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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
Military professionals demanded that the Soviet army, air force, and navy be given equipment precisely symmetrical to that of the U.S. military. But that would take all the nation’s financial resources, leaving nothing in the budget to build housing and provide people with normal lives. Father chose a different path. He tried to make the admirals and generals understand that the United States was much wealthier than we were and that if we competed with the Americans on that basis, we would spend our resources in vain and bring the country to ruin and even then not reach parity. The military insisted. Father angrily exclaimed, “You’ll leave the country stark naked!”
Father finally decided to make use of his power and authority. He made the tough decision to formulate an asymmetrical defense doctrine. He thought that we ourselves could determine the necessary minimum to ensure the country’s security and ruthlessly eliminate the rest. Negotiations, he believed, would not be effective at this stage.
He started with the navy. Stalin had planned to build an oceangoing surface fleet capable of competing with America’s. The admirals needed about 130 billion rubles ($32.5 billion) in the 1955-65 period to carry out the second stage of Stalin’s program. That was an enormous sum at the time, and the only way to get it was to cut funds for essential human needs. Discussion of the program continued for about a year without any apparent result. Finally Father could not restrain himself and posed a direct question to the navy’s commander in chief, Adm. Nikolai Kuznetsov: “If today, and not ten years from now, you had all the ships you’re asking for, could you defeat the Americans at sea?” The admiral gave a militarily direct answer: “No.” The discussion ended with the decision to stop building a surface fleet and limit construction to submarines, primarily missile submarines, and antisubmarine and shore-defense forces. To this day Russian naval officers have never forgiven Father, but he simply would not give them money to waste.
The friendship between Garst and Father was no less fruitful than many months of negotiations by veteran diplomats.
Strategic aviation met a similar fate somewhat later. Its development was held to a minimum, while preference was given to ballistic missiles. From then on air force officers also disliked Father. But there were practically no missiles at the time either. In 1956 only one type of ballistic missile was being built, the R-5M, with a nuclear warhead of seventy kilotons. The U.S.S.R. had a total of 426 nuclear warheads. That year the United States had an overall nuclear superiority 10.8 times greater.
To restrain the West from a possible attack on the Soviet Union, Father decided to resort to bluff and intimidation. During his visit to England in April 1956, he casually inquired from time to time—once during an official lunch, once in the course of a five-hour tea at the fireplace of the prime minister’s country residence at Chequers —if his hosts knew how many nuclear warheads it would take to wipe their island off the face of the earth. An awkward silence followed. But Father did not drop the subject, and with a broad smile on his face he informed those present that if they didn’t know, he could help them, and he mentioned a specific number. Then he added, quite cheerfully, “And we have lots of those nuclear warheads, as well as the missiles to deliver them.”
Sir Anthony Eden had occasion to recall those talks by the fireplace when, during the Suez crisis, in the autumn of 1956, Father issued an ultimatum to the Anglo-French-Israeli coalition to stop the war within twenty-four hours (the letter was signed by Nikolai Bulganin, head of the Soviet government at the time, but had been written by Khrushchev). As Father described it, his warning got Eden out of bed and hurrying to a telephone in his pajamas to call the French prime minister, Guy Mollet. How did Father know such intimate details? It’s not hard to guess. The Cambridge ring of Soviet intelligence, comprising highly placed English diplomats and intelligence agents, was operating at the time, and they sent their reports first to the Kremlin and only afterward to 10 Downing Street. One way or another, the warning worked, military actions ceased, and the troops of the aggressors left Egyptian territory soon thereafter. From then on Father reacted just as sharply to every crisis in the vicinity of the Soviet Union, whether in the Near East, the Far East, or Europe. By frightening the world with Soviet missile superiority, he tried to have the Soviet Union recognized as equal to the United States.
It was in those years that he used the famous phrase “We are producing missiles like sausages.” When I asked him how he could say that, since the Soviet Union had no more than half a dozen intercontinental missiles, Father only laughed: “We’re not planning to start a war, so it doesn’t matter how many missiles are deployed. The main thing is that Americans think we have enough for a powerful strike in response. So they’ll be wary of attacking us.”