embassy), and Frost with pleasure ate American food and joked with the Matlocks’ small children, the invitation came through. Matlock answered a phone call and returned beaming — Frost was invited to visit Khrushchev the next day, leaving Moscow on a jet flight at 8 A.M.
We went back to the hotel around ten thirty. On the way, Frost suddenly said he felt wobbly, unwell. Fred Adams, an old and cherished friend, lightly teased and coddled him. Perhaps it was passing indigestion.
Back in his room, Frost swallowed some stomach stiffener, which he didn’t like at all. He continued to feel worse. We talked to him about alternatives, about what he would think of himself afterward if he didn’t go. We persuaded him to decide nothing until the morning. He was to leave the hotel at 6:30. We’d be in at 5:45, we said; there would be some breakfast at 6:00. Then we could decide everything. We said good night, and he shut his door. He didn’t like you “to do” for him, though when he wanted something he had to have it right away.
Outside in the corridor, Adams and I talked a while longer. He knew some of Frost’s previous illnesses and Frost’s special ways. We both agreed that Frost was, above all, suddenly extremely nervous. For we knew how he prepared himself for a poetry reading, how he would spend an hour or two by himself in his room beforehand, and how he would dine only afterward. The impending trip was no mere reading. And he was so deeply committed to his poetic-propheticpolitical role that, of course, he had to be nervous. But if he was, also, sick? If he were to get sicker? We agreed to decide everything in the morning — or, really, by daylight, for by now it was almost dawn.
ADAMS’ alarm clock rang. He woke me. We dressed, went to Frost. He said he was worse but would go to Gagra. “That’s what I came for,” he said. Adams and I asked Frost which of us he wanted along. He joked about Freddy’s Russian and about his absolutely needing me. “We’re in this all together, aren’t we?” he said. And we all agreed we were indeed. By 6:30 we were downstairs, ready to meet Surkov. By 8:15 we were in the air.
At 10:50 we were at the airport outside Sochi. A delegation met us, the same government officials and engineers who had greeted Udall the day before, and escorted us to a waiting limousine, a black Chaika with curtains around the windows and a chauffeur who drove as fast as hell, one hand on the horn. An hour later we had crossed the Ukrainian-Georgian border and driven up to the guesthouse of the Georgian S.S.R. Ministry of Health. We were to wash, rest, eat a little, and then drive another twenty minutes to the Prime Minister’s dacha.
A dining room and lounge were downstairs. Frost’s and my room was on the second floor. A balcony outside overlooked a lush subtropical garden of palms, bananas, orange and lemon trees. The sea lay beyond, azure and beautiful in the yellow southern light.
Frost felt worse. He lay down. He napped. He complained that his stomach hurt more. No, he didn’t want anything to eat or drink, just some “perry,” he said, meaning the pear-flavored soda he had taken a liking to.
The rest of us in the group sat down to lunch in the dining room, somewhat confused. Our hosts were upset; Surkov and Myshkov were somewhat incredulous and much concerned; I was as nervous as Frost. I kept leaving the table and looking in on him. The second time that I asked him if he wanted a doctor, he said yes.
The host at the guesthouse came in. YVe took Frost’s temperature. Frost said he couldn’t go any farther. I said we’d better call a doctor. Twenty minutes later a young girl (most doctors in Russia are women) came walking up the hill. She wore a long white frock and carried her little doctor’s bag. She measured Frost’s temperature, took his pulse, listened to his chest and back, suggested he drink some soup or tea, agreed that he wasn’t very well but that he didn’t seem really sick. It seemed, she said, to be a case of indigestion and probably the strain of so much traveling. She agreed that if it was something serious, he ought to be in Moscow. Frost kept saying he couldn’t go any farther, he just couldn’t.
I told Surkov that Frost couldn’t travel any farther, that he was done in. I went back to Frost and Surkov got on the phone. Fifteen minutes later he came back and said that the Premier was sending his own doctor over and would soon follow himself. Khrushchev had made the gesture of a master. When I told Frost what would happen, he was obviously relieved — and yet, also, even more nervous, for the meeting was imminent.
Time passed. Frost dozed. The rest of us in our shirt sleeves stood out on the balcony overlooking the sea, talking, saying how we would like to stay on and go swimming there. The young doctor sat downstairs by herself and kept coming up to check on Frost. I looked in every few minutes.
Surkov pleaded business and disappeared, Myshkov with him. I kept walking up and down along the balcony. For what seemed a long time there was nobody around. Just the palms and the sea, the stucco walls, and Frost, dozing.
I was in the room when suddenly Khrushchey’s doctor came in. He was a suntanned, attractive man, slim, middle-aged, with glasses and a tan nankeen jacket. He was all business. He examined Frost very carefully, just as the other doctor had done, but with the authority that comes of confidence and position. He asked me for Frost’s medical history, how long we had traveled, and I answered as I could, citing Frost’s previous internal disorder, stating when we had arrived, and insisting that, for a number of reasons, we had to get back to Moscow that night. Frankly,
I didn’t think Frost could stand being isolated in this resort town. And the doctor kept nodding significantly and suggesting that Frost was just worn out. Frost’s temperature was 101.5 degrees.
The doctor rose, recommended diet and rest, and left the room. I told Frost that Khrushchev would come soon.
Everything was quiet again. The palm leaves outside the windows rose and fell slowly like broad fans. Frost shut his eyes. I started to read a book but couldn’t concentrate for as much as a sentence. Minutes of waiting stretched out like days. I kept going out into the hall to check the clock.
Nobody came. Nothing happened. I went out to see if, indeed, the Premier had come. I noticed a man out front and called to him. He stared hard at me, said he knew nothing, and disappeared inside. He didn’t come back. With a strange uneasiness, as if in a haunted castle, though it was bright and sunny everywhere, I went back in and out onto the balcony. Where had everybody gone?
I turned a corner on the balcony and suddenly saw, sitting at the table where an hour before Surkov, Myshkov, and I had been making small talk, Khrushchev and Surkov in discussion.
Our time was getting shorter and shorter, and Frost was getting worse waiting. A moment later Surkov presented me to the Premier. I said Frost was not very well, very grateful to have had the doctor, extremely pleased that the Premier had come to the guesthouse, and very anxious to see him. Khrushchev’s doctor appeared, and Khrushchev asked him for a diagnosis. The doctor gave a detailed and authentic account. Khrushchev summed it up by asking whether it meant he could see Frost or not. The doctor said he could. Khrushchev said, let’s go.
WHEN I told Frost the Premier was coming, he swung himself up onto the edge of his bed. He put shoes and socks on. The Russians came in. We moved some chairs over. Khrushchev sat on one, right beside Frost. Myshkov sat on Frost’s bed, translating Frost into Russian. I sat on the opposite bed, translating Khrushchev into English. Surkov sat on a chair at the foot of one bed; Lebedev, the Premier’s secretary, sat on a chair at the foot of the other. The host of the guesthouse sat in another chair. The door and windows were open, and you could see the water in the distance.
Frost wore shirt and trousers. Khrushchev wore a natty summer suit, olive-tan in color, over a pale-beige Russian blouse. He was suntanned and healthy-looking, full of vigor, and extremely courteous. He asked about Frost’s health, chided him for not taking care of himself, expressed admiration at Frost’s traveling so far, said how pleased he was to see him, reminded him to be sure to follow the doctors’ orders if he was going to live to be one hundred. Frost, for his part, said that he was very glad to have come, that he was very pleased by the invitation, that you could never trust doctors anyway, and that he was certainly going to live to be one hundred because in the year he would be one hundred his country would be two hundred. It was something, he said, being half as old as your country.
Khrushchev asked him how he had found his stay in Russia, how he had been received. Frost replied that he had had a fine time, that the Premier certainly had done a lot for poetry, judging by all the poems that were published and by all the poets around. They talked briefly about art and poetry and the artist’s relation to his society. Frost conveyed the President’s greetings to the Premier and expressed his gratitude to those who had arranged his trip.
And with that the real conversation began. Khrushchev wondered if Frost had anything special in mind, and Frost started talking about what had long lain closest to his heart: a way for working out an East-West understanding.
He didn’t talk down coexistence, as some of his Republican friends wanted him to do. He made it clear from the first that he assumed the Soviet system was here to stay; that, like it or not, socialism was inevitable; and that he admired Premier Khrushchev for the audacity and courage with which he used power. Frost didn’t doubt coexistence— though he never used the word; he referred to “rivalry” — but he did worry about the moral quality of the leaders of both sides and, therefore, about the permanence of their accomplishments. For he believed, some time before his Russian trip, that the morality of politicians determined their historical merit. He seriously meant that the 1960 presidential election was symptomatic of an Augustan revival. The vigor of the age, he felt, promised a brilliant future.
He believed that the top thing a government could bestow was character. This was the poet’s role in government. A great nation makes great poetry, and great poetry makes a great nation, he repeated to Khrushchev what he had often said. He told the Premier that there should be no petty squabbles, that there must be a noble rivalry between Russia and the United States, forcefully and magnanimously pressed by the leaders of both sides. At our level, said Frost to Khrushchev, there must be candid understanding.
Frost talked briefly about cultural exchange, said that it was a good thing but that it didn’t go very far, didn’t amount to much. And besides, he added, that’s not where the real power is anyway. We’re laid out for rivalry in sports, science, art, democracy, he said. That’s the real test, which democracy’s going to win?
And the talk moved into the tense world of international politics and national prestige. The more Frost tried to bear down on his “modest proposals” for effecting a Berlin solution in the light of his own notion of political magnanimity, the more Khrushchev pointed out the hard reasoning supporting his own convictions. In response to Frost’s suggestion of reuniting the two halves of Berlin, the Premier castigated the military organization of NATO, the recrudescence of Nazi power in West Germany, and the irresponsible politics of the Western allies in allowing Germany to become a threat to the peace once more. Frost said it wouldn’t be a threat if united and demilitarized and given a commercial trade route. Khrushchev said it wasn’t a threat actually anyway, any more than NATO was, because Soviet rockets could blast all Europe to smithereens in less than thirty minutes. If you really want to do something to regularize the situation, the Premier proposed, sign a peace treaty. That, he said, was what had happened in Austria, and look how stable the situation was there. The Premier told Frost that President Kennedy himself had said he wanted to sign a peace treaty but couldn’t because of conditions, because of conditions at home. Frost reasserted his abhorrence of the idea that bickering over Berlin, on what he considered basically an irrelevant issue, might provoke a huge war between the two giants of the world, the two countries to whom, he said, the next one hundred years belong. The Premier said that the Warsaw Pact countries were forging ahead economically and that they would soon overtake the Common Market. And Frost came back to his theme of horse trading, of recognizing the present limits of political power and the continual drawing closer together of the capitalist and the planned economies, of what he called the democracy straining up toward socialism and the socialist democracy humanizing downward from the severity of its ideal.
When pressed on Berlin, the Premier said that the West had no proper claim to East Berlin at all, that it was “ours.” There is nothing to trade, he said. He in turn proposed that Frost ask his President and his countrymen once more to consider establishing Berlin as a free city, garrisoned by UN troops, with (under these conditions) boundaries and access guaranteed by the Russians.
There was no doubt that both men were confident of the spirit of their countries and of the military power behind each. Each man indicated that he and his country were willing to compete with the other. Frost said that, if there had to be a fight, it should be a big one, a basic one. But he advocated rivalry in everything else, in sports, business, arts — a rivalry which, he said, God wanted. God wants us to contend, he said; you have progress only in conflict. Premier Khrushchev said that the fundamental conflict between the two countries was peaceful economic competition. He said that the Soviet Union and all the Warsaw Pact nations were young countries, healthy, vital, full of energy. He said they had made extraordinary strides forward. The United States and Western Europe, he said, were thousands of years old with a defunct economic system. This reminded him, he said, of an anecdote reported in Gorki’s memoirs of Tolstoi, where Tolstoi told about being too old and too weak and too infirm to do it but still having the desire. Frost chuckled and said that might be true for the two of them but that the United States was too young to worry about that yet. Frost said that the Premier had great power and could do tremendous good by effecting a political settlement through dealing unilaterally with the United States; that all Khrushchev had to do was to make a simple solution to the Berlin crisis and that the United States would accept it. You have the soul of a poet, Premier Khrushchev replied.
Frost insisted on a distinction between European civilization, on the one hand, and Asian and African, on the other. To his impassioned plea for recognition of common European cultural values, shared by Russia and the United States, too, in contradistinction to what he called the absence of culture in Africa and the impossible foreignness of China, the Premier was restrained. He was patient. He had talked about the weakened American dollar and about the realignment of military power as the result of rockets — the oceans had virtually dried up, he said, and in the same way that the British Navy had vanished as a force, so the United States couldn’t count on protection by isolation. The Russians were grateful to the Americans for many things, the Premier said, and reported how, the day before, he had joked with Secretary Udall, who had commended the Russians’ extensive hydroelectric installations, that they had learned the techniques from Americans in the 1930s.
Frost kept coming back to political questions. In relations between the two countries, he said, there should be no blackguarding, no dirty play. There should be no more propaganda and no more name-calling. This had to be stopped. And Khrushchev emphatically agreed.
He asked Frost if he weren’t tired, if he, Khrushchev, hadn’t overstayed his time. Frost said no, he was glad to have had such a frank, such a highminded talk. Khrushchev asked Frost to be sure to give his greetings to the President and to the American people, and to urge on the President consideration of the issues as Frost and Khrushchev had discussed them. It was a great pleasure to meet such a famous poet, said the Premier. He was glad that Frost was pleased by his trip to Russia, and he wished him a continued and completely successful creative career.
They were standing, shaking hands. Frost once more expressed his pleasure that the meeting had been arranged. Khrushchev turned politely, walked around the bed, and went out of the room. The others followed.
“Well, we did it, didn’t we,” said Frost, dropping back on his bed, very tired. “He’s a great man,”he added. “He knows what power is and isn’t afraid to take hold of it. He’s a great man, all right.”
It was about quarter to five. The talk had lasted nearly an hour and a half. Frost had forgotten to give Khrushchev the copy of In the Clearing which he had brought for him. “Robert,” I said, “don’t you want to sign the book?” “Oh, I forgot, didn’t I?” he said. “Yeh, I better, hadn’t I?”
I rushed out and asked Surkov to ask the Premier to wait a moment, Frost wanted to give him his book. Back upstairs Frost was getting set to inscribe the book, but he couldn’t remember Khrushchev’s title. He finally put down:
To Premier Khrushchev
from his rival in friendship
Gagra Sept 7 1962
I took it downstairs and handed it to Khrushchev, who was sitting beside the driver in a green, open Chaika convertible.
THERE were a number of things Frost went to Russia for. The more any of us think back on it, though, the more we see it as a dramatization of the terms by which we honor excellence and, in honoring it, engage it to serve us. The honored excellence can’t refuse.
Frost was a famous man, a famous institution, long before he went to Russia. Literary honors encouraged in him a sense of urgency about political control or, bluntly, power. He went to Russia, so he hoped from the start, to see Khrushchev, to talk to the man in charge. He wanted to talk about his notion of the inevitable course of civilization and what he believed the Caesars of our world had to do. The honors he received made him nervous, for honor, of course, may be terrifying: it may mean you have to do something better the next time, something which you fear will fail — as Frost feared he would fail on his trip to Gagra.
He went to Russia with the notion that the Russians were a lot of peasants, a landful of bears, but they outhonored him. They honored him sincerely out of respect for his skill, so that when he went to Gagra he went with a special sense of intensity, devotion, obligation, and inevitability. He went with a certain irreverence, that special responsibility of the honored man.
Khrushchev, the most powerful political figure in Russia, acknowledged his responsibility of maintaining cultural tradition. Frost, at his death the most venerated literary man in America, acknowledged his responsibility of shaping the forces of power in the world. The two men talked freely, irreverently, with deep respect and high intensity. They discussed the East-West alignment of power; they told anecdotes; they analyzed the meaning of economic competition; they complimented each other on their vitality; they decried the horrors of war and insisted on the necessity of using force to maintain control, to preserve pride, to assert tradition.
Khrushchev, who said he hated the treacherous Nazis, praised capitalist American technical skill. Frost, who said the Chinese and Africans amounted to nothing in the structure of the world, admired the accomplishments of Russian socialism. Together they agreed that Russia and the United States must cease all pettiness, must be grand.
What remains of this meeting, as of Frost’s whole trip to Russia, is the dramatic confrontation of two irreverent and much-honored men, each of whom was more affected by the other than most people suppose. The power of skill is that it commands respect.
Particularly disappointing to Frost was the tendency of some of the American press to sensationalize his trip. He was unhappy that an A.P. reporter stretched his reading of “Mending Wall” into commentary on Berlin. He was discomfited that reporters who quoted him straight seemed to use his words in ways he hadn’t meant them. Right after the press conference at which he called Khrushchev a ruffian, he asked me if he had been understood. He said he meant rough-and-ready; he meant the word in its northern Vermont sense of praise for the energetic, audacious, and virile man who comes down from the hills on Saturday night and has the courage and skill to pick the town up by the scruff of its neck.
Later he was deeply disturbed both by the way his own use of the word “liberal” was analyzed and by the way people interpreted his remark that Khrushchev had told him that Americans were too liberal to fight.
Much nonsense was written over this. Plunged into a press conference, just off the plane and tired after two weeks on the road and a seventeenhour trip home, Frost may have appeared to have put his foot in it, so to speak, in quoting Khrushchev as he did. But he had expressed many times before this press conference both his own attitude toward liberalism and the attitude he understood Khrushchev to be taking. He believed that the world today is dominated not so much by ideals and isms as by actual power balances. He urged that his country be ready ultimately to risk its own defense and be willing always to make every gesture of magnanimity. Political power, cultural excellence, and moral integrity were, for him, inseparable. Those “liberals" who lacked his strength of conviction seemed to him, as he put it, sapheads. He didn’t admire them. He deeply admired Khrushchev, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party — “he’s our enemy and he’s a great man” — for the drive and purposefulness of his vision of power.
LAST fall the controversy around the “tooliberal-to-fight” phrase exceeded reasonable proportions. Few people understood what Frost had said or what his position was. None of the commentators in Washington showed that they understood. Some men argued that the phrase meant the Russians were confident that the Americans wouldn’t defend by arms “certain values which are not negotiable.” Others said the phrase meant that Khrushchev feared “the United States will fight because the liberals are too weak to prevent it.”
In a letter addressed to Norman Thomas in reply to a note from him, but never finished, Frost went right to the center of the controversy, as he had a number of times in private conversation and as he suggested in his reading at the Library of Congress in October. He indicated that Khrushchev’s and his own understanding of “liberalism” was directly connected with nobility of performance and actual expression of political control. They admired each other as men who dared do and say what they believed correctly human.
Everyone seems to want to start joking with me about the word “liberal” but as you say it’s no joking matter. It was almost that with K[h]rus[h]chev. Shall I try to tell you the affable way he used it with me in Gagra. He was just being good-natured and literary when he expressed concern for American liberality. He was quoting either Gorky to Tolstoi or Tolstoi to Gorky, I forget which, when he said there was such a thing possibly as a nation’s getting like the baldheaded row at a leg show so it enjoyed wanting to do what it could no longer do. I was interested to find the great old powerhouse so bookish. People have asked me if he was literary like Kennedy and you and me. I think I broke down his figure by answering we were too young a nation for that worry.
There are all sorts of liberals and I have amused myself with defining them. K[h]rus[h]chev’s was a good crack. My own latest is that they are people who have had the liberal education that I fled and have come back to assert my difference with in their own strongholds, the colleges. If Matthew Arnold is their gospel, I come pretty near being a liberal myself. I have teasingly described them as people who can’t take their own side in a quarrel and would rather fuss with a Gordian knot than cut it and as “Dover Beach-combers” and as Matthew Arnold’s wisest “who take dejectedly their seat upon the intellectual throne.” They are never arbitrary enough “to bid their will avouch it” like a real leader. But all that aside after it has entertained you enough, I yield to no one in my admiration for the kind of liberal you have been, you and Henry Wallace. One of the great moments of my life was when we three foregathered at Larry Spivak’s party and I stood between you and Henry for a chance photographer to take our picture.
My son-in-law had been rebuking Henry for going to China when Hull had warned him not to go. Henry had already admitted he shouldn’t have gone. My son-in-law had dispersed in the crowd and I had put my hand on Henry’s shoulder in affectionate sympathy. Then you came along and there we three stood in a row against the world. I treasure the picture and if you want these sentiments signed I’ll come and have a talk with you whenever you’re inclined.
I can’t see how K[h]rus[h]chev’s talk got turned into what you quote[:] that we weren’t men enough to fight. I came nearer than he to threatening. With my native geniality I assured him that we were no more afraid of him than he was of us. We seemed in perfect agreement that we shouldn’t come to blows till we were sure there was a big issue remaining between us, of his kind of democracy versus our kind of democracy, approximating each other as they are, his by easing downward towards socialism from the severity of its original ideals, ours by straining upward towards socialism through various phases of welfare state-ism. I said the stage or arena is set between us for a rivalry of perhaps a hundred years. Let’s hope we can take it out in sports, science, art, business, and politics before ever we have to take it out in the bloody politics of war. It was all magnanimity — Aristotle’s great word. I should have expected you to approve. Liberal in a good sense of the word. Browning tells of a post-office bulletin notice in Italy[:] “two liberal thieves were shot.” If only a word would stay put in basic English.
This may seem part of history now, although the principles involved bear down on us today more, not less, acutely. It seems to me still as close and vivid as the meeting at Gagra; as Frost lying on his bed after the meeting, exhausted, his temperature normal again. It seems as close as the drive to the airport — we missed the plane — and the night spent in a tiny, hot room before the morning flight back to Moscow. It seems still as close as Frost, in the hospital, saying he was finished with poetry, that he was just about played out, that he wanted to go back to Russia to see Khrushchev because they understood each other. It will always seem as close as the letter I have which says we teamed up. “Didn’t we ride Hellbent back from Gagra after toasts to miss our plane?”