Nikita Khrushchev

And the Creation of a Superpower

Sergei N. Khrushchev

The Pennsylvania State University Press
University Park, Pennsylvania


Cooperation in Outer Space

     In the autumn of 1963, Farther returned several times to his conversation with Kennedy in Vienna about the possibility of working jointly on a lunar project. At that time, concerned about military secrets, he rejected the president’s proposal to cooperate and limited himself to an agreement on joint peaceful research in space. It was more of a statement about exchanging information than a serious program of cooperation.
     Father’s views gradually changed. The possibility of revealing some Soviet secrets to American scientists didn’t seem quite so terrible anymore. Previously, Father had been especially concerned that the Americans would find out that the Soviet Union had so few intercontinental missiles. Moreover, the level of Soviet missile readiness couldn’t be compared to that of the opposite side. Such information, in Father’s opinion, might push the hotheads towards preventive measures. Before they missed their chance.
     The situation had begun to change in 1963. R-16’s were being deployed, one after another. The missile development program was acquiring a more polished look. It wouldn’t hurt if they found out that the Soviet Union possessed a good number of intercontinental nuclear launchers. Father wasn’t fazed by the fact that these missiles were only in the initial project stage. They would soon appear on their launch pads. The first step in that direction was taken that autumn. Flight tests of Yangel’s R-36 began in September and were successful.
     The meeting with Korolyov and Glushko made Father think again about the lunar program. Sergei Pavlovich was asking too high a price for his N-1. It was sometime during the second half of September that I first heard Father talking, or rather thinking out loud, about the possibility of concluding an agreement with the United States to implement a joint lunar program. Apparently the impetus was provided by the U.S. president’s speech at a session of the U.N. General Assembly on September 20, in which he again proposed that we fly to the moon together. Father still didn’t share his thoughts with anyone, but I knew from experience that if he were thinking along those lines he would eventually speak out. When he was ready.
     The last time Father returned to this subject was in November, about a week before Kennedy’s tragic death. He said that when Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin met with the U.S. president, Kennedy referred to the lunar program (along with a whole series of other issues) and asked Dobrynin to assure Father that his proposal to associate the lunar projects of our two countries was a serious one and that he would like to discuss it in detail in the future. “I must think about it,” said Father pensively, adding: “It’s very tempting. We would save lots of money, not to speak of everything else.” He didn’t explain what he meant by “everything else.” I can’t say that I was pleased by this information. It seemed to me that it would be very dangerous to reveal our secrets to an adversary.
     Now they were driven by the myth of Soviet superiority: powerful launchers, mysterious fuel, fantastically precise instruments, and who knows what else. But we knew that our superiority didn’t amount to much, Maybe our rockets were just as good, but they were certainly no better than those launched from Cape Canaveral. In 1957, and to some degree in 1961, you could talk about the unique payload capacity of the R-7. But that was all in the past: the UR-500 and the N-1 were substantially inferior to the Saturn. I had to express my concerns to Father. He agreed with my reasoning, but drew the diametrically opposite conclusion. Father turned it around to suit his own point of view: If we couldn’t stay ahead, there was all the more reason to join efforts.
     He didn’t dismiss my fears concerning military secrets, but considered them exaggerated. Father again cited Kennedy’s acknowledgment that we were capable of destroying the United States. But he rephrased his response somewhat:

It doesn’t make the slightest difference whether we use more advanced missiles or less advanced missiles. If the Americans believe that something like that is possible in principle, then other factors will be secondary. Kennedy is a clever politician. War doesn’t enter into his plans, nor into ours. We will agree and decide matters peacefully. In six years, when he has to give up his seat in the White House, we’ll have more than enough “100s.” So our country will be too much for the Americans to cope with, even if their policy changes radically.

Father fell silent and our conversation came to an end.

Fate Intervenes

Father found out about John Kennedy’s assassination on the evening of November 23. It’s difficult to say now at exactly what time, but it was already quite dark out, which was not surprising for the end of November. We had finished dinner, Father had read the evening mail and was planning to go up to his bedroom on the second floor when the government phone rang in the living room.
     Evening phone calls to our residence were rare. Father thought that he should work in the office and rest at home—that is, if pouring over stacks of papers brought from the Kremlin every evening can be called rest. Father was disturbed only in exceptional circumstances. “Good evening, Comrade Gromyko,” said Father in response to the first words of the invisible caller. “What’s the matter? What’s happened?” Father listened intently for a long time, his expression changing to one of deep concern. He finally said in a depressed tone of voice: “Call the ambassador. Find out more. Perhaps it’s some mistake. Then call me again right away.”
     Father hung up and walked to the middle of the room, as if undecided whether to sit down at the table or wait where he was. He shifted from one foot to the other. A bitter expression was fixed on his face.
     Since Father’s behavior seemed very unusual I couldn’t resist asking him what happened, though without really expecting an answer. One was not supposed to ask in such cases.
     To my surprise, Father answered readily. My question interrupted his unhappy train of thought. He said that American radio broadcasters were saying that someone had attempted to assassinate John Kennedy. The president was on a trip around the country. It was not clear whether he was wounded or killed. Reports were contradictory. Of course, if there had really been an assassination attempt, it was hardly likely that reporters would have full information.
     “I asked Gromyko to find out more from the ambassador,” Father repeated what I had already heard him say over the phone. “Of course, he’s not likely to have exact information either.”
     After a pause, Father said somewhat distractedly: “If the president is alive . . .”
     He didn’t finish. What did he want to say?
     Hearing what Father had said, Mama and my sister Lena, who were reading in the dining room, abandoned what they were doing and joined us. There was a heavy silence. A small, polished round table and three chairs stood in the middle of the room. Father circled around them. I sat on a chair by the phone. Mama and Lena sat down on a small couch against the wall.
     The phone was silent. Father lost patience. He looked up Gromyko’s number in the directory and dialed. The secretary answered that Andrei Andreyvich was at home. Father identified himself and asked that Gromyko call him at the apartment. A minute later the phone rang.
     Sounding slightly annoyed, Father asked: “Why haven’t you called me back?”
     “We put in a call to Washington, but we can’t seem to get through.” Andrei Andreyvich started trying to justify himself.
     “Why Washington?” Father was surprised.
     “To the ambassador as you ordered” Gromyko answered.
     “I meant the U.S. ambassador, Kohler,” said Father, beginning to get irritated. “They would have informed him immediately if something bad happened. Call him and then call me back immediately.”
     Father hung up and gave half a smile.
     “What a dunce. He called our Embassy in Washington instead of the Americans,” he explained. “He’ll call back.”
     Father resumed his circling. This time he didn’t have long to wait. Andrei Andreyvich reported that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. The president was dead.
     Still holding the phone, Father paused, as if thinking something over. Then he began to talk about expressing our condolences and asked about our participation in the funeral ceremony. Gromyko said that the ambassador could represent our country, but that he could fly to Washington as well. He said that on the one hand, Kennedy was the leader of an imperialist country and we should not particulary grieve over him. On the other hand, the appearance of a Soviet minister would be appreciated. Gromyko referred to the precedent of his attendance at the funeral of John Foster Dulles.
     Father had already managed to think over the matter. He felt that the ministerial rank was not adequate in this case. A president should be buried by a president, but since Brezhnev was little known in America, he thought that it would be best to entrust this sad mission to Mikoyan. Gromyko agreed immediately.
     In conclusion, they decided that Andrei Andreyvich would find out when Father could visit the U.S. Embassy to pay his condolences. Father said that, in addition to the official protocol telegram to Johnson, the new president, he also wished to send condolences to Kennedy’s widow, Jacqueline.
     He thought for a bit and then added: “And from Nina Petrovna separately. They met in Vienna.”
     This was unprecedented. Mama accompanied Father on trips and people had gradually grown used to the idea, but that was the extent of her role in state affairs. By this gesture, Father wanted to emphasize as far as possible the sincerity and personal nature of his sympathy.
     The next day Father, accompanied by Gromyko, visited Ambassador Kohler and signed the book. A message was sent out to Johnson, which read: “I will preserve the memory of my personal meetings with President John F. Kennedy, a leader of wide-ranging views, who had a realistic grasp of the world situation and who tried through negotiations to find ways to resolve the international problems now dividing the world.”
     Father wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy: “He inspired great respect in all who knew him, and meetings with him will remain in my memory forever.”
     Mikoyan arrived in Washington on the twenty-fourth.
     A day later, President Johnson made a statement confirming his country’s hard-line position toward Vietnam.
     A few days later, during our evening walk, Father suddenly recalled his ideas about the moon program. He said bitterly that that was all over now. He had trusted Kennedy and counted on mutual understanding. He had been ready for risky (for those times) contacts, but with Kennedy, not with the U.S. administration. Now Kennedy was gone.
     He thought for a few moments, then added that everything would be different with Johnson.
     President Kennedy did not have the six years that Father counted on. Father did not have them either.