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Were there missed opportunities to unwind the tensions of the Cold War? This question was raised by my holiday reading: Bridge of Spies, by Giles Whittell. The book was published in 2011 by Simon & Schuster. (Since then Steven Spielberg has made a film with the same title. The relationship between the book and the film is currently in dispute. The book is great. I'm told the film is decent, but I haven't seen it yet; my remarks are based entirely on the book.)
The book tells the stories that came together in a prisoner exchange across the Gleinicke Bridge that joined East and West Berlin on 10 February 1962. For present purposes, the story that matters is that of Francis Gary Powers, an American U-2 (spy plane) pilot, shot down over the Urals on 1 May 1960. After parachuting to safety, Powers was captured, put on trial, and imprisoned. The author links this moment to a missed chance for peace in the Cold War. His argument goes like this.
In the 1950s, there was a Soviet-American race to develop long-range nuclear missiles. Both sides had atomic weapons that could be delivered by planes, but planes were slow and could be intercepted. Ballistic missiles would take nuclear attack and counter-attack to a new level: fast and certain. The arms race was becoming more dangerous.
In point of fact, however, in the late 1950s neither side actually had a reliable long-range missile. Rocket science meant filling a giant tube with an oxidizer and an oxidant and setting them on fire in the hope that they would burn smoothly, not just blow up. Mostly they blew up.
There was one difference between the two sides. The American failures were public. The Soviet failures were hidden from view. They were concealed by two things. One was intense secrecy. The other was a veneer of success. As far as both the American and the Soviet publics were concerned, the Soviets were winning the space race. They were first with a space rocket, first with an orbiting satellite (the famous sputnik), and first with a dog in a spaceship, all in 1957. Judged on that basis, the Soviet missile programme was more advanced. In 1958 and 1959 the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made several claims of a successful, large-scale Soviet missile programme that strongly reinforced this impression.
Only one of these claims is reported in Bridge of Spies, but they are collated in a declassified CIA report dated 21 January 1960as follows. In November 1958, Khrushchev announced that Soviet intercontinental missile production was set up and ready to go. In January 1959 he repeated this announcement, referring specifically to “serial” production, implying large numbers. In November of the same year, he told journalists: “In one year, 250 missiles with hydrogen warheads came off the assembly line in the factory we visited.” (But he did not state that they were intercontinental missiles.) And, in January 1960, he announced a substantial cutback of Soviet conventional forces, offering as the public justification: “We already have so many nuclear weapons … and the necessary rockets … that … we would be able literally to wipe the country or countries which attack us off the face of the earth” (my emphasis).
(More famously, but less precisely, at a reception held in November 1956, Khrushchev had told the assembled NATO ambassadors: "We will bury you," using the Russian verb for interment of the dead.)
During 1958 and 1959 the Americans who took Khrushchev seriously raised the alarm: there was a "missile gap," they claimed, that US President Eisenhower had allowed to grow from complacency and lack of effort. Eisenhower tried to manage his critics by looking for independent evidence of the true size of the Soviet missile programme. The evidence would come from a secret CIA operation, a squadron of camera-laden spy planes overflying Soviet territory at super-high altitudes, above the reach of Soviet air defences.
In reality, Khrushchev was bluffing America over his WMD programme—a risky activity, as Saddam Hussein would later discover. The huge Soviet space rocket that was lifting satellites into orbit was completely unsuitable for a surprise nuclear attack, as Whittell explains: it "took days to fuel and was impossible to hide." Meanwhile, Khrushchev’s bluff was going wrong: it was stirring the United States into a military-industrial mobilization. If that worked, the Soviet Union would have no choice but to turn the bluff into reality. For the Soviet economy, only a fraction the size of the far wealthier United States, that looked ruinously expensive.
By 1960, therefore, Khrushchev was regretting his bluff. In January he announced a major cutback of conventional forces—justifying it by claims of Soviet nuclear strength. According to Bridge of Spies, moreover, he was preparing a daring initiative to end the missile race—a chance for peace in the gloom of the Cold War. In return for American restraint, he would offer to bargain away something that he didn't actually have: a successful Soviet missile programme. If the Americans would agree not to build missiles, the Soviet side would agree to stand down Khrushchev’s missiles. Without missiles, the balance of terror would recede, and the world would be spared the pointless expenditure of trillions of dollars on nuclear overkill.
What could go wrong? While Khrushchev was forming his plan, the Americans were trying to uncover the truth—and they were beginning to succeed. The CIA spy planes had found most of the Soviet potential manufacturing, test, and launch sites, and there was no sign of hundreds of missiles. Still, the picture remained worryingly incomplete, and the U-2 programme continued.
Then, disaster struck. On May Day, 1960, while Khrushchev reviewed the annual military parade in Red Square, a new Soviet anti-air missile shot down the U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers. Khrushchev made a huge public fuss. A planned East-West summit was cancelled. There was no Soviet arms control initiative. The missile race went on, and led quickly to the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. This came in 1962 with Khrushchev’s attempt to place nuclear missiles in Cuba.
So, Whittell suggests, the chance for peace was lost. But I began to wonder. My first question was: if a chance was lost, who lost it? That is, who should have behaved differently? Whittel does not criticize the actions of Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, who is portrayed as seeking peace. Nor does he question the decisions made by Eisenhower, the American leader, who resisted the escalation of tensions, and looked to the CIA and its U-2 programme for supportive evidence. As for Powers, he was just a soldier.
Those whom Bridge of Spies holds accountable are the American promoters of the “missile gap” theory: the profit-seeking entrepreneurs (Thomas Lanphier), position-seeking politicians (Allen Dulles and Stuart Symington), and headline-seeking journalists (Joseph Alsop and Frank Gibney) of the US military-industrial complex. Also, let’s not forget the US presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who campaigned successfully in 1960 on closing the “missile gap.”
Still, one wonders: how should these people have behaved differently? In hindsight they were wrong, and hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially for historians. At the time, however, how should they have known that Khrushchev lied? The Soviet Union was then, as before and afterwards, shrouded by the most intense secrecy the world had ever known. Why, and what did the secrecy conceal? Eisenhower’s intuition was that Khrushchev’s claims were a bluff, but he did not know for sure; that’s why he approved the U-2 spy plane programme. Dulles, Symington, and the others did not know for sure either, but at least they had evidence on their side in the public claims of the Soviet leader himself.
Was there really a lost chance for peace in 1960? As I asked myself this question, I stumbled on a second “lost chance.” This one, from 1953, is claimed by Sheila Fitzpatrick, writing in The Guardian on 18 August 2016. Fitzpatrick, one of the world’s great experts on Stalin’s Russia, was reviewing The Last Days of Stalin, by Joshua Rubinstein, published this year by Yale University Press. This is a book I haven’t read, so my comments are based entirely on Fitzpatrick’s review.
As Fitzpatrick points out, after Stalin’s death in March 1953, the Soviet leaders who succeeded him allowed many reforms to go ahead. Within their country they quickly curtailed Stalin’s last purges, and they went on to the phased release of millions from forced labour and resettlement. (I wrote about these changes in my own book, One Day We Will Live Without Fear.) In Korea, the new leaders allowed ceasefire talks to resume, bringing a speedy end to that bloody conflict.
Could there have been more? Soviet leaders, Fitzpatrick writes, “wanted to signal their interest in easing cold war tensions …. in the crucial months between Stalin’s death in March and the Berlin uprising in June of 1953, the US missed a great opportunity to meet the new Soviet leaders halfway.” She quotes Rubinstein’s verdict: “Soviet and Western governments could not overcome the decades of distrust that divided them.” That suggests equal blame for missing the chance on both sides.
Fitzpatrick answers back: this is too even-handed. Khrushchev looked for an opening. Churchill was ready for a summit. Eisenhower resisted, believing that this might be the time to call on the Soviet people to rise up against their oppressors. Whispering in Eisenhower’s ear was the older Dulles brother, John Foster Dulles, who believed that, eight years after World War II, the Soviet Union presented “the most terrible and fundamental” threat to Western civilization in a thousand years. Responsibility for the missed opportunity to unwind the Cold War in 1953 lies, Fitzpatrick concludes, “squarely with the US.”
So, the hypothesis: two lost chances to scale back the Cold War, one in 1953, the other in 1960.
After much reflection I’m not convinced. Here are my reasons. First reason: pay attention to the inherent fragility of the two Soviet peace initiatives. They were so brittle and insubstantial that, if one obstacle had not broken them, another surely would have. Consider 1953, when a new Soviet leadership wanted briefly to open up to the West. The window opened in March, when Stalin died, but it closed again in June. Why so brief an opportunity? Because, at the first signs of domestic relaxation, thousands of East Germans turned out into the streets to demand the resignation of the communist government. The uprising was promptly suppressed by tanks and guns. Hundreds of people were killed, then or later.
From that moment it was clear that the goals of Stalin’s successors had not changed: to hold power at all costs and spread their system of rule wherever possible. They differed from Stalin only in their preferences over means: “peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must.” Did they really want peace? Not deeply enough to respond peaceably to their own people if there were unintended consequences.
The chance for peace in 1960 was fragile too. It was fragile for two reasons: the Soviet commitment to missile negotiations was only skin-deep, and it was based on a lie. Khrushchev wanted an agreement with the Americans, but how deeply did he really want it? The shootdown of Francis Gary Powers did not stop him from seeking one. The world knew nothing about the U-2 programme until the Soviets publicized it. If they had really wanted a disarmament summit, they could simply have kept the news to themselves. They had the means, after all, in the world’s most effective censorship.
You could say that the Western Cold Warriors, uncomfortable with Eisenhower’s restraint, did not help because they put pressure on Eisenhower, and this put pressure on Khrushchev, which played into the hands of the Soviet military leaders who were already uncomfortable with Khrushchev’s conventional arms cuts. (I’m writing about the Soviet military as though they were a faction, although there is no real evidence that such a faction existed.) But in fact the Soviet side was collectively to blame for all the circumstances in which this game was played out. The Soviet missile men were to blame for a failing programme that threaten to impoverish the country. And Khrushchev was to blame for lying about the programme’s success. If he hadn’t made exaggerated claims, the “missile gap” would never have existed.
Now my second reason: when communist leaders came to the West with peace initiatives, they generally had a vastly inflated belief in their own credibility. They never really got how most Westerners saw them. (But it’s true that Western sympathizers with communism shared the same blinkers.) Within their own countries these leaders, Khrushchev included, were responsible for terrible crimes of commission, arresting and killing millions, and also crimes of omission, allowing millions to die of famine. Afterwards they regretted this, and they made partial, semi-secret admissions, not of personal guilt, but of a few collective errors. Instead of resigning and allowing judicial scrutiny to take its course, their next move was to carry on as normal: So we made some mistakes. We fixed them. What’s done is past. Everything is all right now! Move on. But the world remembered.
In foreign policy, the communist leaders had occupied Poland and the Baltic countries, blanketed them with the same secrecy and censorship that they operated at home, eradicated their national institutions, exterminated their national elites, imposed new regimes, staked out new borders, and defended them with the threat of overwhelming conventional and nuclear force. Because this turned out to be quite expensive, they thought they could then turn on a sixpence and say to the West: lower your guard, because that was then, and now we want peace and friendship. And Western leaders were expected to lower their guard on the word of practised killers who concealed their own weapons under a veil that could be penetrated only by a spy plane at 90,000 feet.
The first and only communist leader to get this was Mikhail Gorbachev. He puzzled over the Soviet Union’s inability to reach new agreements with the West over arms control. Shortly after taking office, on his road to Damascus, in 1986 or thereabouts, he reached an astonishing, shattering conclusion: They don’t trust us because they think we’re liars! And they’re right: we are liars! We can only be credible partners in negotiation if we learn to be open about everything and tell the truth! (Which turned out to be unexpectedly difficult. I wrote part of this story here.)
So my conclusion on the lost chances to end the Cold War is pessimistic. I don’t see real missed opportunities in either 1953 or 1960. On a more optimistic note, there was usually scope for both sides to gain from arms control, and negotiations were generally better than fighting. The important arms treaties would come. But their negotiation required more mutual trust than was available in 1953, and more mutual openness than was available in 1960.