- Historic Sites
The Cold War Through The Looking Glass
Nikita Khrushchev’s son recalls a world where the United States was the Evil Empire—and Soviet superpower a carefully maintained illusion
October 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 6
Then Providence intervened. On March 5, 1953, Stalin died. My father, who soon became the head of the new Soviet leadership, knew from personal experience what war was like. He had traveled the country’s roads for four years during World War II, retreating from the western borders to Stalingrad and then advancing from Stalingrad to Kiev. From his first months in power he tried to discover whether the Americans were irrevocably bent on war or whether it was possible to reach agreement with them. Interestingly enough, the White House was thinking along more or less the same lines.
In April 1953 President Eisenhower took the first step, delivering a rather conciliatory speech at the National Press Club, in Washington. The next day it was published in full in Pravda , an unprecedented event in those times. Probably this was the turning point from war to peace, and the beginning of dialogue. But it was only the beginning. Both parties had to learn to understand each other. Living on either side of the iron curtain, we knew nothing about each other. Diplomats and intelligence agents supplied their leaders with information, of course, but that was not enough to gain an understanding of the other side. We had to look into each other’s eyes.
The first time that my father and President Eisenhower met (aside from a fleeting encounter in June 1945 atop the Lenin Mausoleum, during the Victory Parade in Moscow) was in Geneva in 1955, at the Four-Power Summit Conference. In preparing for the trip to Geneva, Father tried to anticipate every minor detail in order to prevent any possible sign of disrespect or discrimination against our country. He preferred to demand even more than protocol made his due rather than allow his conference partners to wound our national pride. Still, our pride was damaged from the moment of his arrival on Swiss soil, but not because of any malicious scheme by the West. The Soviet delegation arrived in Switzerland on a small two-engine IL-14, while President Eisenhower landed on a giant four-engine Constellation. That did not escape Father’s attention. The next year he took his revenge during a visit to England. A TU-104 passenger jet, which had not yet completed all its test flights, brought his mail from Moscow to London every day. Even the Americans did not yet have such a plane. The British queen, hearing an unusual roar coming from the sky (as she told Father when they met), went out on the balcony of her palace to gape at the marvel.
But to return to the Four-Power Summit Conference: The most important thing that happened in Geneva was that Khrushchev and Eisenhower got to know each other, made their first contacts, and held their first talks. The first step is the most difficult. The process of getting acquainted was not without its curious moments. During one of the breaks between sessions, Eisenhower introduced Father to his assistant Nelson Rockefeller. Father inquired, “Is he that Rockefeller?” As Father told me when he returned to Moscow, his curiosity was very much aroused when he was told that this was indeed that Rockefeller. A multimillionaire, but looking no different from anyone else, not in top hat and tails but modestly dressed, moreover serving in a subordinate position. Continuing his account, Father said that he was dying to touch a real multimillionaire, but he didn’t know how that would be taken. He didn’t hesitate for long, though, but spread his arms and embraced Rockefeller somewhere around the waist (Rockefeller was a head and a half taller than Father). At first Rockefeller was taken aback, but after a moment he responded in kind. I’m describing this to give the reader a sense of what the atmosphere was like in those years. It is hard for us now to imagine how distant we were from each other and how little we understood each other. Such episodes were more valuable than any routine session of negotiations, which were as yet essentially unproductive.
The first misunderstandings also arose in Geneva, and some of them had far-reaching consequences. Eisenhower presented his Open Skies plan, which would allow each side to fly over the territories of the opposing group of countries in order to prevent a surprise attack. Father rejected such a plan outright. Not that he was against the idea itself. But if the American President feared a Soviet attack, Father was afraid of something quite different: that in the process of flying over our country, the Americans would discover our most important secret—how much weaker we were than they—and that discovery might prompt the United States to carry out a preventive strike. In subsequent years Father continued to oppose inspections for the same reason.
In Geneva initial judgments and opinions were formed on both sides. Father came to the conclusion that he could do business with Eisenhower, who had also experienced the recent war firsthand and would not seek a new one. But a long and difficult path lay ahead before mutual understanding could be reached, and the time had not yet come for an agreement. In order to be taken seriously, you had to become powerful, since peace on earth can only be achieved through strength—or from a position of strength, as people put it then.