How Foolish Khrushchev Nearly Started World War III

Article excerpt

Byline: Arnold Beichman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

There were five chronological successors to Joseph Stalin after his mysterious death in 1953 - Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko and Mikhail Gorbachev. Of these, the most dangerous to world peace was Khrushchev, a quasi-master of brinksmanship.

Had Andropov been a well man when he took over in December 1982, and had he lived a little longer past 1984, he might have been an even greater danger than Khrushchev. After all, it was on Andropov's watch that in August 1983, without warning, a Soviet fighter plane destroyed a Korean jumbo jetliner with 269 passengers and crew aboard. That tragedy did not unleash World War III, but Khrushchev's 1962 actions in Cuba might well have.

What becomes quite clear from Max Frankel's riveting retrospective examination of the Cuban missile crisis - the third Soviet-American confrontation, preceded by the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the Berlin blockade in 1948 - is that Khrushchev the Shoe-Pounder simply had no idea of what American politics was all about.

Had Harry Truman wilted before the Stalin-ordered Berlin blockade, he would without doubt have been impeached and probably removed. John F. Kennedy knew (and said so) that if he had surrendered to Khrushchev on Cuba, he too would have been impeached.

Khrushchev was a fool, a dangerous fool: dangerous because he was a practicing sociopath, protected, he thought, by the shield of Leninism and thousands of nuclear weapons. When he was finally ousted in October 1964, he was denounced by his onetime subordinates for his "hare-brained schemes." Meaning despite his boastful rantings that "we'll bury you," in the end he buried himself.

Khrushchev's hare-brained scheme that brought the world close to war (or so it seemed) was planting Soviet nuclear missile weapons - secretly, he thought - in Fidel Castro's Cuba. I have used the precautionary phrase "or so it seemed" because Khrushchev was rather nimble at jumping off the wagon before it went over the cliff.

Mr. Frankel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times editor, calls Khrushchev "a wily old peasant," a rather maudlin cliche. Khrushchev's only connection with the Russian peasantry was helping Stalin starve the peasants and their families, the so-called kulaks, by the hundreds of thousands.

The author is going back over what is to him old ground. As a young reporter in the New York Times' Washington bureau, he covered some of the Cuba story and also watched James Reston, the then-bureau chief, talking to everybody from JFK down and deciding what was and was not off the record. In fact, what Mr. Frankel doesn't quite say is that the New York Times was part of JFK's decision-making apparatus on Cuba. Mr. Frankel omits the important Bay of Pigs conversations between Kennedy and Orvil Dryfoos, then the newspaper's publisher.

Another significant omission from this account is what happened in the cabinet room of the White House on Oct. …