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Sun Jun 11 19:48:15 MDT 2000
The Philadelphia Inquirer11 June 2000[for personal use only]Book review
A son's assessment of Nikita Khrushchev
Trying to complete the rehabilitation of the Soviet leader's reputation.
Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a SuperpowerBy Sergei N. Khrushchev
Pennsylvania State University Press. 848 pp. $54.95Reviewed by Walter C.
In early 1955, just two years after the death of the execrable Joseph
Nikita S. Khrushchev (1894-1971) and his fellow members of the Presidium of
the Central Committee of the Communist Party concluded their deliberations
concerning a proposal to spend as much as a billion rubles to build a
world-class Soviet navy.Few Americans knew then, or know today, that the
Soviet leader they best remember for pounding his shoe at the United
predicting "We will bury you," and placing missiles in Cuba both carried the
fight and delivered the devastating blow against the ambitious naval
An irate Adm. Nikolai Kuznetsov, head of the Soviet navy, warned Khrushchev
in frustration: "You'll answer for this! History will never forgive you!"
For two decades, dating from Khrushchev's forced retirement in October 1964,
Kuznetsov's prediction remained plausible. But with the rise of Mikhail S.
Gorbachev and the rise to power of the "men of the 1960s," individuals who
came of age during the relatively permissive Khrushchev era, Khrushchev's
Sergei N. Khrushchev's fascinating and provocative book about his father,
Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower, constitutes a powerful
attempt to complete it.
The son persuasively demonstrates that, during the elder Khrushchev's years
in power (1953-64), "Father" transformed the Soviet Union into a nuclear
superpower while simultaneously cutting back on defense spending. Believing
that missiles rendered bombers, tanks, artillery and the surface fleet
obsolete, Khrushchev oversaw their retirement (as well as that of half the
troops who manned them) while subjecting new programs for such weapons to
Sergei Khrushchev was in a position to know. In 1958, at the age of 23, he
began 10 years of work as a control systems engineer at the Soviet missile
design bureau. Complementing his knowledge of the bureau's efforts to equip
submarines with missiles was the information he gathered while accompanying
his father to other design bureaus or meetings at which designers and
military leaders discussed Soviet weaponry.
Sergei Khrushchev also was privy to his father's views concerning
international politics, which they discussed during long after-dinner walks.
The younger Khrushchev has supplemented this direct knowledge with the work
of other scholars.
Nikita Khrushchev felt genuine outrage every time a U-2 spy plane
"insolently" penetrated Soviet airspace. Angered by what he perceived to be
America's arrogance and hypocrisy (the United States would never have
tolerated such flights over its territory), Khrushchev also feared that
intelligence data would reveal that his nuclear arsenal was actually quite
small. In his mind, once the Americans knew, it was a near certainty that
they would launch a preemptive nuclear attack.
Khrushchev's obsession about downing the U-2 resulted in one pilot's
receiving an order to ram the intruder, even if it cost him his life (the
pilot's aircraft was unarmed). The chaotic, frenzied and uncoordinated
responses that ultimately destroyed Gary Powers' U-2 also led to the downing
of a Soviet pilot.
In Khrushchev's view, nuclear missiles were the great equalizer. He was
delighted to learn that merely five such missiles could destroy England. Not
that he intended to use them. Sobering firsthand experience in the mutual
carnage with the Nazis extinguished any desire for war. England simply would
curb its imperialistic impulses as soon as it knew what he knew about his
missiles. And the development of a sufficient number of intercontinental
ballistic missiles - neither parity nor superiority was necessary - would
similarly deter the Americans.
If bluff or bravado could inflate the threat, so much the better.
Thus, an exaggerated nuclear deterrence became the cornerstone of an
essentially defensive military doctrine, which permitted massive reductions
in military manpower and conventional weapons, thereby emancipating rubles
for domestic programs.
Consequently, after one discounts the hotheads and those whose duty it was
theorize or plan to fight a nuclear war - the Soviet counterparts of U.S.
Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, among others - it becomes clear that some
vocal and predictably conservative American scholars got it quite wrong when
claiming that Soviet military expansion was relentless (William Odom) or
the Soviet Union thought it could fight and win a nuclear war (Richard
Nevertheless, Khrushchev's fears about an impending American invasion of
prompted him to deploy the great equalizer there. But it was precisely in
Cuba, in late October 1962 , where the Americans called his bluff by
compelling him to remove the missiles.Or did they?
Contrary to the early conventional wisdom in both the United States and the
Soviet Union, Sergei Khrushchev asserts that the international humiliation
associated with removing the missiles masked important Soviet victories.
Not only did the United States agree not to invade Cuba, but it also agreed
to remove its missiles from Turkey.
Most significant, Sergei Khrushchev writes, "as a result of the Cuban
Crisis, Father achieved what he was striving for all those years: American
jure recognition that the Soviet Union was its equal in destructive power."
Nuclear annihilation scared the wits out of the American people, leaving "a
permanent mark on the nation's historical memory," the younger
Sergei Khrushchev's determined effort to present matters from his father's
perspective, combined with a son's sympathies, yield obvious, if minor,
exaggerations, distortions and omissions throughout the book.
Nevertheless, Sergei Khrushchev is quite aware of the significant historical
irony that must logically follow from his account. Not only was his father
the leader who directed the Soviet Union's transformation into a superpower,
but he also was responsible for creating the conditions that led to the
demise of the superpower.
In the son's words, after Nikita Khrushchev's repudiation of Stalin's use of
terror, the party apparatus, "obedient only yesterday, stopped carrying out
or simply ignored - any of Father's orders it didn't like."
Khrushchev's failure to reform the Soviet economy provoked Leonid I.
Brezhnev's quasi-Stalinist reaction (including a significant increase in
conventional and nuclear weapons production), which ultimately cried out for
Gorbachev's (failed) attempts at perestroika.The rest is recent history.
Walter C. Uhler writes on Russian and military history for
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