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Confirmation Time: A Review of Messengers from Moscow

Confirmation Time: A Review of Messengers from Moscow

Mini Teaser: The abundance of new information coming straight from the horse's mouth is unlikely to settle American debates about the origins and nature of the Cold War.

by Author(s): Dimitri K. Simes

The end of Soviet communism has given Westerners unprecedented access to Moscow's historical resources. Various archives have been opened and living witnesses to history are suddenly prepared to tell their stories, even in front of foreign television cameras.

The abundance of new information coming straight from the horse's mouth is unlikely, however, to settle American debates about the origins and nature of the Cold War. History is an imprecise science allowing for a variety of interpretations--particularly when those doing the interpreting have a strong predisposition, or even a vested interest, in seeing things a certain way.

Still, the four-part documentary series Messengers from Moscow, shown in the United States by PBS and in Britain by the BBC, represents a powerful blow to two fundamentals of the liberal dogma--namely, that the Cold War resulted from a Western overreaction to largely defensive, even if rather heavy-handed, Soviet policies and that the preoccupation with the communist menace inside Western democracies amounted to a vicious witch hunt. The series, ably directed by Daniel Wolf and produced by Eugene B. Shirley with Herbert E. Ellision as chief consultant, is based on numerous on-camera interviews with Soviet insiders ranging from Stalin's second-in-command Vyacheslav Molotov to Brezhnev's personal physician. The accounts they present are sobering.

Molotov, in a 1972 taped conversation with poet Felix Chuyev, stated point blank that expanding Soviet borders "as far as possible" was his official duty. In Molotov's view, "there could not be a peaceful Germany unless it takes a socialist path." But he cautioned that it had to be accomplished "carefully," without provoking a war with the West.

The Soviet instrument of choice during the initial postwar period was the manipulation of Western communist parties which, the Comintern's dissolution notwithstanding, were obedient instruments of the Kremlin at that time. These tactics prevailed over local resistance in East Germany and elsewhere in Soviet-occupied Central Europe. But where Moscow was not in a position to support its communist clients through brutal repression, the gamble failed miserably.

However, that failure did not happen for lack of trying. It was the dual U.S. policy of militarily containing the USSR and stabilizing fragile Western European democracies through the Marshall Plan that demonstrated to Stalin the futility of further offensive action in Europe.

Stalin was a genuinely cautious and calculating statesman. Yet his kind of caution demanded as much control of everything within reach as he could realistically obtain short of war. Moreover, his definition of acceptable conduct was totally uninfluenced by moral considerations or domestic political constraints. It was Stalin's calculations of U.S. will and power that played a decisive role in shaping his definition of a prudent foreign policy.

Where, as in Korea, Stalin felt that aggression had a chance to proceed with impunity, his risk-taking would become bolder. The documentary shows an official cable from Stalin to his ambassador to North Korea stating, "agree to accept" regarding Kim Il Sung's design to invade the South. Other documents and participants in the Soviet decision-making process confirm this as well: Stalin was not only informed about Kim's plans, but also gave them a green light.

The documentary then goes one important step further. It implies that Stalin actually ordered the North Korean attack. Retired KGB Colonel Gavriil Korotkov, interviewed for the series, claims that Kim would never have dared to contemplate the invasion on his own. According to him, the idea came from Soviet advisors acting on Stalin's orders. Kim then brought it to the Soviet ambassador who immediately consulted Stalin, giving Stalin an opportunity to approve the operation that he himself had masterminded. No supporting evidence or rationale is offered to explain such a complex and seemingly unnecessary procedure, except that Stalin was a devious person. However, if he was looking for a way to distance himself from the invasion, why was giving Kim orders through Soviet advisors any different from directly using the ambassador?

Kim Il Sung's subsequent performance, from the 1954 armistice until his death in 1994, demonstrates that he did not need much outside encouragement to act with great boldness and ruthlessness against not just South Korea, but the United States as well. Furthermore, Stalin, while having quite a propensity for shooting "minor" foreign communist leaders, had a record of allowing them some initiative, provided it was not at odds with his own preferences. This was particularly true in Asia. While Kim was a former Soviet army major, with his country in the shadow of China and the growing independence of Mao, he was bound to be granted some autonomy from Moscow.

What is beyond denial, however, is that Stalin personally and directly approved Kim's aggression. Clearly, where American deterrence looked uncertain, the Soviet dictator was prepared to take considerable chances. Implications of what would have happened in Europe absent such deterrence are obvious and ominous.

Similarly, the documentary is persuasive in showing that the willingness of Western communists to engage in espionage and subversion on Stalin's behalf was a real and serious problem. An interview with a former top French communist official reveals an extensive intelligence network established by the party with branches in most sensitive government departments. The network was under the party control and the party itself received instructions from, and shared everything with, Moscow.

The documentary does not deal with the communist underground in the United States. Nevertheless, facts are mounting that American communists regularly engaged in clandestine activities on Stalin's behalf. New materials from the Soviet Communist Party archives recently published by Yale University Press (Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, The Secret World of American Communism, 1995) prove that American communists in the Thirties were at least as willing to spy for the Soviets as their French counterparts.

The documents do not mention Alger Hiss, whose case became a cause cŽlbre for American anti-anti-communists, but they substantiate the testimony of his principal accuser Whittaker Chambers in many important respects. Not only was there an extensive American communist underground linked to Soviet intelligence, but this network also provided the nkvd with secret State Department documents, exactly as Chambers described.

New testimony from Moscow demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that, while McCarthyism was not an appropriate response, Richard Nixon had it exactly right in his crusade against Alger Hiss. What was dangerous and contemptible was not his exposure of Hiss, but, on the contrary, the liberal establishment's staunch defense of a man who was convicted of perjury by due process only because the statute of limitations on espionage had expired. Being of the politically correct persuasion and of the right social strata was put above truth and duty to the nation.

Stalin's death in 1953 and the subsequent critique of "the cult of personality" at the Twentieth Communist Party Congress in 1956 started a new era in Soviet history. While totalitarian oppression continued, the bloody purges came to an end, as did the unity of the international communist movement. The tensions with China that existed even under Stalin quickly developed into an open split. In order to survive, major Western European communist parties, shocked by the revelations of the crimes of the late dictator, had to distance themselves from Moscow. Eastern European upheavals became a fact of life while Nikita Khrushchev pronounced that peaceful co-existence with the West was a key objective of Soviet foreign policy.

But, as The Messengers from Moscow makes clear, the Soviet Union still very much expected to achieve world domination. The Third World gave Stalin's heirs a new hope and new opportunities. Former KGB Chairman Vladimir Semichastny correctly observes in the documentary that "the Soviet Union had absolutely no hand in the Cuban revolution." But he and other Soviet officials interviewed in the series stated that once the Kremlin discovered that Fidel Castro was a closet communist, it moved boldly and quickly to establish a foothold in America's backyard.

As during Stalin's time revolutionary romanticism was not an obstacle to hard-nosed geopolitical thinking. As early as October 1960, considerably before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Khrushchev told Cuban editor Carlos Franqui about his plan to put missiles in Cuba to be used as a major bargaining chip to obtain a guarantee of non-interference from the United States, as well as to achieve the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey. Franqui also reveals that, during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet leader made a decision to remove the missiles without even consulting Castro, thus creating the first strain in the relationship with Havana.

If Franqui is right in his description of the unceremonious ruthlessness of Soviet power politics--and other accounts substantiate his version--is it logical to think that Moscow would have gone to nuclear war if John Kennedy, in addition to the blockade, had ordered air strikes against the missiles and other military targets in Cuba? Would Khrushchev have been so incensed by the fact that Soviet equipment and personnel suffered in the process that he would have risked a global calamity?

The documentary does not address these questions. A number of prominent Americans, most notably former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who during the glasnost years conducted joint seminars with various Soviet officials and generals involved in Moscow's deliberations on the Cuban missile crises, came to the conclusion that if Kennedy had used force, the Kremlin would have upped the ante, perhaps with the use of tactical nuclear weapons already stationed in Cuba.

This is a highly questionable conclusion. Only Khrushchev himself, and perhaps not even he, could have answered with confidence what he would have done in the case of a limited U.S. air strike. There is a profound difference between building a military capability and being prepared to use it in a position of relative weakness (the Soviets were aware of the clear-cut strategic nuclear superiority of the U.S.) when your own vital interests are not involved.

While Khrushchev was perhaps mesmerized by Cuba there is no evidence that he and his Politburo colleagues considered it a part of the vital interests of the Soviet Union. Those people close to him, with whom I discussed the matter, unanimously felt that, in the end, Khrushchev would have blinked. This does not mean that Kennedy made a mistake in not going beyond the blockade. Like his Soviet counterpart, the American president had to consider terrible risks especially since there was an opportunity to achieve his minimal objective without firing a shot. Still, the argument that using force against Cuba in 1962 was not a credible option is exaggerated.

The series rightly suggests that there was no doubt in Moscow that Khrushchev was the greatest loser in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a fact which contributed to his ouster two years later in October 1964. But from the standpoint of the Soviet leadership, the outcome of the affair told more about the recklessness of the First Secretary than about the U.S. will to punish the Soviet Union for its transgressions in the Third World. After all, while Khrushchev was personally humiliated, Kennedy still had to make the commitment to respect Cuban sovereignty. American missiles in Turkey were also soon withdrawn exactly as Moscow had demanded. True, since they were scheduled to be removed anyway, Kennedy denied Khrushchev a face-saver by refusing to link them publicly to the Soviet missiles in Cuba. However, the U.S. victory was not so clear-cut that it had the power to discourage Khrushchev's successors from supporting other Third World communist regimes in order to shift--to use the Soviet term--"the correlation of forces in the world" in Moscow's favor.

The temptation to move history in Moscow's direction came rather quickly in Vietnam. In addition to fitting Soviet ideological predispositions, helping Hanoi was an effective formula for putting the United States on the defensive. Also, as the top China expert in the Soviet foreign ministry, Mikhail Kapitsa, observed in the documentary, rivalry with China for world communist leadership was encouraging Moscow to take a more radical stand on Vietnam.

The combination of Richard Nixon's trip to China and his largely successful Vietnamization program changed Soviet calculations. In an interview contained in the series, Leonid Brezhnev's foreign policy aide Andrei Aleksandrov-Agentov states that President Nixon's visit to Beijing was taken very seriously in Moscow. I myself was a young scholar at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at that time and remember vividly what a shock it was to the Soviet foreign policy establishment. Soviet analysts were also impressed with the ability of the South Vietnamese to hold their own ground, even after the withdrawal of the U.S. forces. By the end of 1972, the Brezhnev government started a process of painful reassessment of the costs and benefits of its North Vietnamese connection.

Watergate interrupted the process. With Nixon's resignation and the congressional assault on U.S. foreign policy, Moscow gradually concluded that America was neither a formidable rival nor a reliable partner. After the North Vietnamese triumph in 1975, the Soviet Union was only too willing to practice diplomacy of force in the Third World from the African Horn to Afghanistan. Moreover, even enlightened Soviet officials began to feel, in the words of Izvestia's Aleksandr Bovin, that the principal objective of dŽtente was to make the change in the global balance of power "as painless as possible."

The documentary does not address the hypothetical question of what would have occurred if Nixon had been allowed by the Congress to finish his term, escape defeat in Vietnam and, at the same time, deliver to the Soviets the expected economic benefits of dŽtente. There is at least a realistic possibility that, exactly as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had hoped, Soviet behavior in the Seventies would have been moderated. South Vietnam would have survived as an independent state. There would have been no killing fields of Cambodia and tribal massacres in Laos. And, without these encouraging victories, the Soviets would not necessarily have seen Ethiopia, Angola, and Afghanistan as welcome opportunities for expansion.

However, such hypothetical questions may bring us too far. History works in unpredictable ways. It is equally possible that, if the Soviets had not overreached themselves, their empire would not have collapsed so pitifully in 1991. Moscow's geopolitical victory in the 1970s was a pyrrhic one contributing to the end of its own state.

The main reason for the Soviet demise was the internal weakness of the system. Brezhnev's health was failing. His personal physician states in the documentary that as early as 1975, the time of his Vladivostok Summit with President Gerald Ford, Brezhnev was aready addicted to sedatives which eventually destroyed his sense of reality. Most other Politburo members well into their seventies were not faring much better. Together they looked like a group of walking zombies.

A totalitarian system based on a command economy could not function without strong central leadership. Key constituencies, particularly the military-industrial complex, did pretty much what they wanted as if there was no tomorrow. Remarkably, as officials interviewed in the documentary reveal, neither the foreign ministry nor the KGB was consulted about such important developments as the deployment of SS-20 missiles in Europe in the late seventies. They learned about it from Western sources. Similarly, it was from Western sources that the KGB, according to its then chief of analyses General Mikhail Leonov, was getting its information about the deteriorating state of the Soviet economy. At the sunset of the Brezhnev era, there was no clear answer to the question raised by the documentary, "Who was really in charge?"

It was not difficult to see--even at the time--that such a situation could not last long. Back in 1978, I wrote that there existed "the urgent need for change" creating "a political and social environment favorable to reform. Faced with the dilemma of stagnation or innovation, the elite may choose the latter--as distasteful as it may be to some of its sectors--as a lesser evil." (Simes and Associates, Soviet Succession: Leadership in Transition, The Washington Papers, Vol. VI, p.21, 1978).

What nobody inside or outside the Soviet Union predicted was that reforms would quickly go out of control and lead to the speedy death of not just the communist system, but also of the Soviet Union itself.

Messengers from Moscow quite appropriately points out that Ronald Reagan's assertive posture played a role. The Reagan Doctrine forced the already overextended Soviet Union to pay a heavy price for its Third World exploits. And, as former Chief of the General Staff Victor Kulikov admitted in his interview in the series, the Strategic Defense Initiative--taken most seriously by the high command--forced the Soviets to exhaust themselves economically. For the first time since the Second World War, the Soviet leadership found itself squarely on the defensive with ever declining resources to face the new challenges it helped to generate.

Yet for the Soviet Union to collapse in such a sudden and disorderly fashion, in addition to objective factors--to paraphrase Lenin--a subjective factor had to be added. A clue to what it was is provided in an interview with Mikhail Gorbachev's ideas man, Aleksandr Yakovlev. Yakovlev admits that both he and Gorbachev did not realize at the beginning of perestroika how fundamental the ills of the system were and what a radical change would be required to address them.

As great reformers as they were, Gorbachev and Yakovlev were appallingly blind about the very nature of the system that produced them and which now they were determined to reform. They failed to see that communist dogma, totalitarian controls, and a police state were not aberrations but the true foundations of their regime. Once these foundations were shattered, the regime was unable to rule. The Soviet Union itself could no longer stay together.

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