- 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
After the deployment of nucleartipped intercontinental missiles, Father took an even tougher approach to the concept of national security. He thought that deployment of three hundred to five hundred of these missiles would make a war impossible, which in turn made it senseless to maintain a gigantic army. Father did not believe that local wars could be waged without using nuclear weapons. He thought that the U.S.S.R. and the United States would always stand behind their participants and that the losing side could not resist resorting to nuclear weapons. Therefore it made sense to warn governments that they would be used at the very beginning of a conflict, not at the end. Father thought a professional army of half a million would be adequate to defend our strategic nuclear forces. The remaining armed forces should be organized on the basis of a militia, similar to the U.S. National Guard, freeing up young working hands.
He did not think it made sense to continue pouring money into conventional weapons, so he proposed reducing the production of tanks, cannon, and tactical aircraft to a minimum and shifting the freed resources to the production of consumer goods and the construction of housing. Of course the military opposed this with all its might. I remember how at a Defense Council session in March 1963 the Warsaw Pact commander in chief, Marshal Andrei Grechko, tried to persuade Father to increase the production of tactical nuclear warheads. Father patiently explained to him that the use of this weapon on the battlefield was questionable and would lower the moral threshold, the threshold of fear of using nuclear weapons. Another very important argument for Father was the fact that a ten-kiloton warhead cost as much as a one-megaton warhead. Father preferred a multimegaton nuclear club to tactical nuclear weapons; it was far more convenient—not to use but to threaten with. But bash everyone indiscriminately over the head from nuclear cannon? You couldn’t preserve peace on earth that way.
At the same meeting, Grechko insisted that nuclear cannon should be mass-produced, since the Americans were already making them and we lagged. Father’s reaction was typical. He said that Soviet designers had created two such weapons. They were displayed regularly on Red Square in Moscow, on May 1 and on November 7, so everyone, including the Americans, knew we had them. “So two cannon are enough for you, Marshal, and for the Americans,” concluded Father. “We won’t squander the peonle’s money on more of them.”
I don’t know how Americans would have reacted to knowledge of the radical reduction in Soviet armed forces that was planned, but I would like to hope that the response would have been proportionate. If so, the Cold War might have ended in 1969, and that year an American astronaut and a Soviet cosmonaut might have stepped onto the moon’s surface together. But life turned out differently. In November 1963 John F. Kennedy died, and a year later, in October 1964, my father was removed from power. The leaders who replaced Father hurried to “correct his mistakes” by giving a new impetus to the arms race and producing tens of thousands of tactical nuclear weapons. By 1989 the Soviet army had seven thousand nuclear cannon. The Cold War was prolonged by twenty years and did not end until the start of the 1990s, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Was the fact that the Cold War did not end sooner a wasted opportunity? Or was the world not ready for it to end in the 1960s? We can only guess, and regret that it did not happen.
What was the Cold War? Could it have been avoided? Was it a product of the ill will of politicians or was it historically inevitable? Probably the latter. For thousands of years peoples have resolved their conflicts by armed clashes. There was good reason for Karl von Clausewitz to write that war is a continuation of politics by other means. With the invention of nuclear weapons, politicians suddenly realized that war would no longer lead to victory, that both sides would lose. But they didn’t know how to behave differently. So they behaved the same way, but without going to war. War without war was called “cold war.” A very accurate definition. And at the beginning of this process, at the dawn of the Cold War, when a great deal was still unsettled and all the destructive consequences of the use of nuclear weapons were not apparent, it would have been very easy to yield to temptation and drift into a real war. I consider it a great achievement, a heroic deed, if you will, of the world leaders of those years, primarily American Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy and my father, the chairman of the U.S.S.R. Council of Ministers, Nikita Khrushchev, that they showed the wisdom to pass safely over the reefs of a hot war and preserve the life of humankind. Thus the Cold War was a kind of transitional period from a disconnected world that used weapons as its main instrument for resolving world conflicts to some kind of different state of being—to a new world order, if you like.