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by Nader Elhefnawy



My previous essay raised the idea that the Soviet Union had a narrow but real window of opportunity to set its economy on a different, more viable course during Khrushchev’s tenure as its leader, one that was cut short by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Of course the conventional wisdom is that regardless of management the Soviet economy was inherently incapable of participating in the Information Technology (IT) revolution clearly underway by the 1990s, but the amelioration of certain critical weaknesses would arguably have made a difference. It is even conceivable that the Soviet Union would still be around today, and perhaps not as an isolated, brutal and decrepit anachronism in the manner of North Korea (as Mark Almond, David C. Isby and others have suggested), but as a genuine superpower.

Is this picture improbable? Well, it didn't happen in our timeline, so it certainly seems so. But it is not impossible. Just as there was a tendency to overestimate Soviet strength during the Cold War, there is today a tendency to underestimate it. We may have the benefit of hindsight, but having gone so far down this path, it's harder to see the forks in the road we left behind us, and there is a case to be made for the plausibility of this particular scenario.

The Cuban Missile Crisis: Was it Inevitable?

Hard as it may be to believe given the status of the crisis as Cold War tragedy, the necessary outcome of the superpower competition that finally forced Washington and Moscow to confront the horror of what they were doing, Khrushchev could well have avoided deploying missiles to Cuba.

In the final analysis, however, the Soviet Premier viewed the Cold War as a mistake, and wanted an end to the military confrontation with the West. Of course it should be conceded that how he could secure that end on terms acceptable to him was far from simple or obvious. Khrushchev operated within very real constraints, not least of all Soviet weakness relative to the West. The policy of brinksmanship to which he resorted in situations like the Cuban crisis was a response to the weakness of the Soviet Union relative to the United States, rather than an expression of Soviet arrogance.

Scholars Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali in their recent book Khrushchev's Cold War find the most concise expression of this in the "meniscus" speech Khrushchev gave privately in 1962. In it Khrushchev

      adopted the metaphor of a wineglass filled to the rim, forming a meniscus, to describe a world where political tensions everywhere were brought to the edge of military confrontation.

Only by maintaining such a meniscus on top of the wineglass (but never letting it spill over), and thereby keeping the U.S. off-balance, could the West be prevented from taking advantage of Soviet weakness.

That weakness was military as well as economic. Khrushchev's hopes of cutting his country's conventional forces to free up resources for the civilian economy meant relying to a greater degree on Soviet nuclear forces at a time when the U.S. still had a vastly stronger arsenal. In particular the Soviet Union was virtually "encircled" by American allies, not only in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but the Baghdad Pact, South Korea and Japan, all hosts to U.S. nuclear bases.

President Kennedy's deployment of American Jupiter missiles to Turkey in 1961 was particularly vexing to Khrushchev, who wanted to give America its own "Turkey." Placing strategic weapons in Cuba was a short-cut to increasing the credibility of the Soviet strategic threat to the U.S., since it put his intermediate-range missiles in a "Turkey" within range of American territory.

There was also a desire to defend the Castro regime from overthrow by the United States, which was the declared motive of the Soviet action. Besides simply helping out a friendly government, the Soviet Union was interested in preserving its unprecedented inroad into the Western hemisphere. Perhaps more important, there was the Soviet Union's need to maintain its standing among the socialist states. In particular there was the concern that if Moscow did not solidify its relationship with Castro, he would turn to China instead.

These temptations aside, the act arguably did not seem as dangerous as it later proved to be. Unlike in the 1958 Berlin crisis, for instance, there was no ultimatum which the West could simply ignore, putting the ball back in Khrushchev's court. The deployment was secret, and it was his plan to reveal the placement of the missiles "as an accomplished fact" as Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin put it in his autobiography, after which they might be used as a bargaining chip. There was no expectation that the missiles would be discovered prior to the completion of the deployment, so events did not play out as he expected. Moreover, Khrushchev doubted the political will of the United States after his earlier dealings with Kennedy.

Consequently, the placement of missiles in Cuba may seem to have been over-determined, but a closer look at the facts suggests it was anything but. The pressure to take such action was far from irresistible and Khrushchev's errors of judgment far from inevitable. The same goes for the sequence of events that led up to this action. While it is certainly true that the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal was badly outmatched by that of the U.S., its vulnerability was only relative. In Khrushchev's time the Soviet nuclear deterrent was roughly equal to what China possesses today, as measured in numbers of warheads and delivery systems of various ranges.

Consequently, the ability of the Soviet Union to deter an American attack was not in doubt--and it was not the case that Khrushchev was looking to position the Soviet Union to actually fight a nuclear war more effectively. While Soviet military thinkers debated nuclear strategy, Khrushchev himself was not a believer in "winnable" nuclear war. In January 1960, he declared his strategy to be based on deterrence rather than fighting. More telling, however, was the following, famous statement:

      "When I was appointed First Secretary of the Central Committee and learned all the facts of nuclear power I couldn't sleep for several days. Then I became convinced that we could never possibly use these weapons, and when I realized that I was able to sleep again."

Even were this not the case the Soviet Union's window of vulnerability, and the placement of the Jupiters in Turkey, proved to be brief. By the mid-1960s the Soviets had not only overcome their difficulties with intercontinental ballistic missiles, but achieved parity with the U.S. in the number of weapons at their disposal (to little noticeable effect, as historian Martin Van Creveld has noted). Meanwhile, the Turkish Jupiters would shortly be replaced by submarine-launched Polaris missiles (though how much the Soviets knew about such plans is unclear from the available historiography).

Nor does the Soviet Union's relationship to Cuba and its standing in the Communist world adequately explain the policy. As Fursenko and Naftali note in their book, One Hell of a Gamble, Khrushchev "had known all along that Cuba was indefensible and four times in 1960-61 had expected the United States to invade the island"--without his contemplating any such action. Indeed, Khrushchev had been hesitant to provide Castro with the comparatively modest package of conventional weapons that he did ask for.

Additionally, a nuclear weapons deployment was unnecessary for the Soviets to achieve their goals on the island. Castro never requested the weapons, and Khrushchev had in fact thought it probable he would reject his offer of them, not wanting his country to be a nuclear pawn in the superpower contest. (Indeed, Castro later claimed that he would have refused the missiles if he knew that their placement was essentially a balance-of-power move, though his credibility on that point is a matter of disagreement.)

At the same time the Soviet presence in Cuba, which included a growing conventional military presence, represented a substantial tie between Moscow and its new ally, as well as a "tripwire" that was a powerful deterrent to an American invasion. Even assuming that a turn to Beijing by Castro was plausible, the Chinese, who had yet to test their first atomic bomb, could not offer anything similar. (Indeed, during the Cold War virtually every effort on China's part to become a player outside its region ended in failure.)

Consequently, it does not seem that these explanations suffice. This may suggest that the meniscus speech offers the real explanation, that rattling the West's cage was an end in itself, though that too seems questionable. It is hard to say just how seriously that speech should be taken in regard to Soviet policy toward Cuba. The 1961 Berlin crisis was a reminder to him that the U.S. could in fact be pushed into war, one reason why he broke off pressure on that front. Additionally, given the U.S.'s overwhelming geographical and military advantage in the Caribbean, this was the last place in the world where he would have been inclined to play that game.

Instead of keeping the West unbalanced, his goal in Cuba seems to have been the achievement of a particular effect, the enhancement of Soviet status less in the eyes of the Communist world than the West, by alleviating the (temporary) strategic weakness he blamed for the lack of respect he was getting from it in the negotiations over Berlin and arms control. Of course, where Soviet standing was concerned, Khrushchev could have thought less of potential gains and more of the costs of failure--which he had tasted in previous confrontations.

This would not have required extraordinary foresight. Every deception runs the risk of discovery. The likely U.S. reaction to the Soviet deployment was also far from unknown to the larger Soviet establishment. This was the first attempt by the Soviet Union to deploy nuclear missiles outside its territory, and it was being undertaken not to alter the balance in Europe, but to directly threaten U.S. territory. The Soviet Union may have had no choice but to put up with the U.S. establishing nuclear bases all around its security perimeter, but the U.S. did not have to stand for the same.

As Dobrynin noted in his autobiography, "had [Khrushchev] asked the embassy beforehand" instead of cutting them out of the loop, they would have accurately predicted Kennedy's response. He did consult the Presidium, many members of which considered the scheme to be dangerous, particular Anastas Mikoyan and perhaps also Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. While it is not perfectly clear how the debate proceeded, it was apparently very difficult for Khrushchev to win the rest of the Soviet leadership over to the idea.

In short, a number of developments could have not only altered Khrushchev's calculus, or even compelled him to give up his plan: a consultation with his diplomats; a refusal by Castro to host the weapons; the continued opposition of his Presidium. Moreover, it was possible for Khrushchev to avoid the crisis until quite late into the operation: the ship carrying the nuclear warheads for the missiles did not leave the Soviet Union until October.

Admittedly this still leaves open the possibility that if the crisis did not occur in Cuba, it would have happened somewhere else in light of Khrushchev's impatience to alleviate his poor strategic situation, and his chosen strategy for trying to do so. In answer to such claims it can be pointed out that Khrushchev did abandon pressure tactics for more patient diplomacy after the crisis.

This may suggest that he would not changed tack were it not for his humiliation in the confrontation. When contextualized, however, the Cuba gambit looks like a last-ditch effort at such brinksmanship. Indeed, under the slightly different circumstances described above, he may have eschewed that last effort, recognizing the necessity of shifting to a more careful approach through the process of considering and dropping his Cuba plan.

One likely result is that Leonid Brezhnev and his allies in the conservative wing of the Soviet establishment would not have been able to force Khrushchev's resignation in 1964. Instead Khrushchev may well have retained the political standing necessary to continue the reforms that he had started. He may also have been in a position to select like-minded successors before his retirement, with significant implications for the Soviet Union's future.

The Soviet Economy Reconsidered

While Khrushchev was gravely concerned with his country's economic weakness, glaring even in his time, it is today quite easy to forget just how much progress the Soviet economy actually did make prior to its stagnation.

There are several reasons for this. One is that it has become increasingly unfashionable, indeed, politically incorrect, to say anything remotely positive about any economic alternative to unregulated markets. Additionally, the slowing economic growth of the 1970s, and the contraction underway by the late 1980s (which accelerated so dramatically in the Yeltsin era) have had a profound psychological effect on Western observers. They looked at the shabbiness of Soviet infrastructure, industry and services in the early 1990s and assumed it was always so, rather than a reflection of two decades of worsening mismanagement, looting and neglect, amplified by the trauma of "shock therapy" familiar from other cases the whole world over.

As David Kotz and Fred Weir noted in their 1997 book Revolution From Above: The demise of the Soviet system, many of them "downgraded their view of past Soviet accomplishments" not because new data had appeared, but the dubious assumption that the Soviet Union must have been weaker than it looked all along. Not surprisingly, since estimates of the size of the Soviet economy were always a highly contentious and ideologically charged matter, scholars connected with conservative think tanks produced particularly low numbers that have since come to be taken for granted by many. In this general atmosphere the downgrading was widely declared the last word on the question of Soviet economic performance, and serious research on that subject all but halted. In much of the recent literature on the Russian economy, history begins at the economic low point of the Gorbachev era. Consequently, the numbers scholars previously went by are worth reexamining.

It was widely accepted that the Soviet Union's economic growth generally outpaced that of the U.S. for the half-century between the late 1920s and early 1970s, giving it a GDP that by some estimates was equal to sixty percent of America's near the end of this period. According to the Central Intelligence Agency estimate, Soviet per capita income was about $11,000 in 1970, after adjustment for inflation. This was ten percent more than Italy's.

Implausible as it now seems, this is very close to the figures you would get if you extrapolated backwards from today's statistics for the Russian and other post-Soviet economies. Moreover, other measures besides GDP seem to bear this out. Up until the early 1970s the socialist economies of Eastern Europe were generally on a level with those of Southern Europe in the development indexes.

Let us therefore assume, conservatively, that Soviet income was just equivalent to Italy's after factoring in population, rather than higher. One can argue that had the Soviet Union merely kept up with Italy, expanding at a rate well below earlier Soviet performance and not out of reach for other mature economies at this time, its national income would have hit eighty percent of the U.S. level by the late 1980s. By 2005 it would have had a $9 trillion-plus economy, over three times as large as that of united Germany.

Provided the Soviet economy had narrowed the gap between itself and the rest of the industrialized world rather than seeing it widen as such a pattern of growth indicates, it would have been in a position to offer Western Europe a great deal more than energy and raw materials. Cooperation in research and development, joint state-to-state ventures, the sale of production licenses and even exports of Soviet bloc manufactures to the West would have been conceivable. Especially when combined with its satellite economies in Eastern Europe, this would have enabled the Soviet Union to exert the kind of magnetism toward its neighbors in Europe, the Near East and East Asia that China is today exerting in its own region.

Of course, the Soviet Union did not become such an economic colossus because of severe internal problems, already apparent to Khrushchev. The Soviet economy was relatively inefficient in its use of labor, land and capital, which was increasingly reflected in sagging production as it exhausted the possibilities for "extensive development." To give one example, Soviet industry's output of bulk commodities like iron, steel and cement was larger than the U.S.'s, but to diminishing returns, while it fell far short of American performance in its ability to mass-produce up-to-date, high quality consumer goods and high-technology manufactures. According to a 1972 Department of Commerce report the U.S. was out-producing the Soviet Union in virtually every such area, often by a staggering margin. The American automotive industry turned out 3 times as many trucks and buses, and 16 to 1 times as many cars, as did its Soviet counterpart. Perhaps more disturbing given the fast-arriving information age the United States was already out-producing it 20 to 1 in digital computers.

Addressing these weaknesses would not have been simple, as the record attests, and not only because of the crushing weight of Soviet defense spending, important as that was. The considerable intellectual challenge of reforming the planned economy, the inherent difficulties of changing long practice (a theme common to the economic decline of every great power) and the power of vested interests (again, a familiar theme) were all significant obstacles, adding to the Soviet system's sclerosis. The disappointments of the Brezhnev period aside, even the results of Khrushchev's efforts were unpromising in important respects. While the liberalization of political and cultural life was real enough, and he appears to have been motivated by a genuine awareness of Soviet weakness and desire to improve living standards, his efforts to decentralize economic planning (like Gorbachev's two decades later) often proved disruptive while being insufficient to produce meaningful change. Additionally large, highly publicized projects like the Virgin Lands initiative of the late 1950s frequently fell short of the claims made for them.

Nonetheless, even if their impact on overall Soviet economic growth is checkered, Khrushchev's reforms did produce measurable improvements in the Soviet standard of living through the construction of more housing, a greater availability of consumer goods, higher wages and better health care and educational services. Over the longer term the reduced defense burden, looser political controls and sincerely reformist direction of his tenure (especially given that the Soviet economy was still expanding at a healthy rate) would have given him and like-minded successors much more scope for action. At the same time, the corruption and inequality which had such a pernicious effect on the Soviet economy and the morale of Soviet citizenry may plausibly have been more successfully constrained in such circumstances than they were under Brezhnev's leadership. Indeed, the early failures may have served to refine later policy, rather than "prove" the futility of reforming the Soviet system.

It should also be acknowledged that the Soviet Union had certain assets key to developing a strong knowledge-based economy, such as high labor force participation and an extremely well-trained work force. Additionally, East European thinkers like the Czech philosopher Radovan Richta were quicker to recognize the coming information age than their Western counterparts, thinking which might have enjoyed greater adherence in less strained circumstances.

In short the more open, meritocratic, self-critical Soviet Union posited here, able to invest more heavily in its civilian economy, may not only have sustained higher growth, but successfully "post-industrialized." Indeed, it is not out of the question that a visionary Soviet leadership could have defined the "libertarian" technology of the computer as an "anarchist" technology instead, suitable for, or even demanding, the decentralized communism which is the endpoint of Marxist teleology. (If Peter Kropotkin was writing today, he would likely point to the creation of Linux as proof that high-tech programs could be run along anarchist lines.) Particularly if the Soviet Union succeeded in abandoning its Stalinist baggage--and as the resentment toward neo-liberal globalization continued to mount--even the temporary success of an alternative approach to post-industrialism would have greatly enhanced the attractiveness of the Soviet social model at home and abroad.


The Cuban Missile Crisis was less a product of inexorable pressures on Khrushchev or inherent Cold War dynamics than a matter of his impatience with a frustrating strategic situation--specifically Soviet weakness, and its adverse effect on his ability to negotiate with the West. Moreover, Khrushchev's deployment of missiles to Cuba could have been derailed at any number of points, conceivably forcing him to accept the more cautious foreign policy approach he started taking after the crisis.

This would have had important consequences for his tenure as head of the Soviet government. Were it not for the damage that crisis did to his prestige, he would likely have remained influential in the Kremlin for several more years, in which he could not only have personally furthered economic reform, but selected successors who would have continued this project. If those reformers succeeded in building a Soviet economy capable of sustaining even moderate growth after the early 1970s, the Soviet Union would have not only remained but narrowed the gap as the U.S.'s most serious economic as well as political challenger. Under the circumstances, a Soviet ascendancy in Europe at the expense of the United States would not have been out of the question.


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