Born a Ukrainian peasant, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev joined the Communist party in 1918 and in four decades rose through the ranks to become the leader of all the Soviet Union. Nikita Khrushchev first became a member of the party's central committee in 1934. He had a close connection to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin
, and after Stalin's death in 1953 Khrushchev emerged as the new leader. He began to reform Stalin's most brutal excesses, and when he denounced some crimes of Stalin in 1956 it was regarded as a stunning development. Nikita Khrushchev also attempted to ease relations with the United States; in 1959 he toured the U.S. and met with President Dwight Eisenhower
. When a U.S. spy plane piloted by Gary Powers
was shot down over Russia in 1960, Khrushchev grew more belligerent, and he grabbed the attention of the world by pounding his shoe on a conference table at the United Nations that fall. Khrushchev, the U2 incident, and the Cold War all became major issues in the 1960 U.S. presidential contest between Vice President Richard Nixon
and John Kennedy
, which was won by Kennedy. Two years later, Nikita Khrushchev was forced to back down to Kennedy over the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba, in what became known as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Further domestic and foreign relations disasters weakened Khrushchev's power, and in 1964 he was replaced as Soviet leader by Leonid Brezhnev.