David R. Henderson  

Nikita Khrushchev on War

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I've been reading John Mueller's excellent book, Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda. I just finished Chapter 3, "Deterring World War III," in which he argues that nuclear weapons weren't necessary to deter World War III because World War II was such a horrible experience for all concerned that the deterrence of war from the horror of non-nuclear war was about as great as the deterrence of war from the horror of nuclear war. In Chapter 3, Mueller has a colorful paragraph on Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's stated views on war:

From the start, Khrushchev was clearly moved by the wars he had already experienced and had no intention of working his way closer toward a repeat of those calamities--much less a worse one. "I have participated in two world wars," Khrushchev wrote Kennedy at the height of the [Cuban missile] crisis, "and know that war ends only when it has carved its way across cities and villages, bringing death and destruction in its wake." In a speech to Soviet textile workers a year after the crisis Khrushchev recalled the loss of his son in World War II and the millions of other deaths suffered by the Russians, and then laid into his critics: "Some comrades abroad claim that Khrushchev is making a mess of things, and is afraid of war. Let me say once again that I should like to see the kind of bloody fool who is genuinely not afraid of war." The Soviet press reported that it was this statement that was cheered more loudly and wholeheartedly than any other by his audience. Or there was his earthy comment to some naval officers shortly after the crisis: "I'm not a czarist officer who has to kill himself if I fart at a masked ball. It's better to back down than to go to war." The Soviets never even went on a demonstration alert.

Disclosure: I received a zero-price review copy of the book from the publisher.

Update: I thought it went without saying but, from some of the comments below, maybe not. The Soviet Union lost just shy of 1/8 of its population in WWII. For the United States to lose the same fraction today would mean the death over 6 years of about 35 million people, or roughly an equivalent of the whole population of California.


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COMMENTS (24 to date)
ThomasL writes:

Is the contention that WWII was especially horrifying?

Is that because it was so large? Because certainly wars waged with the same conventional tools did not cease after WWII, though there has not been another so large.

WWI might be called particularly horrifying, not only because of the (at the time) unprecedented scale, but because so many new classes of weapons which had never existed before in history--aircraft, machine guns, gas--were introduced, and yet that horror did little to prevent WWII.

It is impossible to say whether some hypothetical WWIII triggered by unknown events was prevented by the existence of nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, there is little doubt that nuclear weapons raised the potential costs of any war between nuclear powers. They were never low, but with ICBMs to visit destruction in your homeland and multi-megaton warheads that leave behind poisonous fallout they became staggeringly high. It is entirely consistent that higher cost would lower demand.

Libertarians often complain of the "warfare" state, and argue that if governments paid for wars from revenues rather than borrowing and printing, so that people had to bear the full costs of the war, there would be fewer wars. That makes since when we are talking about monetary costs, but suddenly doesn't when we are talking about non-monetary costs?

Jim Glass writes:

he argues that nuclear weapons weren't necessary to deter World War III because World War II was such a horrible experience

What was so nice about World War I that it didn't deter World War II?

Dog of Justice writes:

Looks like Jim Glass has won this thread.

Evan writes:

This somewhat squares with two books on battle tactics and strategy I read by Bevin Alexander, How Great Generals Win and How Wars Are Won. Alexander argues that since WWII it has been impractical for industrial countries to fight full scale wars because the destructive powers of aerial weapons has increased to the point that any army deployed in the field will end up instantly annihilated by bombing. For this reason full scale wars between developed countries have not happened frequently since WWII. The only wars that are practical are guerrilla wars where the armies cannot be bombed because they cannot be found.

Alexander does not single out nukes as being responsible for this increase in power, he argues that conventional weapons are quite powerful enough without nukes. His analysis is less sentimental than Krushchev's, but politicians have a tendency to dress up pragmatism with high emotions.

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

Jim has indeed asked the right question. Also remember what happened to Khrushchev; he was deposed.

Maybe the communist we ought to listen to was Trotsky, 'You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.'

The Man Who Was . . . writes:

This is far from definitive. It is perfectly possible for both sides to really want to avoid war, yet end up in a war.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Jim Glass and Dog of Justice,
I didn't argue that the horror of WWII was enough to deter WWIII. I argued that the horror of WWII exercised as much deterrence on WWIII as the horror of nuclear weapons would have. I might be wrong, but deal with my argument rather than with an argument I didn't make.

John writes:

"What was so nice about World War I that it didn't deter World War II?"

The peace settlement that left Germany feeling like war might be better than peace and the winners unable to resolve their debt problems leading, in part, to the global depression.

I think The man Who Was has nailed the situation. Has anyone seen the movie Hero, if I recall the name right, with Jet Lee? I'm thinking of both the chanting masses demanding death and the sword fight between the other two fighting masters.

Richard A. writes:

The Soviet Union lost just shy of 1/8 of its population in WWII.
Young adult males were certainly the hardest hit. It would be interesting to look at the percentage of Soviet males born around 1918 that were killed.

Jim Glass writes:

Jim Glass ... deal with my argument rather than with an argument I didn't make.

Professor, I responded to "he argues that...", not "you argued".

IMHO, if "he argues that ... the deterrence of war from the horror of non-nuclear war was about as great as the deterrence of war from the horror of nuclear war", then *he* can fairly be asked why WWI was so totally ineffective at deterring WWII. Not only in Europe but Asia.

As to the Soviets' attitude to war, I spent a fair amount of time in Soviet Eastern Europe, walked through the mass graves in Lenningrad with a million victims from WWII in them, (also saw Soviet tanks roll over civilians in Prague), and encountered their citizenry's attitude towards war. The notion that they didn't think of nuclear war as being *seriously* worse than conventional war -- worse than what happened in Lenningrad -- is in my mind not credible.

And as to Mueller's anti-war quote from Krushchev, remember that was from Krushchev to Kennedy "at the height of the [Cuban missile] crisis" -- at the height of a nuclear showdown!

If anything, the Krushchev of the multiple Berlin crises, arming Cuba, etc., suddenly speaking pacifist quotes when trying to escape nuclear consequences is evidence for the extra effectiveness of nuclear deterrence, is it not?

I have no doubt that Krushchev personally didn't like war, and was personally against it. So were Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln. But they were all politicians and politicians don't control their own fate. As Patrick noted, Krushchev was toppled shortly after showing weakness to the west.

The big, gaping, logical error in Mueller's "the horror of the last big conventional war will deter the next big conventional war" is that people start big conventional wars believing they will be small.

The US Civil War and WWI were expected by the instigants to be over quickly and inexpensively. Even in WWII Hitler and Tojo *grossly miscalcuated* the consequences of their actions. (E.g, Hitler didn't believe the British would fight over Poland. The Japanese thought the US would compromise after Pearl Harbor.) That's how the small wars that got planned turned into huge disasters. Nobody starting them ever expected to face the huge disaster -- so how would the prospect of disaster deter them? It didn't.

But nuclear weapons put that prospect of disaster right up front and forthright. I can give a long list of cold war episodes where one side or the other blinked to contain a conflict that had a risk of growing, because of the threat of nuclear confrontation (Korea, Cuba, Berlin, MidEast...)

The brazen risk of calamity right up front from even a *small* conflict is the unique deterrent effect that nuclear weapons possessed. By coincidence, just last week I watched both Fail Safe and Dr Strangelove. Anyone who doesn't think this difference was very real and prominent in peoples' minds should watch them (or The Bedford Incident, On the Beach, etc.) and compare them to the popular movies about WWII, made just 20 years earlier. Politicians are people too, including Soviet ones.

If the Kaiser had had nuclear weapons capable of hitting New York, would Wilson have put us in World War I? If the South had nuclear weapons capable of hitting Washington DC, would Lincoln have sent McClellan to invade it?

Steve Sailer writes:

Gen. William Odom's history of the downfall of the Soviet Army recounts how Soviet doctrine inherited from Lenin was that wars were winnable. Since Marxism-Leninism was scientific, it had to continue to apply even in the nuclear age, so the Red Army had all sorts of plans for how their tanks assault on Western Europe could survive even tactical nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, Kruschev was in power at the scariest part of the Cold War and he didn't believe Lenin's doctrine. He thought nukes changed everything.

ThomasL writes:

An important problem is that the horror of war fades with time. Does anyone here believe that the people of Russia are as traumatized and horrified by WWII today as they were in 1946? 1956? 1966? You cannot maintain a state of retrospective horror in a population indefinitely--thankfully. But a deterrent that fades with time is not an ideal deterrent.

A nuclear exchange, on the other hand, persists as a prospective horror in a way that no memory of a conventional war ever has.

GlibFighter writes:

If "the deterrence of war from the horror of non-nuclear war was about as great as the deterrence of war from the horror of nuclear war," what is Mueller's explanation for why the USSR went ahead and developed a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons?

Silas Barta writes:

No comments about the substance of your post, but I want to applaud you for this:

Disclosure: I received a zero-price review copy of the book from the publisher.

That's the first time I've seen such a disclosure in the econoblogosphere. The closest otherwise was Tyler Cowen whining about how he shouldn't have to mention that for all the books he seems to have early reviews of.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Silas Barta,
Thanks (?). I'm not proud of having to comply with the dictates of federal bureaucrats who have seriously undercut the First Amendment. I share Tyler Cowen's "whine."

Blackadder writes:

WWI and WWII seem to have worked out quite nicely for the Soviet leadership (it was horrible for the Russian people, but they weren't the ones deciding whether to have WWIII). Because of WWI they got to control Russia. Because of WWII they got to control Eastern Europe. Leave the bomb out of the equation, and it's not so clear why the Soviet leadership wouldn't view WWIII as just another chance to gain more territory.

Chris T writes:

It is perfectly possible for both sides to really want to avoid war, yet end up in a war.

This is sadly apt description of the run up to WWI (with the exception of Austria).

Cryptomys writes:

Khrushchev's memoirs, including the final volume, The Glasnost Tapes are also a good read. For example, in The Glasnost Tapes, Khrushchev thanks Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for their services to the Soviet Union.

His son, Sergei Khrushchev has also provided insight into his thinking regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis and his decision to send nuclear missiles to Cuba. According to Sergei, his father thought in European terms. In Europe, nations simply had to tolerate threatening enemy powers near their borders. Thus, Nikita Khrushchev did not understand that Kennedy would be forced to react to the presence of the missiles in Cuba. If he did not, he faced defeat in the 1964 Presidential election.

There is another interesting story involving Khrushchev discussing nuclear war at a swimming pool in Beijing with Mao Zedong. Khrushchev was appalled at Mao's cavalier and irresponsible attitude toward the casualties that would result from a nuclear war.

Jaap writes:

@Jim Glass:
Watching Fail Safe & Dr. Strangelove could be a nice addition to our leaders, military and civilians alike. though they'll have to see that history (even fictional history) rhymes and never repeats. if it is realized unintended consequences arise on all sorts of levels, wars (or 'interventions') might be less attractive.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Cryptomys,
Thanks.

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

One might also think that the fact that the Japanese were not convinced to surrender in WWII by the horrors of conventional war, and were preparing the civilian population to resist an American invasion with (literally) pitchforks, but gave up almost overnight when we dropped two atomic bombs on them, as evidence against Mueller's belief.

Peter writes:

"or roughly an equivalent of the whole population of California."

No loss, especially if it was all contained to California.

Finch writes:

People fail to distinguish degrees of bad.

If civilization was a single human, WWII would be like breaking its arm, and global nuclear war would be like shooting it in the stomach. Both things are bad, but one is worse.

Jim Glass writes:

WWI and WWII seem to have worked out quite nicely for the Soviet leadership (it was horrible for the Russian people, but they weren't the ones deciding whether to have WWIII).

Russia suffered horribly in WWI. Why didn't that deter the Soviets into steering well clear from all participation in WWII, and all the horrible consequences that ensued for them?

Because Stalin believed that by buddying up with Hitler on the invasion of Poland that started WWII he was going to get half of it plus the rest of the neighborhood *cheap and easy*. And that by the time Hitler was finished in the west, he'd have stabilized his defenses on what he'd taken.

Joe never imagined Operation Barbarossa would come over his lines when it did. He actually went into denial about it when it did, then went into hiding, then when a delegation from the Politboro found him feared they were coming to execute him.

That's why no disastrous war was ever deterred by the previous one. The instigators never believe it will be disastrous for them, so they aren't deterred. The rest of the participants have no choice.

But if the instigator knows a would-be victim has a nuke to drop on the instigator's capital city as soon as troops go over the border ... that focuses the mind on a new consideration.

Leave the bomb out of the equation, and it's not so clear why the Soviet leadership wouldn't view WWIII as just another chance to gain more territory.

Or why the behavior of the rest of the world powers would be any different than from during the prior few centuries -- contesting a continuing stream of regional conflicts directly or by proxy, with them periodically blowing up into major wars.

But with nukes, regional conflicts were clearly handled differently. Of many examples, Russian pilots flew in both the Korean and VietNam wars but the Soviets carefully masked the fact for fear of the consequences that "Russians shooting at Americans" could lead to ... the US handcuffed itself when attacking North Vietnam, in spite of the cost resulting to it in the South ... a couple MiddleEast conflicts ended abruptly when the nuclear powers yanked the chain on their proxies, etc.

Nobody knows how different history would have been if nuclear weapons had never been invented. But regional conflicts had never been controlled with such caution and restraint by major powers previously ... and we know what that always resulted in, sooner or later.

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