Nikita Khrushchev: Soviet Leader Under the Gun

A sketch of Nikita Khrushchev, supreme leader of the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Part 4 of a series chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

The personalities of the two superpowers’ leaders and the problems they faced played crucial roles in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Nikita Khrushchev: a Man with Problems

Nikita Khrushchev had been the Soviet Union’s supreme leader since 1955. Khrushchev was not invincible, however. His colleagues on the Presidium, the USSR’s ruling body, held him accountable for his solutions to the nation’s problems.  

In late 1961, Khrushchev faced two big, unsolved problems—one the world knew about and one it didn’t.

Problem 1: Berlin

At the end of 1961 Khrushchev was under pressure within the Presidium to eject the Western Allies from the three sectors of Berlin they had occupied since war’s end. It should have been an easy task. Berlin was 110 miles inside the Iron Curtain. The lightly garrisoned U.S., French, and British sectors were surrounded by nearly a million Soviet and Satellite troops.

The Allies refused to budge. They refused to cave in to Stalin’s 1948-49 land blockade of Berlin, and they rejected all subsequent threats and ultimatums.

Seventeen years later, capitalist, democratic West Berlin had become a vibrant, prosperous society. By 1961 the Soviet satellites’ best and brightest were fleeing by the thousands through that open gateway to freedom—until August 1961.

Even though the notorious Berlin Wall slowed the torrent of escapees to a trickle, life in West Berlin went on as usual. Those three Allied sectors were daily and irrefutable proof that Soviet Communism was a failure that could exist only through brute force.

Khrushchev’s threats and ultimatums had fallen flat. But he still needed some way to force the Western Allies out of Berlin or he would be out of a job—via a bullet through the back of his neck.

Problem 2: The Nuclear Weapons Gap

Ever since the USSR’s successful 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world’s first orbiting satellite, Khrushchev had boasted that the USSR had an insurmountable lead in Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Much of the world, including the average American, believed him.

Khrushchev had been lying. Years of reconnaissance photographs revealed the truth: the USSR had no operational ICBMs.

On 21 October 1961, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric told the world that it was the United States, not the USSR, that had the insurmountable lead in nuclear weapons.

Gilpatric’s speech made headlines around the world. The next morning the world knew that the Soviet Union’s intercontinental strike force was a fraud.

Unforeseen Consequences

Exposing Khrushchev’s lies gave a blundering new administration some badly needed political capital. There was a downside to that satisfying triumph, however: exposing Khrushchev’s lies intensified the Kremlin’s pressure on him. What desperate measures might that intensified pressure drive him to to solve his problems and save his neck?

Could Nikita, the gambler and risk-taker, possibly get the Western Allies out of Berlin and close the missile gap? Could he do it in one stroke?



Frederick Kempe chronicles the construction of the Berlin Wall in his Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and The Most Dangerous Place on Earth. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011.

Beschloss, Michael R. The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev 1960-1963. New York: Edward Burlingame Books (an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers), 1991.

For one account of Gilpatric’s speech, see Joseph A. Loftus, “Gilpatric Warns U.S. Can Destroy Atom Aggressor. Puts Nuclear Arms in ‘Tens of Thousands’—Doubts Soviet Would Start War.” New York Times, 22 October 1961, p. 1. In the author’s files

For more on photographic reconnaissance, see Dino Brugioni’s Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of The Cuban Missile Crisis (Robert F. McCort, ed.). New York: Random House, 1991, esp. 3-35. Brugioni worked at the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center and thus knows whereof he speaks.

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Tot Balay March 09, 2012 at 02:22 AM
Reads like a thriller! Love the picture too.
Peter Hufstader March 09, 2012 at 07:43 PM
On to JFK in Monday's Patch.


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