Peace through CORN
By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
Special to The Jefferson Herald
One of the biggest news events that ever happened in west central Iowa — the autumn 1959 visit by the leader of the enemy Soviet Union to the Garst farm outside Coon Rapids — will be the subject of a Greene County Historical Society special program on Jan. 12 at the museum in Jefferson.
Liz Garst, a regional business and environmental leader who today lives outside Coon Rapids, is also a colorful storyteller, and she will use both stories and photos in presenting “Peace Through Corn.”
She will recount how her grandparents, Roswell and Elizabeth Garst, came to host the farm visit by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and his wife Nina at a time in the Cold War when the Soviet Union was the most-feared nation of all who have opposed the United States.
The historical society’s program at 2:30 p.m. will be presented free, with support from Humanities Iowa, the statewide organization that encourages preservation and enhancement of our culture and heritage.
“It’s a little hard to convey to people today, especially younger people, the magnitude of the Khrushchev visit,” Liz Garst said. “First, you have to explain what the Soviet Union was, who Khrushchev was and what the Cold War was all about.
“But if you want to compare the visit to more recent events, in terms of how big it was, it’d be a little like when the pope came to Iowa, or when the rising president of China came to Iowa (in 2012), or when President Nixon went to China” in 1972.
On the day of the Khrushchev visit — Sept. 23, 1959 — security was tighter than anybody had ever seen it around here.
Iowa National Guard soldiers lined Iowa Highway 141 all the way from Des Moines to Coon Rapids. The U.S. Secret Service and Soviet security were all over the farm and community.
More than 400 news reporters and photographers from around the world swarmed the farm.
But today, when so much shocking news seems to happen that we’re almost numb to it, people still have difficulty understanding just how stunning the Khrushchev visit was a half-century ago.
Basically, there is no hostile nation today that is as scary to most Americans as the Soviet Union was back in that time.
That country was formally the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” Some may recall that President Ronald Reagan once branded it the “evil empire.”
It included Russia and many other republics that have been free countries since the union’s dissolution in 1991.
But in 1959, the USSR and the USA were officially enemies in a time when the Cold War was about as hot as it got.
There was constant saber-rattling, with threats of rocket attacks and the ultimate scare tactic — that either nation might use their A-bombs and H-bombs.
Americans built bomb shelters everywhere, and the U.S. hid our own rockets in silos scattered in a 60-mile circle around Omaha, where the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command was based at Offutt Air Force Base.
Khrushchev was then the 65-year-old premier, and thus supreme leader, of the Soviet Union.
Roswell Garst was a 61-year-old farmer and entrepreneur, a co-partner then in Garst & Thomas, a seed corn company that was marketing hybrid corn to the world from its base in Coon Rapids.
That product ultimately not only brought huge yields to corn producers, and thus new economic prosperity here in the Midwest, but more nobly it helped ease hunger around the globe.
How did they ever encounter each other, let alone become such friends?
The reality of the international situation then was that the U.S. was still way ahead of the communist-controlled Soviet Union economically and maybe educationally, but the Soviets were clobbering us in science, space technology and defense spending. The week before the often-bombastic Khrushchev came to Coon Rapids, his nation landed an exploratory missile on the moon.
Seven months after the visit, the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane flying over their territory. That prompted Khrushchev to storm back to New York City and appear at the United Nations, where he took off a shoe and pounded the podium, screaming in the Russian language, “We will bury you!”
It was indeed a frightening time.
Yet in the middle of all that conflict and hate, here was the Iowa corn farmer and seed salesman Garst, who not only wound up having access to the leader of an “enemy” nation, but he also had that leader’s respect and friendship.
Garst is generally remembered today as often being bombastic in his own right. In fact, he was a lot like Khrushchev in many ways.
And the two of them brought at least a temporary thaw in the Cold War.
They did that by coming to an agreement — with ascent at the highest levels in both governments — that rebuilding Soviet agriculture with American seed, grain and know-how would be to the benefit of everybody.
Khrushchev, the communist, saw a way to feed starving people in the massive Soviet Union and stave off the threat of uprisings or worse.
Garst, ever the capitalist, saw a way to do some humanitarian good while also opening up a huge market for American grain.
What really started the idea for the visit was a Des Moines Register editorial written in early 1955 by Loren Soth, the newspaper’s editorial chief.
Soth’s editorial was headlined, “If the Russians Want More Meat…,” and in it he advocated for exchanges among the two nations’ ag experts.
He said Khrushchev should put together “any delegation (he) wants to come to Iowa to get the lowdown on raising high quality cattle, hogs, sheep and chickens. We promise to hide none of our ‘secrets.’ We will take the visiting delegation to Iowa’s great agricultural experiment station at Ames, to some of the leading farmers in Iowa, to our livestock breeders, soil conservation experts and seed companies. Let the Russians see how we do it.”
So that’s what triggered Garst and others to travel to the Soviet Union, and to host many Soviet delegations in the next few years.
Liz Garst says that one of the early Soviet delegations in Iowa was hosted at a reception in Jefferson by banker Warren Garst, who invited his first cousin Roswell Garst to attend.
To the consternation of some, Roswell wound up taking one of the Soviet delegation’s leaders back to the Garst farm at Coon Rapids for a personally guided tour of the operation.
Khrushchev and his delegation came to Iowa in the middle of a two-week trip across the U.S.
The official escorts from the U.S. government, traveling with Khrushchev, were led by United Nations Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge.
Garst had invited a special friend of his, Adlai Stevenson, the former Illinois governor who had been the Democratic nominee for president in both 1952 and ’56, and later would serve as U.N. ambassador himself.
At the Garst farm, rude, pushy reporters kept intruding on conversations, tours and even a big lunch served to the special guests in a tent in the yard. That angered Roswell Garst to the point he urged the Greene County Pleasure Riders saddle club, which had mounted riders there to help with security, to charge and “ride down’’ the press.
Before long, Garst was picking up handfuls of smelly silage and throwing it at the reporters.
Liz Garst was only 8 back then, and she now chuckles about how different her childhood perceptions were of the events, compared to what she’s learned about them as an adult after doing extensive research.
“In about 1996, I opened Garst Farms Resort and had people staying here,” she said. “I would often tell them the story about how the Khrushchevs had visited the farm, and before long I was getting invited to tell the story to a Rotary Club and other audiences.”
She has been doing so in Humanities Iowa-sponsored programs the past two years.
Liz, 62, grew up in Coon Rapids and then graduated from Stanford University with a degree in literature.
She later earned a master’s degree in agricultural economics at Michigan State and an MBA with an emphasis in agribusiness at Harvard University.
Her career has been in banking and farming, and today she is business manager of the Garst family interests, which also include insurance. She serves on the boards of Home State Bank in Jefferson, several other banks, Whiterock Conservancy and the Iowa Environmental Council.
“I feel lucky to be Roswell’s granddaughter,” Liz told me in 2009, during a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Khrushchev visit. “It’s a legacy to be really proud of. The ideas that we should reach out to our enemies, try to find common interests, and feed hungry people as a way toward world peace — that’s a fabulous legacy.”
Former Des Moines Register columnist Chuck Offenburger, a Cooper resident, is on the Greene County Historical Society’s board of directors. He can be contacted at chuck@Offenburger.com.