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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
When Fidel Castro and his companions-in-arms entered Havana, in 1959, no one in Moscow took the slightest interest.
In that, the political precepts of the leaders of both superpowers hardly differed, and indeed could not differ. In 1963 President Kennedy behaved like Father when he declared that he considered himself a West Berliner and was ready to defend the city from possible Soviet seizure with all the power America possessed. In economic and other terms, West Berlin was even more useless to Kennedy than Cuba was to Father. But the status of a superpower leaves its special mark on the conduct of world leaders. They have to defend their allies with all the means available to them. If they retreat even an inch, it’s farewell to superpower status forever. No one will believe them any more, just as in our time no one believes Boris Yeltsin. Such are the implacable rules of the game in power politics.
People have always loved to retouch history after the fact. The history of the Cuban Missile Crisis is no exception. It has become customary to argue that Father gave in because of America’s firm stance, that he yielded and blinked first. In fact, both leaders realized that they could have control of the situation only until the first shot was fired, until the first bomb dropped on Cuba. Subsequent events would develop according to other rules, the rules of war, of a third world war. Father loved to say, “Any fool can start a war, but then where are we going to find the wise men to stop it?” Both Father and Kennedy tried to prevent that first shot by every possible means. However, Kennedy was under tremendous pressure. Father knew this, and he took it into account when he decided to withdraw the missiles from Cuba in exchange for the President’s promise not to invade the island—a promise that he trusted. That would have been inconceivable in 1952. Trust an American President!
When Father argued at a meeting of the Soviet leadership in favor of withdrawing the missiles, he made this unprecedented statement: “We have to help Kennedy withstand pressure from the hawks. They are demanding an immediate military invasion.” A little later, after the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba had begun, Kennedy asked journalists to help Khrushchev by not crowing about the American victory. Five years earlier could anyone have imagined hearing such words in the White House?
One other comment. I don’t want to talk about winners in this crisis. It’s easy to view it superficially as Kennedy’s victory; he forced the Soviet Union to withdraw. Father thought that he won by protecting Cuba from possible aggression and by averting a great war. In the political game of brinkmanship, he stuck to his opinion: The one who decides to blink first doesn’t have weaker nerves but possesses greater wisdom.
The real main consequence of the Cuban Missile Crisis was American society’s irrevocable perception of parity, of equality between the U.S.S.R. and the United States in nuclear destructive force. And the American media, not Father, were responsible for that. They so frightened their countrymen that after the crisis it made no sense to talk about nuclear superiority in terms of numbers. The nation’s subconscious would not absorb them.
The Cuban Missile Crisis ended the cycle of crises and missile-bluff diplomacy. Both sides recognized that they were now capable not only of inflicting a mortal blow on each other but of destroying civilization, of ending life on earth. A great deal changed in the world after the crisis, but even more could have changed. In August 1963 the United States, the U.S.S.R., and Great Britain signed an agreement prohibiting nuclear testing in the atmosphere, underwater, and in outer space. That same August, Kennedy sent Father a proposal about joining Soviet and American forces for a flight to the moon. He had first mentioned the idea in Vienna, in June 1961, but at the time Father hadn’t replied. He thought it might enable the United States to obtain intelligence information and discover that our missile capability was far beneath what we claimed. And that might provoke the Americans to carry out a pre-emptive strike. It was the same fear that had pursued Father in Geneva.
Now, in 1963, several dozen R-16 intercontinental missiles were deployed in the Soviet Union, and Father considered the number sufficient to cool off any hotheads. If the Americans knew about them, that knowledge would benefit everyone. Furthermore, with spy satellites flying around the planet for the second year, secrets were no longer secrets.