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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
But incidents could not be avoided. The flight of the American U-2 spy plane, shot down by a Soviet antiaircraft missile over Sverdlovsk, in the very heart of Russia, blew away everything that Father and Eisenhower had worked for during the previous years. It derailed the Paris Four-Power Conference, resulted in cancellation of the American President’s forthcoming visit to the Soviet Union, which had inspired great hopes, and in my opinion delayed the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by three years. Still, the foundation was preserved, and the new American President, John F. Kennedy, did not begin his dialogue with Father on a blank page. Their only meeting, in Vienna in June 1961, was notable for showing a new approach to evaluating the balance of nuclear forces, and not just for the famous fruitless arguments about a new world order—about which agreement was impossible—and not just for disagreements over Berlin or the agreement on Laos. Though the two leaders did not reach an agreement, neither were they busy calculating how much destruction they could wreak on each other. They talked about the price that they were ready to pay for a victory and about how many of their compatriots’ lives they were ready to sacrifice for it. As a result they agreed that nuclear parity existed in the world, even though the U.S.S.R. had deployed only six intercontinental ballistic missiles (naturally this figure was not officially cited by either party). This was at a time when Americans estimated their superiority in nuclear warheads and missiles to be 20 to 1 (actually it was almost 10 to 1, which is also a lot. The Soviet Union had 2,471 nuclear warheads, the United States 24,173).
Another significant fact: Both sides began to feel the need for direct contact. In other words, they started to trust each other and to believe in the possibility and productivity of a dialogue devoted to preventing a nuclear war. In Vienna both leaders agreed to establish a direct link between the Kremlin and the White House by means of special couriers. Kennedy made this initiative. He proposed exchanging confidential letters outside of State Department channels. Father readily agreed. He always favored a direct dialogue, without intermediaries.
Khrushchev and Kennedy agreed that nuclear parity existed, even though the U.S.S.R. had deployed only six ICBMs.
This agreement served the parties well during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which broke out soon afterward, in October 1962. How the dramatic events of those years looked from the Soviet side is a separate and very fascinating story. My new book, The Creation of a Superpower , to be published next year, investigates that history as well as providing many other details of Kremlin life. I shall only note here that for the first time in the history of the Cold War a secret personal correspondence between two leaders, and not mutual threats and propaganda escapades, was the main instrument for resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is an extraordinarily important indication that both the President of the United States and the head of the Soviet government understood that though they may have been determined to defend their own principles and values, which were not compatible, it was only through dialogue that they could achieve their common goal of preserving life on earth.
The Cuban Missile Crisis erupted truly out of the blue. When Fidel Castro and his companions-in-arms entered Havana, on January 1, 1959, no one in Moscow took the slightest interest. The Soviet embassy in Cuba had been considered unnecessary and was closed in 1952. Diplomatic relations had continued, but neither an embassy nor a single Soviet representative remained in Cuba.
After reading Western agency reports about Castro’s triumph, Father became curious about what had happened on that distant island and received the following reply from the intelligence service and the Party Central Committee’s International Department: “Castro is the usual Central American dictator, probably closely connected to the CIA, and will dance to the American tune, just like Batista.”
Sometime later, when the Cuban leader went to Washington expecting to meet with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a high-level international specialist from the Party Central Committee said to Father in my presence: “You see, Nikita Sergeyevich, we were right. Castro’s hurrying to bow to his master.” The fact that Castro intended to conduct an independent policy was apparent only later, and Father himself was the first to realize it. Then he decided that the only way to defend Cuba from the inevitable aggression of the United States was by deploying missiles with nuclear warheads on the island. In so doing, he was warning Washington that military action in that region would automatically lead to a third world war.