BOSTON — I was reminded the other day of a joke that went the rounds in Moscow in 1957. The Soviet Union, although dreadfully short of consumer goods, had managed to leap ahead of America in space by launching the first two orbiting satellites, one with a dog on board. Communist Chief Nikita Khrushchev boasted that America now lay defenseless before superior Soviet military technology.
As the joke had it, Khrushchev called a secret meeting of his war council to plan a knockout blow against the United States. Fifty tourists would be sent to America with suitcases containing miniaturized hydrogen bombs and would spread out to strategic locations. The bombs would be simultaneously detonated by an electronic command from Moscow.
Khrushchev asked his ministers whether anyone saw anything wrong with the plan. Most said the plan was technically feasible.
Finally, one minister spoke up. "But, Comrade Khrushchev, where do we find 50 suitcases?"
What brought this joke back to mind was reading that Russia has recently staged its biggest military exercise, called West '99. Its premise was an invasion of Russia from the West, with demoralized Russian conventional forces unable to offer successful resistance. Finally nuclear weapons are deployed.
A hint to NATO that Russia is still a nuclear power and not to be taken lightly.
At one point in the crisis over Kosovo, President Yeltsin issued an incomprehensible warning that a NATO-Russian confrontation over Kosovo could lead to nuclear war.
That took me back to the 1950s, when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles enunciated a doctrine of possible nuclear response to Soviet aggression in Europe by immensely superior conventional forces. "A bigger bang for the buck," we called the Dulles doctrine. The Yeltsin doctrine could be called, "A bigger rumble for the ruble."
But then came a report that Russia's nuclear missile forces near the Chinese border were left without power for a time. Garrisons went dark.
Pumps stopped pumping. The reason for the blackout was that the electricity bill had not been paid by the money-strapped armed forces and the power company got tired of waiting. It was at least the third time this had happened. And the same thing happened at a nuclear submarine base.
It was downright embarrassing for a government that had spent two weeks in exercises, had sent bombers into air space near Norway and Iceland to show its military muscle, but couldn't be sure of its electricity.
Yes, comrade, but where do you get 50 suitcases?
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society