Some of the Cold War’s hottest crises erupted during Nikita Khrushchev’s years of power (1955–1964) atop the Soviet Union. Access to hitherto unopened Politburo and Soviet intelligence documents enabled Russian historian Aleksandr Fursenko and U.S. historian Timothy Naftali to write Khrushchev’s Cold War, an eye-opening version of fateful events from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
During Khrushchev’s tenure, how close did the United States and the USSR come to actual war?
I think we came close to a shooting war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, because the Soviets had moved so much strategic material to the Caribbean that they raised the stakes enormously.
What was most critical about that moment?
The Soviets had a lot of very, very powerful weapons, including submarines with nuclear-tipped torpedoes. The commanders of those submarines were instructed to defend their submarines, and the manner of defense was left ambiguous. Imagine putting a nuclear stockpile on the very frontier of your empire, with the enemy right there and able to capture that stockpile. That’s dangerous. Do you use or lose it?
What might have touched off a war?
If President Kennedy had approved a military strike, Khrushchev would have faced the problem of how to respond: Do you allow 15,000-plus Soviet technicians and soldiers to lose, or to defend themselves with their best weapons? Fortunately, the questions never arose, because Kennedy decided not to use force.
Why did Khrushchev take such risks?
He wanted to risk war to make peace. It’s paradoxical, unless you look at the evidence. Then you see that Khrushchev is consistently trying to gain American respect so that Americans will accept his vision for the postwar world. Whenever Americans don’t accept his vision, he blames it on the fact that they don’t respect Soviet power. So he’s upping the ante.
Was he bluffing?
In international politics, perception is king. Khrushchev believed that even though the Soviet Union is far inferior to the United States in strategic power, through the calculated use of bluff Moscow can still get its way.
Strategically, how did the Cuban misadventure fit into Khrushchev’s plans?
Khrushchev had in mind a spectacular diplomatic crisis in November 1962: The missiles would be in Cuba and ready to go. Khrushchev would come to the United States, and in the U.N. he would stand up and say, “Mr. Kennedy, I’m giving you a choice: You can have war or peace. We can make war, but we prefer peace, and if we’re going to have peace…” And then he would list all the things he was going to negotiate for— Berlin, Laos and the test-ban issue—and say, “You can have all this, or we’re going to have to push you to the brink of war.”
He laid out this strategy to a number of people beforehand. I saw the minutes of his meeting with the West German ambassador, and he laid out to him: “I’m going to have a crisis in November, and we’re going to get what we want. Kennedy will have the choice, and he will have to choose peace.” It’s the missiles in Cuba that made the difference. That’s what he had in mind. But it all collapses when a U-2 finds the missiles. So he’s no longer in a position to pull this kind of stunt.
What was Khrushchev’s real opinion of Kennedy?
Khrushchev underestimated Kennedy. He thought he was weak. You only learn this from the Soviet side, but they had a very strange understanding of the United States: They saw our leadership as divided into hawks and doves. The hawks were in the Pentagon and the CIA and on Wall Street; the doves were everybody else. A strong president was one who could control the hawks.
Would they rather have dealt with hawks or doves?
They preferred to deal with conservatives and Republicans, because then they knew they were speaking to the hawks. But during the Cuban Missile Crisis, they learned that Kennedy controlled his military. He came out of that crisis a much stronger man in their eyes—someone they could do business with. Khrushchev was more willing in 1963 to satisfy his concerns diplomatically and politically.
So it wasn’t that Khrushchev believed the Soviets Union could win a nuclear exchange?
He never thought that. Khrushchev was ideological. He believed history belonged to the Soviet system. But the one thing that could deflect history was the nuclear weapon. He feared a nuclear war, because he saw the United States winning it. That’s what made his calculations so risky.
Was there ever really a “missile gap”?
Yes, but it was the other way around. We enjoyed immense superiority. The missile gap and the window of vulnerability were issues for the Soviets, not for us. Khrushchev’s Cuban gambit was his attempt to close that window.
Did the Soviets move missiles to Cuba because they didn’t have ICBMs?
Their ICBM system was failing. Khrushchev was not able to build as many as the U.S. They were liquid-fueled ICBMs that were hard to maintain. You couldn’t leave fuel in the missile for any period of time, because it would actually eat through the missile and become unstable. The only way you could use a force like that is to strike first. And since they had only one-tenth the missiles we had, a first strike would be an act of suicide.
How well prepared were the Soviets for a land war in Europe?
There’s a lot of evidence they weren’t well prepared for a land war either. They were suffering from shortages in ball bearings and rubber, which are really important. There’s no evidence that in the Khrushchev era the Soviets ever contemplated a land war.
Were they aware of how much the military was costing?
The evidence is very strong that the Soviet leadership was aware of the deficiencies on the civilian side in their country. They wanted to shift resources from the military economy to the civilian economy. They realized that in comparison to the United States, the Soviet Union looked economically weak.The fact that they had to buy butter and meat in Europe for their people was a matter of disgrace.
How did Khrushchev address that?
Khrushchev tries to expand the economy and the amount of territory under the plow, but that’s not enough. He tries to moderate purchases abroad, because they are a drain on his gold supply, but that doesn’t work. He concludes that one very important piece of the solution would be reducing defense expenditures. He shifts to nuclear purchases because nuclear weapons are cheaper than conventional weapons. Then he stops some programs that Stalin had begun. The most important is that he stops their aircraft carrier program.
Did we misread Soviet intentions?
Absolutely. The Soviet Union’s power position would change in the late ’60s, because they learned from Khrushchev’s approach that it was dangerous not to have at least some strategic parity. So they pushed forward with technological advances. MIRV, for example, in the 1970s, which then gave them a formidable strike force, but only an ICBM strike force. Their submarines were still behind ours, and in terms of aircraft they were far behind us.
Was the Cuban Missile Crisis Khrushchev’s greatest crisis?
It was his greatest folly.
How effective was U.S. intelligence about Soviet capabilities at the time?
Before 1961, U.S. intelligence on Soviet intentions and capabilities was awful. After 1961, U.S. intelligence on Soviet capabilities was pretty good, but on intentions it has never been very good. We’re very bad at analysis of the soft side of our enemies.
Because until recently we didn’t encourage people with foreign languages to join our government, so we haven’t a clue about what other cultures are like.
How effective was Soviet intelligence about the U.S.?
It was pitiful.
Were there any real Cold War intelligence successes?
The one good human intelligence story from this period on our side was Oleg Penkovsky. He gave us manuals of their intermediate range ballistic missiles. With those manuals, our photo interpreters were able to pinpoint the missiles that the Soviets were putting in Cuba. These analysts were able to say to the president, “Without any doubt, these, sir, are nuclear missiles.” That’s the high point of American intelligence during the Cold War. But as far as intentions were concerned, we had nothing good, and the Soviets were even worse.
What lesson did you take away from all this?
One of the great challenges for Americans, I believe, is not to fear our adversaries too much. Historically, we tend to exaggerate the power of our adversaries when they are states. We underestimate non-state threats, and we exaggerate state threats.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.