[I was a teenager during the Cuban Missile Crisis, not a kid, and I was still a teenager when I got drafted into the Army in 1965. In my amateur way of trying to discover how my brain works–and how it got knocked out of whack–I look to incidents like this. Although we prayed for peace in school, I remember being proud that my country, my president, stared down the godless communists. Was I pro-war then: this war, any war, all war? Did I know the difference among right, moderate, and left? With 50 years of life experiences tacked on to my curriculum vitae since then, have I grown intellectually, morally? I don’t know.]
It sure was a confusing time for me in March, 1958, when Nikita Khrushchev became Premier of the Soviet Union. I was in 7th grade. Although too young to remember the McCarthy witch hunts for commies in America just a few years earlier, I was old enough to know that the “Cold War” was on. We were reminded of it first thing in the morning as the entire student body of Holy Cross School recited the Pledge of Allegiance and then said a prayer for world peace.
Now, here’s a laugh. Just as schools run fire drills on a regular basis, once Khrushchev came to power, we started having drills in the event of air raids. Here’s how silly that was:
- If we heard the air raid warning siren, we were to walk quietly single-file down the stairwell to the basement (my classroom was on the third floor).
- In the basement we and the entire student body would face the inner walls for protection.
- If the siren was too late and we actually saw or heard the bombers, we were to tuck ourselves tightly under our desks and place our heads between our legs.
- Presumably–but never mentioned–from that position we could kiss tomorrow goodbye.
Two men, Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy defined that era.
So along comes Khrushchev, a mine mechanic who rose through the communist ranks to become leader of all Soviet Socialist Republics in 1958. Two years later America elected John F. Kennedy. The contrast could not have been starker: Khrushchev, the product of Ukrainian peasant stock; Kennedy born into American aristocracy. Khrushchev climbed the ladder of Communist Party posts; Kennedy owned the ladder, or at least his father did. As the two led their countries simultaneously, and even though the political/economic philosophies were virtually diametrically opposed, I believe, at bottom, these men displayed stark similarities. Khrushchev first, as reported at http://www.history.com,
“In 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin and his totalitarian policies leading to a “thaw” in the USSR that saw the release of millions of political prisoners.”
Millions of prisoners gaining freedom! Think of post-bellum former Confederate states in America. Chaos comes to mind.
“Almost immediately, the new atmosphere of freedom led to anti-Soviet uprisings in Poland and Hungary.”
Here Khrushchev proved he could be both diplomat and iron-fisted dictator.
“(He) flew to Poland and negotiated a diplomatic solution, but the Hungarian rebellion was crushed by Warsaw Pact troops and tanks.
“In foreign affairs, Premier Khrushchev’s stated policy was one of “peaceful coexistence” with the West. A visit to the United States … in 1959 was hailed as a new high in U.S.-Soviet relations …”
Enter Kennedy. He too claimed to prefer peace to war, but he was not averse to sending troops (so-called advisors) into Vietnam. So, both commanders-in-chief showed the world and, more importantly perhaps, each other that they were willing to deploy troops into combat.
Although there are other Cold War incidents that these two leaders had to deal with, the most important was what came to be known as the “Cuban Missile Crisis.”
“In October 1962, the United States and the USSR came close to nuclear war over the USSR’s placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba. After 13 tense days, the Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end when Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the offensive weapons in exchange for a secret U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba.
I was in high school then and much more aware of current events than I was during the McCarthy days just a few years prior. At home, Khrushchev was humiliated for removing the missiles. Among other internal problems for him in the stodgy Soviet Union, his political opponents deemed his international policies as moderate. And so, Khrushchev was eventually overthrown in 1964 by Leonid Brezhnev, Khrushchev’s former protege. Kennedy, of course, was assassinated in 1963.
The fact that two men who had shown willingness to go to war came to a diplomatic solution over their most destructive weapons says something about both of them. In the West we rightly laud Kennedy for the outcome of the negotiations. We forget or dismiss at our peril that Khrushchev was the other half of those bellicose talks. He pretty much walked off the stage of history after Cuba. But there was no war and he was part of preventing one.
It is rare, indeed, to find the word “moderate” associated with any Russian leader of the 20th century. In US politics today the word uttered in the same breath as the name of any politician is a career ender. Maybe we should remember more closely how important to the world the Cuban Missile Crisis was and how, in the end, “moderation” saved the day.
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