Appearances and reality in superpower negotiations

Although nominally discussing the same events of the Cuban and Berlin crises of the early 1960’s, the corresponding passages by both Wilfried Loth in Overcoming the Cold War: A History of D├ętente, 1950-1991, and by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali in Khrushchev's Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary exhibit so much bias towards their respective political leanings that both read like timelines of very different events. It seems that post-WWII history, especially the history of the Cold War, still has so much emotional impact that a dispassionate account of the events is rather difficult to achieve even by accomplished scholars.

Wilfried Loth in particular seems to place much of the blame for the escalation of the second Berlin crises and of the Cuban missile crisis on a lack of cooperation on Kennedy’s part while portraying Khrushchev as the more reasonable leader, while Fursenko and Naftali diagnose Khrushchev’s militant attitude as the root cause of both escalations. Selective use of primary sources strengthens their respective arguments, but a closer cross-reference of facts and documents significantly changes the picture – and makes it clear that there is no such thing as black-and-white allocation of blame rationally possible under the circumstances. That is why an opportunity to review primary documents is so important in the search of an objective historiography – although the amount of missing, still classified or lost documents nevertheless leaves a great deal to personal interpretation.

It seems particularly striking how much both sides in this conflict cared about prestige, both the personal prestige of their leaders and their collective prestige as nations. Thus, resolving a crisis seemed to take second seat to the more important question of saving face and preserving one’s reputation than actually doing whatever it took to avoid World War III, ending in a nuclear holocaust - an outcome nobody wanted nor could have had an interest in the first place. These considerations of “prestige” and care for the avoidance of the appearance of conceding too much are evident not only from the Kennedy-Khrushchev negotiations, but even in the response of October 10, 1962 by Robert Kennedy and his astounding refusal to deliver one of Khrushchev’s letters to his brother the president, worrying that a subsequent resurfacing of this letter might ruin certain prospects of his political career. Nevertheless, the connection between resolving the Cuban crisis and the dismantling of American nuclear missiles in Turkey seemed clear, especially when John Kennedy ordered the wiretapping of his offices in a controversial decision that might have been as much his eventual undoing as it had been intended as a precaution against adverse judgment by posterity. 

In the case of West Berlin and the entire German question, the unwavering attitudes of both the US and the Soviet Union explain why the matter was allowed to drag on for so long. Here again, aspects of “prestige” and of “national interests” did not allow either party to seriously consider compromises that could have resolved the paradoxical situation. But while the US was mostly interested in preserving the status quo - and Kennedy indeed occasionally accused Khrushchev of attempts at a “provocational and unjustified alteration of the status quo” (Loth p.72) - the Soviet Union pushed to change the balance of the situation through a series of self-provoked crises and ultimatums (almost year after year) that ultimately had to be withdrawn, damaging both its reputation among its allies and Khrushchev’s personal political power and credibility. Also, not least, the “revelation of Khrushchev’s ongoing bluff regarding spectacular technological successes such as the launching of Sputnik in October 1957 and the space flight of astronaut Yuri Gagarin in April 1961 called into question his authority in his own camp once again” (Loth 67).

In this respect, individual leaders seemed to be in a very precarious personal situation: although Khrushchev dismissingly characterized Kennedy as “a man without authority,” unable to bind his government by his decisions, Khrushchev also had to watch his back in the quasi-democratic bodies of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and the Politburo,  where the leadership was not all that easily swayed, as demonstrated by the need to suspend discussion in the Presidium on placing nuclear missiles in Cuba until Khrushchev could exert effective pressure on its individual members to dispel their initial objections. Kennedy also had to almost implore Khrushchev to give him a few weeks “without any Berlin headlines” so he could placate the military establishment and its supporters in Congress. Kennedy was even more restrained by public opinion, especially in view of the upcoming congressional elections where he needed to secure a Democrat majority to meaningfully continue his cooperation with Khrushchev – a fact Khrushchev acknowledged and tried to accommodate, asking Kennedy about convenient timing of his actions around the elections. In this context, Stalin’s one-man rule proved a much easier process than having to navigate various political coteries, but it was also clearly more susceptible to abuses and unreasonable policies. It is also fascinating to see how routine public propaganda that had been in place already since Eisenhower had precious little to do with the discussions behind the scenes and with the actual cooperation between outwardly ostentatiously adversarial leaders.

In the case of Berlin, the respective German leaders seemed to be almost as much at fault for sustaining the position of West Berlin as the primary hotbed of political unrest and exacerbating the Cold War as were the political ambitions of the “principal players,” the United States and the Soviet Union. Konrad Adenauer’s intrigues supported by Charles de Gaulle prevented the US from reaching any compromise with the Soviet Union, while the pressures of Walter Ulbricht on the Soviet Union, and later also his independent actions in Berlin, provoked successive escalations of crises. Ulbricht might also be blamed for the meniscus concept of Khrushchev’s foreign policy – if the status quo was unacceptable, as Ulbricht did not tire of reminding Khrushchev, then the U.S. side needed to be pressured by continued unrest into adjusting its attitude. The art was obviously not to let the purposely thinly stretched film of peace rupture into open armed conflict, something Khrushchev inched toward causing more than once.  This mutual arm-twisting accompanied by the exploitation of any perceived temporary vulnerabilities of the adversary showed that, although they were, in fact, cooperating behind the scenes to avoid a war, both sides were equally ambitious and ready at all times to move toward establishing their own political and military supremacy.

Any analysis of Soviet military and economic potential shows that while the United States never needed to worry about its superiority in either area, ineffectual intelligence and exaggerated fears pushed the U.S. into  continued military spending seeking to close a perceived if nonexistent “missile gap.” Once data were made public that showed U.S. missiles in a 17:1 ratio to those of the Soviet Union (which also happened to be technologically inferior), there was no reason to continue this traditional arms race. The U.S. always maintained strategic advantage over the Soviet Union, not least because of the geographic position of the U.S., and also because the Soviet Union was surrounded (“encircled”) by Western allies that were all equipped with U.S. missiles and U.S.-equipped troops. The enduring anti-communist propaganda aimed at inciting fear of the “Red Danger” therefore did not reflect a legitimate military or strategic need of successive U.S. administrations, but it was primarily a politically convenient tool to be exploited in elections for the manipulation of voters into accepting certain strategic decisions (including concomitant military budgets) that had precious little to do with any real national security concerns. As always, exploiting popular fears of war increased the political influence and importance of the “madmen at the Pentagon,” as Khrushchev called them. This long-term brainwash of the American public (but also of U.S. ruling elites, including notorious war-mongers in Congress) became a major impediment to achieving any rapprochement and peaceful coexistence with the communist bloc. In this situation, saber-rattling by Stalin and later Khrushchev was simply the exaggeratedly aggressive posture of a weaker opponent trying to compensate for his strategic inferiority. Of course, such actions fed into the military-industrial propaganda of the U.S., but also, to a much lesser extent, of other allied Western powers.

The timing of JFK’s assassination is interpreted differently by both authors: while Loth places it in the middle of crucial events that consequently stalled an otherwise imminent rapprochement, thus leaving it open to interpretation that military circles might have had an interest in the event at Dallas, and possibly a hand in preventing the upcoming Kennedy-Khrushchev summit, Fursenko and Naftali portray the situation as already stabilized after both crises, and suggest that the Kennedy assassination might have been an inconvenience, but not a major stumbling block in the development of Cold War history.

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