Page 6, 30th August 1991

30th August 1991
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Page 6, 30th August 1991 — The hot - line and the Cold War Richard Crockatt THIS is
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The hot - line and the Cold War Richard Crockatt THIS is

a very long book about a short period. It also covers subjects about which shelves-full of books have already been written. One's first question must therefore be whether the result justifies such a venture. The answer is a resounding yes. 'Michael Beschloss has left no stone unturned in his examination of the relationship between two world leaders which surely ranks in importance with that of say, Truman and Stalin. In fact the personal ties between Kennedy and Khrushchev were far closer than those between Truman and Stalin, and it is this, as much as the world-shaking nature of

events between 1960 and 1963, which gives Beschloss's narrative its fine dramatic edge.

Professional historians may debate Beschloss's conclusions on specific issues. They may find the occasional descent into the banal rhetoric of popular fiction unnecessary. Do we need to be told that "as Helms (deputy director of the CIA) walked into the vaulted office, his piercing eyes took in the crayon drawings by Kennedy's children tacked on to the mahogany panelled walls?" Fortunately there is not too much of this. In the main readers will be impressed by the skill and thoroughness with which Beschloss has marshalled masses of data.

And there is plenty to marshal. Glasnost and the American Freedom of Information Act have liberated mountains of new documents, just as they have loosened the tongues of numerous

former politicians and officials. The picture which emerges is inevitably complex, but one thing stands out: that personal relationships between world leaders did (and do) matter, especially in moments of crisis. Early in his presidency Kennedy began a regular personal correspondence with Khrushchev without which, it is plausible to argue, the Cuban missile crisis might have been resolved in a less happy fashion.

This is not to say that total trust existed between the two leaders. Indeed from their one and only summit meeting in Vienna in 1961, through the tense negotiations on Berlin, to the Cuban missile crisis and the long drawn-out discussion on the Test Ban Treaty, the KennedyKhrushchev relationship was characterised by deep scepticism on both sides as well as by aspirations to meet each other half

way. Khrushchev's vigorous but vain efforts to push the West out of Berlin, which culminated in the building of the Berlin Wall, his provocative decision to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, and his blustering about the Soviet Union's missile capability display a leader determined to face down American power but also hardline critics within his own government. Kennedy too had much to prove. His slender electoral margin, his youth and relative inexperience in foreign affairs, and his (not entirely justified) reputation as a "liberal" rendered him highly vulnerable to hawkish charges that he lacked the qualities to lead America in such tense crimes. He was correspondingly determined to prove these charges unfounded. A personal relationship between the leaders could moderate but hardly remove such in-built tensions as these. Beschloss has resisted doing the kind of hatchet job on Kennedy which has bccome almost routine since the revelations about his sexual appetite and the CIA tricks campaign waged during his administration against Castro and others. But nor is this book a whitewash. Kennedy stands accused among other things of failing to signal clearly to Kruschchev what the consequences would be of the placement of Soviet missiles on Cuba. Khrushchev for his part committed gross errors of judgement which arose from an incapacity to conceive how his own actions might be perceived by the other side. It says much for both that in the missile crisis itself they began to understand the significance of mutual perceptions of each other's policies.

Undoubtedly Beschloss's account of the Cuban missile crisis is the centre-piece of his book. At well over 200 pages it constitutes a book in itself. He has made full use of the new information which has emerged from joint US-Soviet study groups of the crisis since 1987. The result is not entirely comforting, since it is now clear that policy-makers were even less in control of events than had previously been thought. Once again, however, one is impressed by the part played by "backchannel" and informal means of communication between the leaderships in resolving the crisis. The crisis was followed by a partial thaw in the cold war, marked by the establishment of a "hot-line" between Moscow and Washington and the Test Ban Treaty in 1963. It is a sobering thought that it took a crisis of such proportions to produce so a modest an improvement in USSoviet relations.




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