Burying Nikita

Burying Nikita

Mini Teaser: William Taubman's biography of Chairman Khrushchev combines original research and good sense to produce the best last word so far on the late Soviet leader.

by Author(s): Susan Eisenhower

In 1990 I attended a conference in Moscow on the Eisenhower--Khrushchev years. During the meeting I suggested that Khrushchev had been manipulative when he fomented an international crisis out of the U--2 flights. Perhaps, I suggested, the Soviet premier wanted to use the incident as a way of making sure that Richard Nixon would not be elected as president six months later. My comments were derided by my Western colleagues at the conference, but our Soviet counterparts thought it utterly plausible that Khrushchev had used the affair for this purpose. Indeed, some were certain that it was Khrushchev's intention to embarrass fatally the President and his Vice President, who was at the time in the midst of a tight presidential campaign. At the same time, like many others in the West, I had assumed that the American administration had committed a provocative and unforgivable act in the eyes of the Soviets. But at the same conference one Russian researcher told me that the U--2 program had been nothing more than the unilateral expression of the 1955 Open Skies proposal, and that it had been a Soviet mistake not to seize on the American proposal at the time.

During the U--2 crisis, however, Khrushchev managed to position himself as the victim. He personally chose to make the U--2 incident a public spectacle, even though it would have been far more consistent with Soviet interests for him to keep the evidence in his pocket to use to his advantage at the summit. While he professed to be shocked and hurt when Eisenhower admitted knowledge of the flights, saying it was a betrayal of trust and friendship, he relished the opportunity to take advantage of it. Sovietologist Priscilla Johnson covered Khrushchev's public statements on the U--2: "Disappointment at a friendship gone wrong appeared to be the leitmotif of his remarks", she said. "Asked if he would still greet Eisenhower as his guest in the USSR, Khrushchev replied, 'What shall I say? Put yourself in my place and answer for me. . . . I am a man and I have human feelings.'"

I doubt how much trust and friendship really had to do with it. Khrushchev had known that there were U--2 flights over his country for some time, and had never lodged a formal protest. While the overflight on this occasion might have been too close to the upcoming Paris summit to be advisable, Khrushchev chose to make this a crisis for his own reasons-and not necessarily to shore up his sagging domestic support. According to Taubman, the vast majority of Khrushchev's advisors were unhappy with his handling of the matter. A candidate member of the Politburo snorted: "All I know is there have always been spies and there always will be." Other Soviet advisors thought Khrushchev decided to junk the summit because it would fail to resolve the Berlin issue and meet the political expectations he had set for it.

Apparently, Khrushchev decided to wreck the summit while in flight on his way to Paris. There, French President Charles de Gaulle, who had only recently seen the Soviet premier on an earlier trip to France, recalled that Khrushchev was "a character so changed in identity and meaning as to belong to the realm of Russian fiction." Even Khrushchev recalled, "I was all worked up, feeling combative and exhilarated. As my kind of simple folk would say, I was spoiling for a fight." After more than 45 minutes of tirade in which Khrushchev harangued Eisenhower for everything, he demanded that the conference be put off for at least six months, by which time, it was understood, Eisenhower would no longer be president.

The Americans were grim and aggravated, the British upset, and the French annoyed. In a wonderful passage, Taubman describes de Gaulle chiding Khrushchev for making too much of the overflights: "'Yesterday that satellite you launched just before you left Moscow to impress us over flew the sky of France eighteen times without my permission. How do I know that you do not have cameras aboard which are taking pictures of my country?'

"'As God sees me', replied the allegedly atheist Khrushchev, 'my hands are clean.'

"'Well then how did you take those pictures of the far side of the moon which you showed us with such justifiable pride?'

"'In that one I had cameras.'

"'Ah, in that one you had cameras'", de Gaulle replied.

In the end, the Soviets were the biggest losers in the U--2 affair. The U--2 flights had assured that the United States did not have to rely on Soviet bluster about their capabilities, thus making it possible to keep U.S. military expenditures in check. What did the Soviets get? "Khrushchev had broken with Eisenhower, ruined Soviet--West German relations (at least for the time being), alienated East German intellectuals, who had hoped for improved ties with the West, and encouraged Walter Ulbricht to continue scheming to create a confrontation over Berlin", Taubman tells us. Years later, Anastas Mikoyan, Khrushchev's closest associate, remarked: "Because our anti--aircraft missile finally accidentally shot down the U--2, Khrushchev engaged in inexcusable hysterics. . . . He simply spat on everyone. . . . He was guilty of delaying the onset of détente for fifteen years."

Perhaps Khrushchev realized he had overstepped the mark sooner rather than later. I was surprised to discover, on a visit to the Eisenhower Museum and Library, that as early as the fall of 1960 a high--level Soviet gift had been presented to President Eisenhower. Not long after, when John J. McCloy met Khrushchev at Putzinda in 1961, "Khrushchev talked to me about a possible visit of [Dwight D. Eisenhower] to the Soviet Union in spite of the effect of the Powers' incident on earlier plans for a visit", he wrote my father, John Eisenhower. "He was sure it would bring forward a strong indication of goodwill which the Soviet people and its leaders had toward your father." Of course, the trip never happened, and Khrushchev's marathon temper tantrum during the U--2 crisis was left, untempered, to erode confidence in his foreign policy abilities.

William Taubman has written a wonderful book-fair, balanced and thoroughly researched. The facts of Khrushchev's political life notwithstanding, he has made it hard not to feel nostalgic for Nikita Khrushchev, a colorful, quotable and in some cases downright entertaining figure. We almost feel sorry for Nikita, a man who loved power, and fell, oh so far and fast, from the pinnacle of it. Sent into house arrest, Khrushchev was bereft and unsettled, a dissident of sorts, worrying about the KGB and complaining about his treatment. His health failing and his psychological state frayed from years of isolation and inactivity, he told Soviet playwright Nikolai Shatrov that his biggest regret was that, "My arms are up to the elbows in blood. That is the most terrible thing that lies in my soul."

I wonder how we would view Khrushchev today if the full Soviet archives had survived-and how much remorse he would have felt had he managed to stay in power. Nevertheless, he did express regret, and that in turn engenders our compassion. Who could not feel for a dying old man who contemplates eternity understanding that the brightest part of his own legacy was directly enabled by the darkest part of it? He rehabilitated the very victims he helped to purge. Even if he was an atheist, Khrushchev must have wondered in his last lonely days if making a bargain with the Devil was such a good idea after all.

Essay Types: Book Review