Friday, October 26, 2012

Khrushchev's Message

On October 26, 1962, eleven days into the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nikita Khrushchev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, addressed a letter (described by Robert Kennedy as "very long and emotional") to President John F. Kennedy. For fifty years, the letter has prompted speculation regarding Khrushchev's state of mind. Robert McNamara told Errol Morris in The Fog of War that the letter indicated that Khrushchev was under enormous pressure. Perhaps. But, given the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation, what Khrushchev wrote seems today like a much more sober assessment of the situation than much of the belligerent rhetoric that passed for clear-eyed analysis at the time. Perhaps Khrushchev, having miscalculated in authorizing the transfer of missiles to Cuba, recovered and saved the world by offering a way to "untie the knot."

The entire text of the letter is available here, but I include a few key passages below.

After noting the dual character of weapons and refuting Kennedy's assertion that the Soviet missiles in Cuba were offensive, Khrushchev discusses "the logic of war." Once begun, war cannot be controlled:
We must not succumb to intoxication and petty passions, regardless of whether elections are impending in this or that country, or not impending. These are all transient things, but if indeed war should break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war. I have participated in two wars and know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction.
But just as there is a logic of war, there is a logic of deterrence--of mutual assured destruction:
You can regard us with distrust, but, in any case, you can be calm in this regard, that we are of sound mind and understand perfectly well that if we attack you, you will respond the same way. But you too will receive the same that you hurl against us. And I think that you also understand this.
The discussion turns to peace, stability, and their foundations not on common ideologies ("We have proceeded and are proceeding from the fact that the peaceful co-existence of the two different social-political systems, now existing in the world, is necessary, that it is necessary to assure a stable peace.") but on the basis of a common respect for international law. And here Khrushchev seizes the moral high ground, calling the "quarantine"--the naval blockade--of Cuba "piratical" and noting that Kennedy himself had called the Bay of Pigs invasion a mistake. He offers a way to end the crisis, since "the preservation of world peace should be our joint concern." That way out requires a pledge by the United States to foreswear another attack on Cuba.

Returning to the naval quarantine, Khrushchev urges Kennedy not to force the issue by challenging Soviet ships on the high seas:
If you did this as the first step towards the unleashing of war, well then, it is evident that nothing else is left to us but to accept this challenge of yours. If, however, you have not lost your self-control and sensibly conceive what this might lead to, then, Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose.

Consequently, if there is no intention to tighten that knot and thereby to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.
Kennedy, to his credit, demonstrated an ability to compromise, to untie the knot. Khrushchev, to his credit, had an ability to reverse course when necessary to avoid a war that neither side wanted.