Atomic rockets on standby: key figures and the most dangerous situations of the cold war
In fact, several people were important characters in the cold war – President Truman, George Marshall and President Eisenhower -, but the real key figure and main character of this story is just one person: Nikita Khrushchev. The evolvement and aggravation of the cold war situation is owing to him mainly. On one hand, his reforms made the Soviet Union determinant economically and strategically, on the other hand, he hindered diplomatic relations with his unpredictable and labile mentality, forcing the leaders of the great Western powers to stand on the defensive.
Father of the Berlin Wall: Khrushchev
In the case of the divided Berlin, one of the communists’ main problems was the increased civil migrations or “escapes”. During the 1950s, there was a year when the number of migrants from East Germany exceeded 300 thousand persons. East Germans expected a solution from Khrushchev, but for him Berlin became a growing burden in course of time. His aim was to achieve that the soldiers of the Western powers leaved the western part of Germany, and it became independent. The situation stretched to the breaking point in the October of 1961, when American and Soviet tanks faced each other at Checkpoint Charlie as a power projection, and then Khrushchev ordered the test of the czar bomb, which was about 4000 times stronger than the bomb that had been thrown on Hiroshima by the USA. The migration mood to West Germany was probably increased by the fact that the living standard there was growing continuously – as against the eastern part. It was partly due to the successful tax reduction policy of West Germany, and partly due to the Marshall Plan, whose original purpose was not to sharpen the living standard race between the west and the east, but to prevent the strengthening of left-winger extremists on the western side.
Despite the fact that West Germany was definitely more successful regarding both the living standard and the economic performance, Khrushchev believed sincerely that communism was the best system. He always expressed his opinion; moreover, he thought that he had to prove it in practice too:
“We should compare notes, so you can see how the people you call slaves of communism really live. (…) You’ll see for yourself. In the future, we will live better than everyone else. I can promise you that!” – 1959. Khrushchev
Photos of communist propaganda documents, hammer and sickle, Lenin, Brezhnev and Kádár in the shop-window of Corvin Department Store in 1977 - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND
Main reason for the cold war: the provocative Khrushchev
According to witnesses’ accounts, Khrushchev was talkative, loud, angry and provocative during his visits to the USA; among others, he got indignant at people protesting against him.
“America has achieved a lot. But how long have you been around? 150 years of independence and you’ve only got this far? We’ve been independent for less than 42 years, and in 7 years, we’ll be on the same level as you. And we’ll keep on moving, we will pass you and we’ll just wave and shout ‘Hello!’ “– 1959. Khrushchev
János Kádár and Nikita Khrushchev – photo album 1960 - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND
His outbursts were greeted with dismal around the world; the international media wrote about him as the Hurricane Nikita. In America, it seemed, he wanted to know as much as possible about democracy and the system of the USA. He asked Eisenhower why he did not run for president for the third time. He answered because the constitution did not allow it. Then Khrushchev said ‘Don’t kidding me! You can rewrite the constitution, if you want to. Americans would elect you, because they love you!’
Responsible for the Cuban missile crisis: Khrushchev
In 1962, Khrushchev sent 40 thousand soldiers and 42 medium-range missiles to Cuba incautiously. In response, the USA commanded alert. Cuba could have been for the Soviets what West Berlin was for the Americans: a small, useless, but strategically important piece of land close to the enemy. This is the reason why the Americans were frightened, when Khrushchev sent the missiles there.
“We shipped 42 missiles to Cuba. That was enough for a war. With that, we could have destroyed Chicago and New York. A very great danger for America. America had never been so close to be destroyed.” – 1966. Khrushchev
Soviet warships on the sea – Magazine Technika Lenin Útján - Zsámbéki Közművelődési Intézet és Könyvtár, PDM
Like a bull in a china shop: scandal at the UN’s meeting
In September 1960, Khrushchev arrived in New York swearing and shouting, in order to negotiate with UN members. An unforgettable moment of the event was when Khrushchev pulled off one of his shoes – according to some eyewitnesses – and banged the table with it in a fury. At another time, he flared up on German journalists:
“I’ve already been informed that the German Chancellor Adenauer sent to you the remnants, those we didn’t kill at Stalingrad. They came to the Soviet Union in order to boo our borders. But then we spat them out, we steamrolled them until they were three metres under ground. (…) You can carry on booing, but watch out. We didn’t completely destroy you at Stalingrad (…) but if you carry on booing and preparing attack, we’ll hit back so hard that you’ll never be able to boo again.” – 1960. Khrushchev
We can thank Khrushchev for the cold war, but whom to thank for Khrushchev?
As the tense diplomatic atmosphere that developed did not allow a diplomatic way to solve the Berlin crisis, Khrushchev consented – lacking a better idea – to build the Berlin Wall finally. It is obvious that Khrushchev’s communication had a lion’s share in the development of the cold war, and it is also a fact that he did not have a sense of diplomacy at all. The question is: how he could get into such a high position, if he was so incompetent to do his tasks. Partly, the reason was that Khrushchev was uneducated, who grew up in a peasant family, but he had the luck that followers of Stalinism supported giving power to unqualified rural people and common labourers.
János Kádár and Nikita Khrushchev – Photo album, 1960 - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND
Space race was also part of the cold war. You can see Gagarin in a page of magazine Technika Lenin Útján - Zsámbéki Közművelődési Intézet és Könyvtár, PDM
Soviet warships on the Mediterranean Sea – Magazine Technika Lenin Útján - Zsámbéki Közművelődési Intézet és Könyvtár, PDM
The atomic apocalypse almost happened!
One of the most dangerous situations in the cold war, that overpassed all the others, was a NATO operation called Able Archer 83. They managed to make it so authentic that the Soviets thought of a nuclear strike, because they believed (based on radio conversations and other intelligence information pieces) that it was not only a military manoeuvre, but the preparation of a real attack.
Translated by Zita Aknai
- Jobst Knigge: Nikita Khrushchev - The Red Tsar. Zweite Deutsche Fernsehen (2017). Mainz
- End of the world almost came 30 years ago (Index.hu) 4 November 2013
- Leffler, M. P., Westad, O. A. (2010). The Cambridge History of the Cold War. Cambridge, ISBN 9780521837194
- Nikita Khrushchev: Secretly recorded reminiscences (audio recording) 1966.