Saturday, November 22, 2014

Cold War Roadshow

PBS recently aired an episode of American Experience entitled "Cold War Roadshow." It chronicled Nikita Khrushchev's visit to the U.S. in 1959. The story is an intriguing one about misunderstood motives and unintended outcomes. At times neither the Soviet leader nor American citizens behaved at their best. The short film is filled with all sorts of video featuring the pale color or grainy television broadcasting of that era, the sort of video that gives me historical chills. This shouldn't surprise my readers, given my disposition to play boardgames for hours on end depicting the Cold War. In fact, I could think of a few cards to add to Twilight Struggle based on scenes from "Cold War Roadshow."

The plane Khrushchev flew to come to America in 1959 apparently exists at a museum in Russia. That would constitute another bucket list entry. 

My idea of a good time involves swapping cards like this across a table with a friend on a weekend afternoon. 
We often talk about heroes and legends who bring about great moments in world history. The video made me think of a stumbler who brought about something great in world history. Khrushchev was clumsy. So clumsy he was essentially fired as the Soviet Union's leader in 1964 (and lived to tell the tale). So clumsy, he almost precipitated a nuclear war when he directed his missiles to Cuba. Thank goodness we had a fairly sure-handed president who defused that crisis (after he had stumbled earlier with the Bay of Pigs). In fact, there is a narrow period of the Cold War characterized more by stumbles than steps: the late 1950s and early 1960s. It's somewhat remarkable there wasn't loss of life, or loss of human civilization, as a result of such missteps.

"Cold War Roadshow" interviews some historians who make very good points about how Khrushchev may have unwittingly brought about the end of the Cold War. First, by denouncing Stalin in 1956 he precipitated a significant decline in the ideology on which the Soviet Union was founded. That decline couldn't be reversed. Second, interactions with common American people (the leaders he met often angered him) during that road trip might have disinclined him from ultimately giving the order that would push us into war. He met too many Americans to not understand our common humanity. Those sentiments, the one historian argued, tempered Khrushchev during the turbulent misunderstandings that began with the shooting down of the U-2 up through the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It might be helpful for us to consider the role of stumblers like Khrushchev though it seems more simple to look at the sure hands who are more often given credit. Ronald Reagan was the smooth communicator. Mikhail Gorbachev was the precise engineer. These two are most often given the credit for ending the Cold War. I appreciate American Experience's interpretation that its end wasn't quite so intentional or sure-handed.

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