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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 the Cold War began, people my age were in school, and when it ended, we were increasingly thinking about our pensions. Our whole lives were spent amid the fear that our great national enemy would strike a fatal blow if we made the slightest false step or showed the least weakness. Who “we” were and who the enemy was depended on which country we considered our own, the Soviet Union or the United States.
Virtually my entire life has been spent in Russia. When, already past maturity, I came to the United States, I was surprised by how much our fears and our determination to defend our ideals and our countries had coincided. For Americans, of course, the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire. Readers will be surprised and even indignant to learn that to us—or at least for most of my compatriots—the United States was the Evil Empire. Each side came very close to seizing the other by the throat in a fit of righteous indignation and, in defense of its ideals, using force to make it admit it was wrong (always a hopeless approach). Thanks to the statesmanlike and human wisdom of the leaders of both countries—and a certain amount of luck—we succeeded in avoiding such a “resolution” of the ideological quarrel. The Cold War expired by itself, and we, having survived, can now look back, evaluate our recent past, and even joke about it.
But at the time of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, everything seemed to be heading toward a real war, a nuclear war. Today, when many secrets are secrets no longer, we know that at the beginning of the 1950s, Stalin ordered an accelerated buildup not only of the Soviet Union’s armed forces but of those of his Warsaw Pact allies as well, in order to be fully mobilized and ready for an armed clash by 1954 or 1955. By March 1953 the number of Soviet military personnel had reached 5,394,038, an insupportable burden for the economy of a country in peacetime. However, this gigantic army could have done little in case of a conflict, since the strategic air force of the United States, whose bases surrounded the Soviet Union, could have destroyed whatever it chose. Stalin did not possess a weapon capable of responding with a comparable retaliatory strike on American territory. He knew this and was deathly afraid of war, but at the same time he considered it inevitable. Motivated by fear, he ordered that ten thousand tactical IL-28 bombers with a range of about fifteen hundred miles be produced and stationed at airfields built on the Arctic Ocean ice, closer to U.S. territory. Soviet generals were fully aware that this was an impractical plan, but they did not dare contradict Stalin. Preparations to implement it endedonly with his death.
When Eisenhower was elected, we knew what it meant: “The U.S.A. has decided to fight, otherwise, why would they need a general?”
Another crazy scheme, similarly born out of fear, was actually carried out. An army of one hundred thousand men was stationed in tents on the Chukotsk tundra and charged with resisting an invasion from Alaska. It was assumed that the Americans would cross the Bering Strait on the ice. However, where they could go from there, surrounded by swamps, permafrost, and the taiga, has always remained a mystery to me. From Chukotka it is a good eight thousand miles to Moscow and at least twenty-five hundred miles to relatively inhabited regions of Siberia.
Anti-aircraft batteries were ranged like a fence around Moscow. Beside them lay open crates of gleaming shells ready to be fired. The sudden German air attack in June 1941 was continuing to dominate the Kremlin’s thinking, just as Pearl Harbor lived on in Washington’s.
I finished school and began studying at the Electric Power Institute in September 1952. I wanted to become an engineer in the field of automated control. We schoolboys and students were inclined to be militant, even aggressive: “Just let them [whomever you like] poke their noses in here and we’ll show them a thing or two.” Sitting at our school desks, we, like our leaders in the Kremlin, felt sure that war was not far off. When America elected Gen. Dwight D. Elsenhower, a hero of the Second World War, as President in November 1952, we had no doubt what it meant: “The U.S.A. has decided to fight. Otherwise, why would they need a general as President?”
After living through the horrors of German bombings, we were not frightened by the atomic bomb. We flaunted our courage. During civil defense classes we were told to cover ourselves with something white, preferably a sheet, in the event of a nuclear blast, to reduce the radiation impact (I don’t know how effective that would have been). A joke immediately went the rounds: “If an atomic bomb explodes, cover yourself with a sheet and crawl to the cemetery, but without hurrying. Why without hurrying? So as not to cause panic.”
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.
It sometimes happens that seemingly unimportant events turn out to be of historic significance. I think that an editorial published at about that time in an Iowa newspaper, the Des Moines Register , played no less important a role than the Geneva meeting in contributing to mutual understanding between the Soviet Union and the United States. The paper’s editor called on Father to compete in agriculture, on farm fields, instead of in the arms race. Let each side show what kind of harvest it could produce. The article concluded with a direct appeal to Father: “Come here and we will share our achievements with you. There are no secrets in agriculture.” The author surely did not expect the article to reach Father; he probably just had to fill the editorial page. But intelligence agencies, the KGB and CIA alike, nourish a particular passion for provincial publications and think they may find in them information that is inaccessible in the center. Embassies try to subscribe to everything they can. A translation of the Des Moines Register editorial lay on Father’s desk in his Kremlin office the day after it was published. After reading it, Father called U.S.S.R. Minister of Agriculture Vladimir Matskevich and asked him to gather together the best Soviet scientists and send them to the United States, to the state of Iowa, to see what they were growing and what innovations they might have thought up there, across the ocean.
Father was dying to touch a real American multimillionaire. It is hard to imagine now how little we understood each other.
The result of the two-week trip by the delegation headed by Matskevich was a four-hundred-page report containing recommendations for how to catch up with American farmers. Father read the weighty tome from beginning to end and kept it near him. He consulted its pages many times afterward. The report described what would be advantageous to imitate, primarily hybrid corn seeds and seed-grading facilities. Father had a special enthusiasm for corn. He thought it could help supply feed for livestock and thereby raise meat consumption in our country to American levels. It was thought that when this was achieved, true communism would come to the U.S.S.R. Father very much wanted to have a look, however fleeting, at what life would be like under communism—in other words, when Russians lived no worse than Americans, than those Americans who had dreamed of destroying communism.
Father did not doubt the superiority and greater economic efficiency of socialism compared with capitalism, and he believed that sooner or later capitalism would die out and that he would bury it. But in the meantime, as he said in one of his speeches in the United States, “You Americans work better than we do and produce goods that we can only dream about, so we will learn from you; we will study diligently. And once we’ve learned, we’ll begin working better than you, and you will just have to jump onto the running board of the train of socialism, which is leaving for the future. Otherwise you’ll be left far behind, and we will wave goodbye from the rear platform of the last car.”
Father believed that the system that gave people the best living standards would win. That was the sole criterion. Nothing would help the losing side—not nuclear bombs, ideological dogmas, or propaganda. He was convinced to the end of his life that socialism would come out on top. He died secure in that belief. His principal goal was never competition in the field of weaponry. He was not captivated by the missile race or even by the space race. No, his slogan became, if I may call it that, the food race. Fences, walls of buildings, and billboards were plastered with signs reading: “Catch up and pass the United States in per capita production of meat, milk, and butter.” Jokers, numerous in Russia in any era, sometimes wrote in a slogan from the traffic police: “If you aren’t sure, don’t pass!” However, we were in no real competition with anyone in this sphere. Our people were emerging painfully from a condition of semistarvation.
In Iowa the Soviet delegation invited farmers to visit the Soviet Union. Almost no one responded. The Cold War was at its most frigid. But there was one person who dared. His name was Roswell Garst, and he was a rather wealthy farmer and seed manufacturer who had specialized in growing corn to fatten hogs, cows, and other livestock. He had hosted the Soviet delegation and now hoped, during a return visit, to sell seeds and some agricultural equipment to the Soviets. Everyone thought this was a preposterous idea, since trade between our countries was nonexistent at the time; the United States didn’t even buy Stolichnaya vodka or caviar from the Soviet Union. Garst received a firm no from the State Department in response to his proposal, but he didn’t give up. He cited the principle of free trade, explaining that hybrid corn seeds would be impossible to use in military technology, however much one might wish to do so. The State Department finally yielded and gave its permission, with the comment “They won’t buy anything from you anyway!”
As soon as he got to Moscow, Garst met with Father. They talked for five hours in the Kremlin and then left for the dacha to look at Father’s crops. Garst made many subsequent visits to Moscow. He and Father became real friends. Their love for the earth brought them together. On one such visit, I think in the spring of 1962, Father asked Garst to travel to the south of Russia and take a professional look at how collective farmers were dealing with corn. There Garst noticed that farmers were sowing corn but that their fertilizers, which should have been added to the soil earlier, were piled up along the roads. They were simply too lazy to spread them on the fields. Moreover, the regional managers, who insisted on strict observance of the sowing schedule, were not terribly interested in fertilizers.
Garst was infuriated by such mismanagement. Tracking down the collective farm’s field supervisor, he began driving home the point that this was wrong, that they should spread the fertilizers immediately and only then carry out the sowing. Otherwise they would have a poor harvest. Looking bored, the field supervisor heard out this tiresome foreigner who had descended on him from God knows where. He finally got tired of listening and rather rudely interrupted Garst, advising him to beat it and not interfere where he didn’t belong. Garst flew into a rage and threatened to complain to Khrushchev himself if they didn’t follow his recommendations.
The supervisor didn’t know whether to believe him, but to be on the safe side he stopped the sowing and ordered the collective farmers to spread the fertilizers. What if this crazy American really did complain to one of the higherups? After seeing that everything was being done properly, Garst resumed his travels. When he returned to Moscow, he described everything to Father, who later noted regretfully, “This American capitalist cares more than Soviet collective farmers do about our harvest.” However, he didn’t elaborate.
It seems to me that in those years, when the turn came from war toward peace or, to be more precise, toward peaceful coexistence between the two systems (as Father put it), the friendship between those two men, Garst and Father, was no less fruitful than many months of negotiations by veteran diplomats. Several years ago I gave a talk at a university in Iowa and was invited by Roswell Garst’s son to visit the family farm and drive along the roads my father had traveled nearly forty years earlier. At the end of my visit to the state, I was received by the governor of Iowa. During our conversation he joked: “During all my years as governor I have visited practically every country in the world, and hardly anyone has heard of Iowa. When I went to Russia, at the first mention of Iowa people exclaimed: ‘Iowa! The most famous American state! Nikita Khrushchev brought corn from there to the Soviet Union.’”
After agriculture, Father’s main concern was housing construction. By the time he came to power, this problem had become acute. Soviet citizens did not live in their own houses or apartments, as people in the United States and Europe did. In Russia several generations of a family —grandparents, their children and grandchildren, ten or more people—might be cooped up in one room of 150 square feet. They slept on the floor. In the morning long lines formed for the only toilet at the end of a hall with doors to a dozen similarly overpopulated rooms. It is hard to describe in words what it’s like to stand in such a line; it has to be experienced.
The housing problem had been growing worse for decades. Housing had been destroyed during war: the First World War, the civil war, and the Second World War, when the Germans set fire to cities and villages right up to the walls of Moscow and Stalingrad. Virtually no new housing units, except for huts on factory grounds, had been built. In the 1930s all the money was spent on industrialization, and in the 1940s it went into rebuilding factories destroyed by the fascists. There was no time or money for people’s needs.
Father was determined to resolve this problem, and he initiated the mass construction of apartment buildings. They were put together from concrete panels manufactured quickly on factory conveyor belts, like cars. The houses, like cars, looked exactly alike. Housing construction and agriculture required money, a great deal of money, and we had to economize on everything else.
During those years father strictly prohibited the construction of administrative buildings, luxury houses for the leadership, and even theaters. All such money was channeled into building inexpensive housing, which was free for its new occupants. Even the Ministry of Defense had to line up for money. However, only a madman or traitor could neglect the country’s security during the Cold War. Defense demanded its share of government spending. Because resources were inadequate, some way had to be found to manage, and that required major decisions. The most important decision was how to combine strengthening the country’s security with reducing military spending.
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.”
The history of the so-called global missile was similar. The project called for lifting a nuclear warhead into earth orbit. Upon a command from earth, it would explode over an enemy on a trajectory that couldn’t be predicted by an (as yet hypothetical) antimissile defense system. The organization where I worked, which was located in a carefully guarded area, had several even more secret rooms equipped for planning this global missile, and we worked there on this new superweapon. Suddenly, just a few months after we started work, Father joyfully informed journalists at a press conference that the Soviet Union would soon possess a global missile, a weapon against which no defense existed. I was profoundly upset and thought of his loquaciousness as a betrayal of the country’s national interests. During a walk that evening I expressed my complaints to Father.
“Don’t tell me you thought the government would actually allow someone to launch a nuclear warhead into orbit,” he retorted with amazement. “What if something happened to it in orbit, in space? We would be hostages to our own thoughtlessness. The global missile is a propaganda weapon. Let the Americans rack their brains over what I said.”
Such statements by Father were in fact received with enthusiasm on the other side of the ocean, since they made it easier for the American military to receive additional funds, and so the missile race was born and gained strength, bringing President John F. Kennedy to the White House. The race, which never existed, or rather in which only America took part, was the United States’s internal competition to see who could grab more funds from the budget. Insofar as there was a real race, the United States always led. For example, only beginning in 1967 were large numbers of the UR-100 (SS-11) light ballistic missile deployed in the Soviet Union, five years later than the analogous American Minuteman I. The CIA must have known this, but the myth of Soviet missile superiority was useful, or seemed to be useful, not so much to Father as to the American military-industrial complex.
President Eisenhower understood this very well. He and Father held meetings at Camp David in September of 1959. As they were taking a walk one day, Eisenhower brought up the subject of relations with the military and asked Father how he coped with his generals. Father reacted cautiously. He was not prepared to discuss such a subject with the American President.
“Then I’ll start,” said Eisenhower, smiling. “My military leaders come to me several times a year and ask for additional appropriations for new types of weapons. When I reply that the budget has been approved and printed and there’s no place to find the money, they begin frightening me by saying that the Soviet Union is already developing such ‘toys’ and I’ll be responsible if the United States is defeated in a future war. Naturally I have to give them the money.”
Father replied that he was often subjected to such pressure from his own military-industrial complex.
“Maybe we should make a secret agreement between us to curb our military,” proposed the President.
“That would be good,” responded Father. “But the time has not yet come.”
The time for confidential relations between Soviet and American leaders had truly not yet come, but, by 1959, a great deal had changed since 1955. Eisenhower and Father had learned to talk with each other, and the first signs of mutual confidence had appeared. A foundation was built for all of Father’s future negotiations with Kennedy, Leonid Brezhnev’s with a whole series of American Presidents, and Mikhail Gorbachev’s with Ronald Reagan. In 1959 there was no longer talk of an inevitable and imminent war. Leaders of the two countries were working out the conditions for peaceful coexistence on our planet.
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.
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.
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.
The Cold War has now passed into history. But the transition is far from complete. We stand at the beginning of a new phase of the transitional period and again face a real danger of new (so far limited, nonnuclear) armed conflicts. And God forbid that my Father’s prophecy—that as soon as a nonnuclear war seriously affects the interests of the world’s great powers, it will inevitably grow into a nuclear conflict—should come to pass. Again, just as forty years ago, our fate, the fate of the world and of humankind, depends on the wisdom of the political leaders in power.
The next historical fork in the road is now visible. We can choose the path that now appears to the strong (we don’t know who will be strong tomorrow) to be the simple and easy one: that of imposing order by fire and the sword. But this path is easy only at first, since the mindless use of force will provoke the rest of the world to increase its military and nuclear might, and the result will at best be a new spiral in something similar to the Cold War, but with new participants. At worst. … One doesn’t even want to imagine.
The leaders who replaced Father hurried to “correct his mistakes,” and the Cold War was prolonged by twenty years.
Or we can choose another path, the complicated, long, and tedious one of introducing a new world order by strengthening world institutions, primarily the United Nations. That holds no appeal for political cowboys, but the UN’s seemingly excessive bureaucratization, its habit of following every conceivable and inconceivable bureaucratic procedure, suppresses inflamed emotions and allows for consideration of the contradictory diversity of positions held by dissenting countries. Here is where we can detect the wisdom of the founding fathers of the United Nations. I think it would be just as counterproductive to neglect their counsel as to rewrite the American Constitution. UN procedures irritate the world’s politicians, just as they irritated my father in the 1960s, but that only confirms that those who devised this balanced system knew what they were doing. We can make progress only along this path. All others will lead the world into a vicious circle, from which it will always be difficult to break loose.