Khrushchev’s Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary

by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2006, $35.

In a voluminous but thoroughly engaging 545 pages, Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali make a detailed study of the Cold War’s most enigmatic leader in Khrushchev’s Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary. The book describes Nikita Khrushchev’s rise from obscurity to lead the second most powerful nation in the world, until his ignominious departure in a political coup similar to the one that had brought him into power—except for its being bloodless. Paying particular attention to the major crises of the time, the authors thread their narrative through the conflict over the Suez Canal, the shooting down of U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers and the Cuban Missile Crisis, adducing throughout that Khrushchev’s personality perpetuated the Cold War against the United States.

Both authors have already collaborated on several books on the Cold War. Fursenko is considered one of Russia’s leading historians and is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Naftali is an associate professor at the University of Virginia as well as director of the Presidential Recordings Program and Kremlin Decision-making Project at the Center of Public Affairs. These authors had extensive access to primary sources from archival records of internal party meetings, Khrushchev’s recordings after his removal, and presidential recordings. They made good use of all those sources during the writing of this extensively documented book.

Khrushchev’s Cold War clearly explains how he maneuvered Soviet domestic and foreign policy with the intent of surpassing the United States as a world power. Decidedly upset with the lackluster performance of the Soviet Union and the ever-present possibility of seeing the Warsaw Pact fall apart, Khrushchev tightened his fist at home and abroad to demonstrate Soviet dominance. Apparently envious of the lifestyles that the West had to offer, but also bound by Marxist thought and distrust of non-Communist nations, he was a man as much at odds with himself as he was with the rest of the world.

Khrushchev’s machinations at the helm of foreign policy confounded and worried friend and foe alike. In regard to the role of nuclear weapons, he stated, “The purpose is to give a rebuff, to steer detente.” His “meniscus” approach to Soviet foreign policy pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war on more than one occasion. Khrushchev was a man willing to test the boundaries of his own meniscus. At the same time, he was cunning enough to conceal the fact that his nation was in fact a nuclear paper tiger, gaining time for the Soviet Union to develop an extensive and fearsome nuclear capability rivaling that of the West.

Each of the book’s 21 chapters is dedicated to a salient point in Soviet-American relations, with little more than cursory attention paid to Soviet interaction with other nations. Its only potential drawback is the possibility of inadvertent bias introduced by Fursenko, who is currently the only Russian historian granted exclusive access to many of the documents used in researching the book. Its strongest point is the engaging way in which its scholarship is presented. The action seems to jump out of the pages to transport the reader back to that time, with all its inherent stumbling and fears, when two superpowers seemed poised on the verge of atomic Armageddon.

Fursenko and Naftali have done an admirable job of recounting and analyzing distant, world-altering events with clarity, logic and understanding that allows the reader to easily relate to them. Khrushchev’s Cold War is recommended for all who are interested in the period.

 

Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here