Cold Wars lessons

Published : Oct 05, 2007 00:00 IST

The Third World was peripheral in the Cold War. Germany lay at its heart.

AROUND the time of President Vladimir Putins visit to India in January 2007, Russias Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote an article on the causes of the Cold War. Chief among them was mutual distrust and misperception. During the Second World War, the United States and the United Kingdom tolerated Soviet geopolitical claims, recognised the legitimacy of its security interests and were working consistently to integrate the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics] into the western community. The victory dramatically changed allied attitudes.

The U.S. made the same mistake after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. It sought, once again, to contain Russia and revelled in triumphalism. Russia sought respect for its security interests. The U.S. sought global hegemony. Still, Lavrov felt, it was a radically different situation. Common concerns had arisen. A joint insight into our common past will only strengthen mutual understanding and trust, enabling the two sides to finally overcome that legacy of the Cold War in world politics. He made a novel suggestion open the archives. Because what remains obscure cannot be cleared up without authentic documents. Russia is ready for joint research on a balanced basis.

Russias archives were opened dramatically in the wake of the collapsed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. The culprits had to be prosecuted. The files of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) were opened. But the party was the state. Official papers also came to light (vide Professor Melvyn P. Lefflers article entitled Inside Enemy Archives: The Cold War Reopened; Foreign Affairs, July/August 1996.) We know a lot more now, a decade later, thanks to the stupendous efforts of the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Its Director is the scholar Dr. Christian F. Ostermann. The National Security Archive has skilfully used the Freedom of Information Act to ferret out some dark secrets, the U.S. exchanges with the Taliban, for instance. Our Right to Information Act, 2005, will prove itself if it meets two tests publication of the Henderson Brooks Report on the 1962 war and lifting of the scandalous embargo of 1914 on the Shimla Conference at which the McMahon Line was drawn. Any scholar can get the documents from the British Library. One who cannot afford to go to London cannot get them from the National Archives in New Delhi. The National Archives is, of course, governed by the Right to Information Act. So is the depository of private papers of important public figures, the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library in New Delhi. What a contrast our passion for secrecy is to the openness in Russia and even in China.

Aleksandor Fursenko is one of Russias leading historians. Timothy Naftali teaches at the University of Virginia, where inter alia he directs the Kremlin Decision-Making Project at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. In 1997, they published a definitive work on the Cuban Missile Crisis, One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964. This work lives up to the high standards they had set for themselves. More records were declassified in 2003.

Using these new materials and others found in Moscow, we attempt in this book to re-create how Khrushchev viewed the Cold War and the strategies and tactics he used to fight it. Using the tools of international or comparative history, we will explore his personal responsibility for the international events that ensued. Between 1955 and 1962 the world witnessed crises in the Middle East [West Asia], Central Europe, and the Caribbean, yet war did not break out between the superpowers. Why was the world so lucky? Then in 1963, while Khrushchev was still in power, the superpowers reached an accommodation of sorts that seemed to preclude more of these crises. In piecing together the international environment in which Khrushchev operated, we also hope to show the process of action and reaction between the superpowers and the independent actions of smaller players that helped determine the way things turned out. Unwrapped and declassified, the Khrushchev who emerges was the most provocative, the most daring, and, ironically, the most desirous of a lasting agreement with the American people of any man or woman in the Kremlin.

September 8, 1961:

If Stalin and Churchill were hardliners who sought an accord, so were John Kennedy and Nikita S. Khruschev. But with a big difference. Unlike Stalin, Khruschev was an impetuous gambler. John Foster Dulles famously wrote, If you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost (Life Magazine; January 16, 1956). He never practised brinkmanship as recklessly as did Khruschev, who said on January 8, 1962, using the metaphor of a wine glass that was filled to the rim, forming a meniscus, to describe a world in which tensions were brought to a limit, Because if we dont have a meniscus, we let the enemy live peacefully. His was a diplomacy of ultimata on Berlin; of the gamble on the missiles in Cuba; and of involvement in the Third World. His colleagues had had enough of his arbitrary ways, which only one of them had the courage to criticise Anastas Mikoyan. Khruschev was in power from February 1955 to October 1964, when the Politburo ousted him. In the entire wide world, only one person accepted as true the excuse that was trotted out (age and health) V.K. Krishna Menon.

It was a peaceful affair; but it might not have been. Sometime in the spring of 1964 Brezhnev approached Shelepin and Semichastny with the request that they consider ways of assassinating Khrushchev. Perhaps his airplane could suffer an accident on one of his trips abroad. For a while planning had centred in Khrushchevs long-delayed trip to Scandinavia. In the end the idea was dropped. The circle of conspiracy was widening enough that the key plotters had reason to believe that Khrushchev would lose a vote in the Central Committee. What if he did not?

Joint research, as Lavrov advocates, can assume another form besides joint authorship active help to a national of a former adversary. Prof. William Taubman, author of acclaimed works on Stalin and the Soviet Union, has written a biography of Khruschev which Constantine Pleshakov, author of the pioneering work Inside the Kremlins Cold War, praises as one of the best books ever written about the Soviet Union. It is a work of prodigious research, based inter alia on Russian and Ukrainian sources truly a feat of scholarship. Taubman consulted a mass of archival material and interviewed members of his family, his children, grandchildren and daughter-in-law, besides many others in the country.

The biography provides the wider picture of which the subjects role during the Cold War was an important part. Both books have interesting bits about India. Khruschev was a pragmatic ideologue. Fursenko and Naftali write: Khrushchev viewed India through an ideological lens, one that inspired him to tell his colleagues in the Kremlin that the situation in India was Kerensky-like. The implication was that Jawaharlal Nehru was the interim bourgeois leader of a state headed for socialism, the historical role filled by Aleksandor Kerensky in Russia in 1917. Although he was convinced that India was in a prerevolutionary condition, Khrushchev was in no hurry to see the Nehru era end. He was disappointed by the work of the Indian Communist Party. Moscows closest allies in the subcontinent were guilty of taking a hard-line sectarian approach to the Nehru government, stressing the overthrow of the elected regime instead of exploiting Nehrus commitment to industrialisation, public education, and state property to form an alliance among the population. Flipping through Indian Communist magazines during the trip, Khrushchev found them unappealing and inflexible. Khrushchev did not want local Communist parties to impede the improvement of relations between the Soviet Union and these regimes. In particular he had high hopes for building very strong relations with India. Hence his famous visit to India in 1955 with Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin.

Khruschev was well aware of Nehrus good relations with President Eisenhower. Taubman records that during his visit to the U.S. in 1959, he told Henry Cabot Lodge that his intelligence services regularly provided him with confidential messages from Eisenhower to other world leaders. Lodge probably didnt know about a letter Eisenhower sent to Nehru on the Sino-Indian border dispute. If so, Khrushchev could supply him with a copy.

Khruschev had developed strong views on how badly Stalin and then Molotov had mishandled foreign affairs. He had just never revealed them. Khrushchev was convinced that the Cold War had not been inevitable. Although Western, especially American, arrogance irritated him, he assigned most of the blame for the international tension after the collapse of Nazi Germany to Soviet missteps. In 1945 and 1946 Stalin had pressured Turkey to force either the creation of a Soviet naval base on the Mediterranean or at least a renegotiation of the treaty that governed the use of the strait linking the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Similarly, Soviet efforts to split Iran and transform its northern province into a satellite state had compounded Western concerns that Stalin would not be satisfied with the division of Europe agreed to by the Allied powers at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945. He was also critical of the Berlin blockade of 1948.

No sooner had he come to power in 1954 than he reached out to mend fences with Tito, sign a peace treaty with Austria and hold a four-power summit in 1954, all over Foreign Minister Molotovs objections. Fursenko and Naftali reveal the tortuous decision-making in the Kremlin on the crises in Suez and Hungary in 1956 when Khruschev threatened Britain with all types of modern weapons of destruction. The British and the French quit Suez only because of American pressure.

Millions of people

It was a fateful bluff. Now it seemed to Khrushchev that he had found in the nuclear bluff an effective way to weaken Soviet adversaries on the cheap. Ironically the problem of Egyptian defence, a challenge that since July 1956 had produced ample evidence of the limits of Soviet power, served to give Khrushchev an inflated sense of what he could do abroad. Bluff was practised thereafter repeatedly on Berlin and in Cuba. The more the Western powers know that there is a balance in the area of nuclear weapons and rockets the better for us.

In March 1958, West Germanys Chancellor Konrad Adenauer pushed through the Bundestag a law permitting the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Germany lay at the centre of the conflict. Adenauer is little understood. The book reveals that behind the backs of his allies, this hardliner was secretly in constant touch with Khruschev, inviting memories of the Soviet-German Rapallo Pact of 1922. In November 1957, his Defence Minister Fronz Josef Strauss concluded a secret agreement with the Defence Minister of France on joint production of nuclear weapons. It was denounced by de Gaulle when he came to power in 1958 (Pierra Behar; Le Monde Diplomatique; April 2004). De Gaulle said: It would mean war. Khruschev tried to ward off the danger by creating the prolonged Berlin crises (1958-62). Similar calculations inspired the Cuban Missile Crisis. As Fidel Castro discovered, the real object was to tip the balance of nuclear power in favour of the Soviet Union. He felt cheated when the missiles were withdrawn under an accord with the U.S.

Ironically, all believed in the need to eliminate nuclear weapons Eisenhower, Kennedy and Khruschev. Khruschevs fatal mistake was in not realising that the U.S. could not yield on Berlin or on the Cuban missiles and retain any credibility. There had to be an adjustment of interests. Failure in Cuba paved the way for the Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Shortly thereafter, Kennedy was assassinated. In 1964, Khruschev was removed.

The explosion of nationalism in the third world made whatever trust that was possible between the superpowers even more elusive. Khrushchev and his American rivals were hostages to fortune in these countries where a few planeloads of weapons and one charismatic leader could install new regimes. One of the great myths of the Cold War was that the superpowers orchestrated events in these regions through handmade puppets. Qasim, Castro, Nkrumah, Toure, Lumumba, Souvanna, and Nasser were nobodys puppets.

Indeed, most skilfully played the superpowers off each other. Nevertheless, Washington and Moscow competed for these leaders favour, and the competition consistently undermined any gains made in discussions over the main issues dividing the superpowers in Europe or at home. Odd Arne Westads work The Global Cold War (Cambridge University Press; pages 484, $35) is an extremely able study of the ideological facade behind which the superpowers played their ruinous game in the Third World right till the mid-1990s.

Taubman provides rich insights into the personality of the man who lost power before he could reach his goals. Complicit in Stalinist crimes, Khrushchev attempted to de-Stalinise the Soviet Union. His daring but bumbling attempt to reform communism began the long, erratic process of putting a human face (initially his own) on an inhumane system. Not only did he help prepare the way for Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin a quarter of a century later, but Khrushchevs failure to set a stable and prosperous new course for his country anticipated the setbacks that would thwart their attempts at reform.

Mikhail Gorbachev regarded Brezhnevism [as] nothing but a conservative reaction against Khrushchevs attempt at reforming. Gorbachevs own generation, he added, considered itself children of the Twentieth Congress and regarded the task of renewing what Khruschev had begun as our obligation.

In undertaking his own reforms, Gorbachev was guided by Khruschevs experience. Khruschev had not gone far enough, in either analysing the roots of Stalinism or attacking them; Gorbachev would go further. Khruschevs attempt to ease the Cold War had been contradictory and self-defeating; Gorbachev would be steadier and more convincing. The apparatus broke Khrushchevs neck, Gorbachev secretly warned his colleagues when party functionaries began resisting change, and the same thing will happen now.

Checkpoint Charlie in

The Third World was peripheral in the Cold War. Germany lay at its heart. The U.K. played a vital role, which Gerald Hughes describes with impressive documentation. Lord Ismay famously remarked that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was designed to keep the U.S. in, the USSR out, and the Germans down. It knit Germany into Western defence securely.

There remained the nuclear question. Klaus Larres and Ann Lanes collection of essays record how detente failed under Nixon and Brezhnev and revived under Reagan and Gorbachev. At their summit in Reykjavik in October 1986, the latter came close to accord on abolition of nuclear weapons. H.W. Brands essay Who Won the Cold War? 1984-1991 recalls: At the final session of Reykjavik meeting, Gorbachev attempted to break the deadlock by reiterating his desire for total de-nuking. I would favour eliminating all nuclear weapons, the general secretary declared. Reagan perked up. That was what he had been aiming for all along, the President replied. Then why dont we agree on it? Gorbachev asked. Suits me fine, Reagan said.

Then came the hook. But this must be done in conjunction with a ten-year extension of the ABM treaty and a ban on the development and testing of SDI outside the laboratory, Gorbachev said. In subsequent weeks, Reagans agreement to the elimination of nuclear weapons occasioned a minor controversy. Was the President speaking in general terms of a nuclear-free world, or in particular of the kind of ten-year timetable Gorbachev proposed?

Brands remarks that the intelligentsia of the Reagan Cold War were not ready to declare their services dispensable Had Americans been less beguiled by the Cold War metaphor had it not served so many purposes beyond the realm of foreign affairs they might have recognised that the Cold War was no war at all, but simply the management of national interests in a world of competing powers. Because Americans defined their interests globally, and because Americas foremost rival possessed mighty military weapons, American interest-management involved incessant effort and careful weighing of the possibility of armed conflict. Yet, though it was new to Americans, this was the sort of thing great powers had done as long as there had been great powers. It wasnt the comparatively placid and uneventful peace Americans had gotten used to in their many years of relative insulation from world affairs, but neither was it war.

The Cold War exacted a heavy toll in material and moral terms. The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. holds that all the Defence and State Departments, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) developed vested bureaucratic interests in the theory of a militarily expansionist Soviet Union. The Cold War conferred power, money, prestige, and public influence on these agencies and on the people who ran them. By the natural law of bureaucracies, their stake in the conflict steadily grew. Outside of government, arms manufacturers, politicians, professors, publicists, pontificators, and demagogues invested careers and fortunes in the Cold War.

President John F. Kennedy remarked to Norman Cousins, the editor of the Saturday Review, in 1963: The hard-liners in the Soviet Union and the United States feed on one another. Ideas crystallized in bureaucracies resist change. Does this not strike a contemporary note for Americans and Indians alike? A recently declassified National Intelligence Estimate in the early 1980s found that the USSR posed no real threat.

The Cold War Triumphalism: The Misuse of History After the Fall of Communism edited by Ellen Schrecker (The New Press; pages 359, 19.35) is a collection of essays that describe the U.S. triumphalist mood now. Chalmers Johnsons essay rightly concludes: The Cold War in Europe is over, but that development has not ushered in a period of stable peace largely because the United States government had and still has other objectives. In retrospect it appears that both the Soviet Union and the United States lost the Cold War in Europe. The U.S. had its covert Cold War project to create a global capitalist order led by the U.S..

The contributors to this volume also recognise the importance of ideas. While it is clear that economic interests, partisan considerations and bureaucratic battles that helped to build the American Cold War polity still weigh heavily, the triumphalist narrative exerts its own power. History matters, not only in providing a set of metaphors to justify ongoing adventures, but also in shaping the contours of contemporary debates. The triumphalist version, by creating an aura of inevitability that proffers a flattened and oversimplified vision of the past, can close down that debate, just as a more nuanced interpretation opens it up by showing how individual decisions shaped policy, thus revealing the possibility of alternative paths to the present.

Barring a few, most intellectuals became advocates of confrontation, as Bruce Kuklick documents in his survey of that era.

The prestige structure of the academy and the ease with which many policy-minded intellectuals could publish and disseminate their thoughts made them believe they were giants whose ideas could decisively influence the world. They were wrong. Rather, expertise often became a pawn in the power struggles that it was supposed to circumvent.

The RANDs social scientists offered formulations that were subservient to politics. In a devastating passage, Kuklick remarks: It is worth noting the role of hubris among the intellectuals. The social expense of expertise was great. The men of knowledge did well by their society, yet their actual knowledge was minimal while their sense of self-regard and scholarly hand-waving was maximal. They did their best work in constructing ways of thinking that absolved leadership of liability, deserved or not. Undoubtedly there was a symbiosis between the defence specialists and the non-intellectual elite that wanted their services in places of power, but the culture paid a pretty penny for the expertise, especially when so many of intellectuals disdained a democratic public.

The Wests experience is very relevant to us, locked as we are in two cold wars, a noisy one with Pakistan and a silent one with China. What a thoughtful diplomat, Thomas W. Simons Jr, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, said at the United Service Institution in New Delhi on November 27, 1996, should provoke serious reflection: My sense is that elite opinion in both countries is still very attached to the concepts which prevailed during the Cold War, and that these more recent developments may be as distasteful here as in Pakistan. But new realities are emerging. We [in the U.S.] preserved our liberties, but we paid for the Cold War with a serious degradation of many of our basic national structures: our schools, our roads, our duties, and our civil courtesies. If we now seem absorbed as a nation with our domestic affairs, it is partly because we need to repair and revitalise those structures. We earnestly hope our friends and partners in the new international community will have the wisdom and good fortune to bypass this painful series of steps, which is such a drain on human and economic resources better applied to the normal activities of free societies.

He pleaded with India and Pakistan to develop a national mood of reflective confidence. Thoughtful Americans admit to the follies which their country committed. When will we admit to ours?

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