Glasnost and the Soviet nuclear experience

THE recent release of the memoirs of former Soviet President Andrei Gromyko revealed a startling incident in 1958 when Mao Tse-tung sought Soviet participation in a scheme to lure United States troops into the Chinese heartland, then bomb them with Soviet nuclear weapons. This dramatic disclosure about Soviet-Chinese nuclear diplomacy follows fast on the heels of recent, equally startling revelations by the Soviets about their motivations and maneuvers in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Remarkably, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost has begun to extend even into the once sacrosanct setting of the Soviet nuclear experience. This fledgling process has already brought to light some heretofore unknown and frightening close calls between the superpowers. Indeed, if the Soviets continue to fill the empty pages of their nuclear history, we in the West may be forced to conclude that we have been far more fortunate than we supposed.

The account of these most dangerous confrontations is, from the American viewpoint, short and familiar. First, we recall those 13 days in October 1962 when John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev stood at the brink over Cuba. And the year before, the superpowers confronted each other in Berlin, at Checkpoint Charlie, with tanks poised tread to tread on each side of the newly constructed wall. Finally, we remember that in 1973 at the height of the Arab-Israeli war, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ordered a nuclear alert to warn the Soviets not to involve themselves further in the conflict. There have been other crises, of course, and many contingency plans, but most Western learning about nuclear crises has derived from these, particularly Cuba.

Yet there exists an enormous disparity between what we know about American intentions and actions in these events and those of the Soviets. Indeed, the Cuban missile crisis, for example, has produced thousands of books, articles, and reports - almost all written by Americans using American data and focused exclusively on American decisionmaking. In contrast, the Soviets until now have provided virtually nothing resembling serious, honest appraisals of their actions over Cuba. So on the American side we have mountains of hard data. On the Soviet side, a molehill of self-serving pseudo-history.

But a revolution in Soviet historiography of their nuclear experience may be under way. For example, last October, when Soviets and Americans who stood ``eyeball to eyeball'' over missiles in Cuba gathered at Harvard to discuss the crisis, it was the Soviets who took the lead in exposing information that provided unprecedented insight into power politics in the corridors of the Kremlin, and into their own deep sense of nuclear danger. We were told the identities of the five men other than Khrushchev who planned the missile deployment; we were let in on their methods of hand-to-hand communication, designed to keep their colleagues in the dark; we were told of a self-deluded Khrushchev and of the names of key Soviet officials in the US who were deceived by their own government.

We must move quickly here, as elsewhere, to take advantage of the Soviets' glasnost-inspired honesty regarding their experience with the bomb. We must continue and extend the dialogue about Cuba; we should begin a dialogue about Berlin, an event regarded by many Americans as every bit as terrifying as Cuba but which, as we learned at the Harvard meeting, was not regarded by the Soviets as all that dangerous. Further, we should follow Mr. Gromyko's lead and begin to explore the almost total terra incognita of the Soviet-Chinese experience with the bomb. It may well be, for example, that the battles at the Amur River in the early 1970s between Soviets and Chinese - both nuclear powers - were among the most dangerous in history.

Santayana once said that those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it. Gromyko's account and the recent Harvard meeting have revealed only the barest tip of the iceberg that represents a full understanding of the most dangerous crises in history. And the more of that iceberg we bring into view, the more dangerous these crises begin to appear.

Based on information received at the Harvard meeting, for example, we now have reason to believe that on Oct. 24, 1962, the world may have been only minutes from a superpower naval war at the quarantine line the Americans had placed around Cuba. It has long been known that the Soviet vessels approaching the line came frighteningly close before stopping ``dead in the water'' and turning back. What had not been known is that only because of frantic maneuvering within the Kremlin was an order issued to rescind a standing Soviet order to stay the course and run the blockade. If that narrowly averted event had happened, a war between the superpowers would have commenced.

The more such information the Soviets reveal, the more we should take to heart Santayana's apothegm. This is a history we dare not repeat, and therefore it is a history we dare not ignore.

James G. Blight and Kurt M. Campbell are associates at the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Glasnost and the Soviet nuclear experience
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today