Blogs > HNN > Richard B. Speed: Review of Alexandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, Khrushchev's Cold War: The Inside Story of An American Adversary (W.W. Norton, 2006)

Mar 25, 2007 7:25 pm

Richard B. Speed: Review of Alexandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, Khrushchev's Cold War: The Inside Story of An American Adversary (W.W. Norton, 2006)

A decade ago when Alexandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali wrote “One Hell of a Gamble:” Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964, it immediately became the leading work on the Cuban missile crisis and its origins. It was one of a relatively short list of works based upon recently opened Soviet archives. A decade later the list has grown longer and Fursenko and Naftali have collaborated again, this time widening their lens to produce a revisionist account of Nikita Khrushchev’s conduct of the Cold War from 1955 when he emerged as the preeminent figure in the Kremlin until he was removed in a bloodless coup in 1964. Like their previous volume on the missile crisis, Khrushchev’s Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary, will become a standard account.

Between 1955 and 1964, most western observers, including the leading advisers to Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, viewed Nikita Khrushchev as a mercurial reformer who sought “peaceful coexistence” with the West yet periodically provoked serious military confrontations. The problem they believed, was that he was surrounded by a coterie of “hard-line” generals, intelligence officers, and Marxist ideologues who would not permit him to pursue his diplomatic objective. Accordingly when crises such as those related to the U-2 incident of 1960, or the construction of the Berlin Wall arose, many in the West, both official and journalistic, had a tendency to blame the hardliners who surrounded him. In this view, Khrushchev had no choice but to appease them.

Based upon their access to the transcripts of meetings of the Presidium (the body which replaced the Politburo during Khrushchev’s tenure) Naftali and Fursenko demonstrate convincingly that this was not true. Khrushchev was not surrounded by hardliners bent on confrontation. In fact, Khrushchev himself was the chief architect of Soviet foreign policy and it was he who deliberately set out to provoke a series of confrontations with the United States and its allies. Indeed, the archives reveal that Anastas Mikoyan was the only member of the Presidium who consistently opposed Khrushchev and counseled a more cautious path. In short, the crises of the period, were generally of Khrushchev’s making.

According to Fursenko and Naftali, Khrushchev believed that if the Americans knew how far ahead they were in the strategic nuclear balance of power, they would exploit their advantage and destroy the Soviet Union. Soviet nuclear inferiority had to be hidden. This, they explain is why Khrushchev rejected Eisenhower’s “Open Skies” proposal in 1955. Until the Soviet Union could catch up with the Americans, it would have to act as though it actually was the strategic equal of the United States. The way to do this, he told his colleagues early in 1962 as he was on the brink of taking his most dangerous nuclear gamble, was to maintain such a high level of tension in international affairs that the Americans would respect the Soviet position and make concessions which they otherwise would not. In discussing this Soviet version of “brinkmanship,” he alluded to the “meniscus” or surface tension which holds wine within a glass even if filled slightly above the brim. Indeed he argued that the Soviet Union needed to raise the level of meniscus in international affairs to the point that so much as one additional drop would cause the wine to overflow—or war to break out. But since he realized the extent of Soviet nuclear inferiority, Khrushchev was careful to be sure that last drop of wine was never poured and the flood of thermonuclear catastrophe never took place. In short, Khrushchev was a gambler who played for the highest stakes imaginable, and in the process risked the very existence of the Soviet Union itself.

Naftali and Fursenko find the origin of this remarkable strategy of thermonuclear bluff in Khrushchev’s erroneous conclusion that the British had backed down during the Suez Crisis of 1956 because they were intimidated by his threats to bombard London and Paris with nuclear tipped rockets the USSR did not have but successfully pretended to possess. This conclusion they argue, was reinforced when the British and Americans chose not to invade Iraq in 1958 in the wake of a coup which overthrew the pro-western monarchy and installed the regime of General ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim who had threatened to withdraw from the Baghdad Pact. The British and Americans had their own reasons for not acting, but Khrushchev once again drew the erroneous conclusion that Soviet threats to use rockets they did not have, had deterred the “imperialists,” and forced them to withdraw. If such empty threats could be so effective in regions where the Soviet Union had virtually no conventional military forces available, Khrushchev concluded that they would be even more potent in the heart of Europe where the Soviet army had overwhelming numerical superiority. It was this reasoning, combined with the gathering economic crisis in East Germany that led directly to the succession of Berlin crises which culminated in the construction of the wall in 1961.

Although many in the West assumed that Khrushchev and East German leader Walter Ulbricht had achieved their aim of staunching the flow of refugees through Berlin by building the wall, Khrushchev in fact had greater objectives which were thwarted first by Ike and then by JFK, each of whom had called his bluff. They had done so because Allied rights in Berlin were something which no American president could compromise, but also because both were well aware of Soviet nuclear inferiority—a fact which had been revealed first by U-2 flights and later by satellite photography. Accordingly each knew that in this game of thermonuclear chicken, Khrushchev would have to swerve first. In short, Americans held a position of strength and they knew it, while the Soviets seemed locked into a position of weakness which meant that they would always have to back down. This situation galled Khrushchev, who as Naftali and Fursenko reveal, resolved to even the balance in Cuba.

According to Fursenko and Naftali, during 1960 and 1961 Khrushchev had hoped that Soviet science and industry would soon produce ICBMs in sufficient quantity, and off sufficient quality to quickly close the “missile gap” he so acutely knew favored the Americans. But by late 1961 it became clear that the Soviet ICBM program was falling further behind and that the Americans might soon establish an insurmountable lead in this critical field as they would soon deploy both the solid fuelled Minuteman missile, and the Polaris nuclear submarines with their complement of sixteen IRBMs which could be fired from beneath the sea. Early in 1962 the Soviets had some twenty cumbersome, liquid fuelled ICBMs with the range, but not necessarily the accuracy, to hit American targets. This is where Cuba came in. Ever since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 Fidel Castro had been asking for Soviet arms and equipment with which to repel an American attack, but Khrushchev had ignored these requests. But then he had a brainstorm. Why not, he asked Defense Minister Rodion Malinovsky, “put a hedgehog down their [the American’s] trousers?” By this he meant, why not place forty Soviet medium and intermediate range missiles, of which they had a greater supply, into Cuba? If this could be done surreptitiously it would triple the number of Soviet nuclear warheads within striking range of American cities. At a stroke it would even the strategic balance and eliminate Soviet inferiority.

Once this plan was successfully implemented Khrushchev planned to inform Kennedy of the shift in the balance of power and then insist that JFK make the concessions on Berlin and Germany that he had resisted previously. Khrushchev intended to confront JFK with this after the November elections because he was afraid that if he did so before the elections the American people might vote a belligerent Republican majority into Congress. Fursenko and Naftali describe the discussion of this plan which took place in the Presidium and reveal that the only significant opposition came from Anastas Mikoyan who as usual urged caution. In the discussion of the crisis which followed, the authors amplify their earlier work on the basis of newly available material.

Khrushchev’s Cold War does not focus exclusively on crises, although it does review a range of additional issues including Khrushchev’s response to the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the crises in both Laos and the Congo. In fact one of the book’s greatest strengths lies in its discussion of the personality of this remarkable individual. Often described as “mercurial” or impulsive, he also seems to have suffered a profound sense of both personal and national inferiority which often expressed itself in ways which would be comical were they not potentially so serious. Fursenko and Naftali describe, for example, his reaction when he arrived for the 1955 Geneva Conference with Eisenhower. While Ike arrived in a 113 foot long Lockheed Super Constellation, he arrived in a 73 foot Ilyushin 14 which he told his son looked “like an insect” in comparison. When he returned home he demanded that his civil aircraft designers build a more suitable aircraft. The result was the was the enormous Tu-114 which he insisted on flying to the U.S. four years later when he went to meet Ike at Camp David, despite fears by Tupolev engineers that microscopic cracks in the fuselage might widen during the flight and cause the plane to crash. When the plane finally arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, the ground crew discovered that the plane was so large that they had no boarding ladders large enough to reach the forward hatch. The result was that Khrushchev and his party had to disembark through the emergency escape ladder at the rear of the plane!

This is a compellingly well written book, full of lively anecdotes and revealing details which make for a convincing picture. Solidly based upon archival research, it makes a major contribution to our understanding of the Cold War during one of its most critical periods.

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