How misreading Khrushchev led to confrontation

May 6, 2011

Five years after his forced retirement, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1969 would concede to the American physician A. McGhee Harvey, a specialist who had visited Moscow to treat his daughter, that his watershed political event – the moment after which he “was no longer in full control” of the Kremlin — had been the Soviet shooting down of the U-2 American spy plane in May of 1960.

Finding that morsel of insight in a Life magazine interview with Dr. Harvey was the confirmation I had been seeking. There was ample evidence that Khrushchev was in a weakened political state as 1961 began, helping to explain the volatile swings in his behavior toward Kennedy early in the year, but to read Khrushchev’s corroboration of May 1960 as a turning point was powerful.

It also explained why Khrushchev, several days after the U-2 incident, had decided to sabotage the Paris Summit with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, after the U.S. leader refused to publicly apologize for the overflights. Moscow papers had trumpeted the gunning down of the sophisticated spy plane as a Soviet military triumph, and Khrushchev swaggered through a Moscow public exhibit that displayed the aircraft’s remains. Yet within days of the event, Khrushchev recognized that the U-2 incident posed greater dangers to him than to the Americans.

Sadly, Kennedy never appreciated Khrushchev’s domestic challenges from rivals who would be far troublesome partners for Washington. If he had, he may have more confidently embraced Khrushchev’s peace gestures on his first day in office – the release of captured American pilots and the uncensored publication in the Soviet media of his inaugural speech. These reflected Khrushchev genuine desire for improved relations, but he would have trouble sustaining them against opponents without impressive, compensating U.S. gestures. Instead, however, Kennedy grew obsessed with a routine Khrushchev propaganda speech as evidence that he planned to escalate the Cold War, when Khrushchev was merely protecting his hard-line flank.

Historians, in general, underestimate the power of domestic politics in shaping any country’s foreign policy. That is even truer in authoritarian countries, whether today’s Iran or Khrushchev’s Soviet Union, where domestic politics is more hidden and more difficult to gauge, yet no less decisive.

From May 1960 forward, Khrushchev had to defend himself against adversaries who argued that the U.S. spy plane incursions of Soviet territory proved beyond any doubt that the Soviet leader’s approach of peaceful coexistence with the West was fruitless, naïve and dangerous. His political enemies at home and abroad, neutralized after the failed 1957 coup attempt against him, began to regroup.

China’s Mao Tse-tung publicly condemned Khrushchev’s wooing of the Americans as “communist betrayal,” and he plotted behind the scenes within the growing, international Communist world to encourage Khrushchev’s removal. Soviet party officials and military brass questioned Khrushchev’s troop reductions, arguing that he was undermining their ability to defend the homeland.

However, Americans were so caught up in anti-Communist fervor that it was difficult for public opinion to accept that Khrushchev was an instinctive reformer, if a highly erratic one, who had defined his leadership by breaking with Stalin’s excesses. He had accepted Finnish and Austrian neutrality, and until the Hungarian uprising in 1956 had embraced political liberalization in Eastern Europe. He hadn’t chosen his course of peaceful coexistence with the West for altruistic reasons, but because he had concluded that the Soviet economy couldn’t support an ongoing confrontation.

Yet as so often would be the case during the Berlin Crisis of 1961, events would be driven not by the facts but by misunderstandings and miscommunication.

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communism is a bad disease created my idealistic monsters to make people equally poor and powerless… human spirit can not be contained in a one size fits all model… what a waste of human power… any regime that can create Stalin should be punished without parole…

Posted by Ocala123456789 | Report as abusive

Sadly, Soviet style political control seems to be the objective of the evolving American Government. The only debate seems to be which figure should control the monolith.

The USA is having an identity crisis few seem to realize.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Yet again more proof that Saint John was one of the worst US presidents. Camelot…not.

Posted by VodKnockers | Report as abusive

President Kennedy was a man of his time. Sure mistakes were made by the Kennedy family. Organized labor was one of them. Thank God for Hoffa! Even though the man had his faults too, he also had guts. And so did Kennedy. The Cuban missile crisis proved that. He also knew what the definition of liberal was.
So far as President Obama goes, what do you expect? A magic wand maybe? The man is doing a fantastic job considering the first two years of his presidency was deterred with a record number of filibusters and deterrents to progress. Tax cuts for the rich? And now the republicans want to talk about deficits?
Its not Obama and the democrats, its communist infiltration by special interest and the republican party! Or haven’t you noticed that its all about the two% special interest? The same idiots that support the tea party and other organized right wing groups. Whats really sick about it is that their supporters are to stupid to realize their being bought and sold by the special interest right wing and the republican leadership!
Use to be a republican, voted for Bush one and Reagan, should of voted for Clinton, knew better than to vote for Bush two. During the second term of
Clinton my registration changed to a JFK liberal independent. Don’t see any sign of intelligence in the republican party at the moment. President Obama and his wife are the best example of the black race I have ever seen. And I am going to support them until they convince me other wise. And I don’t see that happening! He and his wife are excellent specimens of one of the greatest colleges in the world. Thats more than I can say for Bush, Trump or any of the other republican contenders. And if the republican contenders cared about America they would be supporting President Obama instead of bigotizing him!

Posted by cocostar | Report as abusive

Reading the clause at the end: “he had concluded that the Soviet economy couldn’t support an ongoing confrontation” brings to mind a mirror image of what the US is confronting these 50 years later. The great Soviet empire was defeated, NOT by tanks and fighter planes, or even by ICBM’s or even Special Forces teams…. It was defeated by a strong capitalist economy that could produce washing machines for nearly every household, along with TV’s and automobiles. Now that capitalist machine is in danger of being killed by it’s own excesses. Are we just repeating their mistake????? Can a weakened American economy continue to support ongoing confrontation?
Most historians fail to see that internal politics often play a bigger role than they realize…. Particularly when a country is sliding into obscurity….

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

My God. And I thought to comments on the Daily Mail website were depressing.

Posted by RoseGray7 | Report as abusive