Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb: Nuclear Diplomacy since 1945

By John Lewis Gaddis; Philip H. Gordon et al. | Go to book overview

7
The Nuclear Education of Nikita Khrushchev

VLADISLAV M. ZUBOK AND HOPE M. HARRISON1

IN the mind of the Western public there is probably no figure so linked to the gruesome image of the mushroom cloud as is Nikita Khrushchev. Yet, in the gallery of Soviet politicians and statesmen from Stalin to Gorbachev, Khrushchev was the first to realize that nuclear bipolarity dictated permanent 'peaceful coexistence' between the two antagonistic social systems. Like Stalin, long before the bomb appeared, Khrushchev was no stranger to the world of terror. In the first half of his political life, young Khrushchev passed through the eye of three historical storms: the Russian Revolution (and the Civil War it unleashed); Stalin's forced 'revolution from above' with the shattering purges; and the Great Patriotic War against the Nazi invaders. For a man who had experienced virtually limitless death and destruction, could the bomb be so radically different?

There are other questions that are of interest: How were Khrushchev's beliefs and policies affected by US nuclear superiority? How did these evolve as Soviet atomic, thermonuclear, and missile capabilities improved? Did Khrushchev's understanding of war, peace, and security change as nuclear technology and his knowledge of it advanced? In studying these questions, we will be carrying out what John Lewis Gaddis calls 'the psychological test' of the influence of nuclear weapons on the long peace: 'if we can show that one or more major leaders . . . changed their views about the utility of force as a result of the development of nuclear weapons, then the [John] Mueller argument [about the 'essential irrelevance' of nuclear weapons to the long peace] would be falsified and a strong presumption about the stabilizing effect of nuclear weapons could then be constructed.' 2 For Khrushchev this 'psychological test' started only after Stalin's death in March 1953.


The Bomb and the Dogma

When Khrushchev began his ascendancy to the heights of the Kremlin after Stalin's death in 1953, one of the first points on the agenda of the 'collective

-141-

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