From Austerlitz To Moscow

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“At any rate, it seems pretty safe to say that a war which begins by both sides suffering what they dread most, and that is undoubtedly the case at present, is less likely to occur than one which dangles the lurid prizes of former ages before ambitious eyes.”

That was the challenge confronting our species after 1945. It had been born of intense curiosity about the nature of physical things-about the smallest bits of matter and the largest bits of energy. Technology had overshot the mark by a factor of a million and had thereby given us a chance to change our murderous ways. We didn’t know it then, but technology would have to perform even more strenuous feats before the challenge could be met. And although the successful response turned out to be primarily an American achievement, it took another decade or so to get us on the right track.

 

Few people anywhere in the world were looking much beyond each morning’s headlines in 1953. In the Soviet Union, Stalin had died. The disorganized collective leadership of his heirs promptly ended Russian support of the war in Korea and signed a peace treaty with Austria. Having eliminated its most pressing external involvements, the new regime turned inward to make whatever sense it could out of what it found there.

In the United States, on the other hand, a very different new leadership was responding primarily to new external events. The Korean war had shaken up every segment of American opinion by 1953. Coming as it did after the piecemeal political conquest of Eastern Europe and the menacing blockade of West Berlin, a shooting war in Asia was all it took to set off alarms from Washington to Honolulu. And as if that weren’t enough, Churchill’s confident observations came less than three months after we had learned that Russia had beaten us to the “H-bomb” and had developed a practical, air-droppable weapon while we were still writing technical papers about the feasibility of the thing. There was no time in 1953 to ponder historical challenges; the nation sprang to its battlements and to its arsenals. The defense budget was multiplied by five. The airplane manufacturers were put to work building bombers. The Atomic Energy Commission was ordered to produce more and bigger bombs for them. The Air Force and the Army were given the task of making America impervious to air attack.

We are a skillful and industrious people. It wasn’t long before we had produced an aerial Grande Armée powerful enough to destroy any nation in the world. Before roughly 1958, we would have been grievously damaged in return, but from 1958 until about 1965 we could have reduced any combination of opposing forces to nuclear ashes while suffering little immediate damage to ourselves. In many respects, we had been catapulted into something like Hitler’s 1939 supremacy without the coherence of his motives and intentions. We had responded not to crafty aims but to unreasoning fear-and not just to those early shocks before the Korean war, but to a continuing fear engendered by the threats and maneuvers and boorish bluffs emanating from one of the modern world’s most colorful leaders: Nikita S. Khrushchev.

It’s all too easy to jump up and down and poke fun at a highly active leader’s selected mistakes in specific contexts. To do so in Khrushchev’s case would be to miss the entire historical significance of his eleven-year career as First Secretary of the Soviet Communist party. He contributed too much to the emotional repair and political development of his people, too much to the crucial dialogue between his country and the outside world, too much to the exorcism of Stalin’s malevolent ghost, to be carped at by Monday-morning quarterbacks. Eventually he even cooperated in the early stages of our joint response to Churchill’s challenge-but it is unbelievable what happened in the meantime. The antics of Czar Nicholas II before the First World War come quickly and uncomfortably to mind.

It must be remembered that Khrushchev was a salesman. It was his unbounded confidence in the basic worth and attainable future of the Russian people that buoyed the innermost circles of the collective leadership after Stalin’s death. He was a believer. He had grown and prospered in the party ranks; he had come to believe many wonderful things about the Communist gift to mankind. He worked a more strenuous schedule than his colleagues could keep up with, and it gave him very little time to ponder the wisdom of his acts. He turned Russia outward in a vigorous and adventurous foreign policy at the same time that he was trying to transform it away from Stalinist feudalism within. He got Malenkov removed partly on the grounds of the deplorable state of Soviet strategic forces, and then told his rocket engineers to mass-produce cheap, single-stage missiles. These he sprinkled around in the western borderlands and on the eastern slopes of the Urals. Fitted with nuclear warheads, they seemed to him the most powerful weapons imaginable, even though they had ranges of only a few hundred miles and took hours to prepare for launch.