In 2007, when “Khrushchev’s Cold War” was published, the Soviet archives were generally more open to Western scholars. Authors Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali had access to incredible materials – from the minutes of Politburo meetings to internal Kremlin documents the CIA would have given anything to see at the time. Their book is still of value, and not just historical value. It is a window into how an adversary thinks, as opposed to how it wishes to be perceived.
An example: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev vehemently rejected U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Open Skies” initiative. Eisenhower’s idea was that both the U.S. and Soviet Union would permit the other to conduct flights over each other’s territory to help keep track of intercontinental ballistic missile deployments. The logic was that rather than using hit-or-miss intelligence, both sides could have not only a high degree of certainty of what was there but also targeting data. That would create mutual deterrence.
Khrushchev publicly stated that he would not permit the United States to spy on the Soviets. The assumption drawn was that the Soviets would not give up their first strike option; they expected a nuclear exchange under any circumstances and were not giving up any possible advantage. The truth uncovered in Politburo minutes was that Khrushchev feared that the U.S. would discover how few ICBMs the Soviets had and that, worse, on-the-ground inspectors might discover how unreliable their ICBMs were prior to 1964. Rather than a sign of aggressive confidence, his rejection was a desire to hide the truth of Soviet weakness. In the end, it didn’t matter. American U-2s and early reconnaissance satellites gave the U.S. a clear idea of Soviet capabilities.
In his own time, the picture of Khrushchev was of an aggressive ideologue, with an explosive and unpredictable temper. What emerges in “Khrushchev’s Cold War” is a highly pragmatic figure desperately trying to hold the Soviets’ restless empire together while fending off what he saw as overwhelming American power. In Germany, Khrushchev urgently wanted the U.S. to recognize East Germany as a sovereign country; he feared that a Hungarian-style insurrection in Germany would undermine Soviet control. He saw the Americans as the architect of the Polish and Hungarian insurgencies, fed by the fact that neither country was able to develop a viable economy under the Soviet system. But a U.S. intervention in either was impossible. It was not impossible, however, that the Americans and their allies would intervene in East Germany. And given Khrushchev’s nuclear position, this could lead to disaster.
Khrushchev was not the lunatic he appeared to be at the United Nations when he took off his shoe and banged it on the table to show his displeasure with a speaker. He was painfully aware of Soviet weakness, and almost all of his moves were intended to hide or counter that weakness. Meanwhile, he was also aware that he did not have absolute control of the Politburo, whose members he had to consult at every step, and that other members might be more adventurous. Khrushchev was playing two hands: One bluffing the Americans, the other bluffing the Politburo hard-liners into thinking he was one of them.
It turns out that the conventional wisdom of Soviet power during Khrushchev’s reign was wrong. The analysis of his motives was, therefore, inaccurate and the assumption that he had Stalin-esque power was untrue. Another way to put it: Khrushchev sought to protect the Soviet Union using a bluff – a bluff that worked so well that it almost led the U.S. to create a Soviet disaster. He almost bluffed too well.
George Friedman, chairman
For two years I’ve been trying to find a post-World War II fact about Europe that my colleague Jacob Shapiro didn’t already know, but every attempt elicited the same response: “Tony Judt talked about that in ‘Postwar.’” It’s been about that long since he reviewed “Postwar” on this website, so I think an appropriate amount of time has passed to highlight it again.
Judt’s ability to craft a compelling narrative while swarming the reader with facts is something to behold. He’s especially good at exposing your misconceptions about Europe after 1945. There are some sections where he dives deep into fashion or film where I lost interest, but the explanation of countries’ strategic thinking is superb.
One of the more remarkable elements is how unique the postwar period was. It’s difficult to appreciate things like that when you’re living them, but Judt’s perspective makes so much of what has happened in the past few years seem almost inevitable. In particular, I’m thinking of the United States’ growing skepticism about the trans-Atlantic alliance and, to a lesser extent, the European Union. The postwar period and years after the Soviet Union fell made it easy to forget how deep the roots of American isolationism are, and how uninterested Americans generally are in being the world’s policeman. And yet Western European policymakers and intellectuals are still debating whether Trump’s foreign policy is a passing phase. If history is a reliable guide, it isn’t.
Relatedly, there are some aspects of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe that are jarring in the light of Brexit. For example, Judt notes that British officials worried that failing to join the European Economic Community would doom Western Europe to domination by Germany, a reality that arguably happened as soon as the euro was created but that has certainly happened since then.
A final thought – the only place I found myself questioning Judt was in his accounting of the resilience of Nazism in West Germany. It’s difficult for me to square the Germans whom Judt describes with the Germans I interact with today and what I know about recent German history. On one hand, Judt’s interpretation makes sense: A third of voters backed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in Weimar Germany’s last free and fair elections in 1932. But that’s not the same as saying “X percentage” of German voters were “Nazis,” enthusiastic or otherwise, as we think of Nazis today. I would assume that a great many Germans were official party members not because they believed in the cause but because membership was a prerequisite for various privileges, then basic rights and, in extreme cases, survival. It becomes clear later that he’s arguing that the Germany that exists today was built in the 1960s during the baby-boomer generation’s backlash against Germany’s fascist past, which helps me make sense of 2019 Germany but doesn’t change my suspicion that he somewhat overstates the Nazis’ support.
Ryan Bridges, analyst