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

Khrushchev's Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary. By Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali. (New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. Pp. 670. $35.00.)

At his inauguration in 1961, John F. Kennedy declared that he would not shrink from the burdens of leadership in the "hour of maximum danger." Given what happened over the next few years in U.S.-Soviet relations, he said more than he could have known. Kennedy's Soviet counterpart, Nikita S. Khrushchev, declared a year later that he wanted to "create a meniscus" by which the Soviets would try to force the United States into recognizing the Soviets as an equal in their Cold War rivalry. The stage was set for some of the most tense and dramatic moments in this decades-long conflict.

Khrushchev's ten years as leader of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War is the subject of historians Timothy Naftali and Aleksandr Fursenko's collaborative, thorough, balanced, and often gripping account of the period from 1955 to 1964 when Khrushchev, the successor to Josef Stalin, led the Soviet Union. That Naftali is from the United States and Fursenko is a native Russian gives their effort a uniqueness, and the Soviet side of the Cold War is evident throughout the study. The authors' primary thesis is that Khrushchev--acutely resenting what he perceived, from his Marxist-Leninist worldview, as the imperialist arrogance of the United States--was determined to challenge the United States, even to the point of nuclear brinkmanship, to equalize the balance of power between the two superpowers and to gain the Soviet Union respect from its adversary. At various places around the world, from Berlin to the Middle East, and of course most dangerously in Cuba in the fall of 1962, Khrushchev sought to neutralize the superior military and economic power of the United States. First with U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and later with Kennedy, Khrushchev paradoxically alternated between this confrontational approach and periods in which he sought peaceful coexistence with the West. After the nuclear scare over Cuba, the following year he agreed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the United States. That achievement notwithstanding, Khrushchev's erratic and unpredictable behavior in foreign policy is one of the chief reasons his colleagues in the Soviet leadership eventually removed him from power in October of 1964.

Another thing that sets this study apart from the many previous works on the Cold War is that Fursenko and Naftali make effective use of material from Soviet archives, specifically the meetings of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. They emphasize Khrushchev's emotional style of governance and some of his more idiosyncratic tendencies, such as his focus on growing more Soviet corn, an obsession that took him to the Coon Rapids, Iowa, farm of Roswell Garst, a highlight of his 1959 visit to the United States. Fursenko and Naftali include many anecdotes in their study. One that stands out is their vivid treatment of Khrushchev's comical insistence (in retrospect) on being flown on a less than completely safe Soviet jet that he nonetheless deemed equal to the task of flying the leader of the socialist peoples of the world. They are wise to remind readers that even a subject as deadly serious as the Cold War can have its humorous sidelights.

One weakness of this otherwise distinguished study is the relative lack of biographical background on Khrushchev's younger years. Formative experiences such as his youthful turn to Marxist-Leninism and his years spent fighting the Nazi invaders of the Soviet Union surely must have shaped his views on foreign policy. Readers seeking this context should refer to Philip Taubman's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2003 biography on Khrushchev. That aside, Fursenko and Naftali, one historian from each side of this great twentieth-century divide, have succeeded admirably in writing an impartial and thoughtful chapter in the ongoing scholarly endeavor to understand the Cold War nearly two decades since its apparent end.

Jason K. Duncan

Aquinas College
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Author:Duncan, Jason K.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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