Cold War: Bluster Before The Fall

Know thine enemy is an old rule of war and geopolitics, but one that often cannot be obeyed, especially if the enemy is a totalitarian state and hard to spy on. Throughout the cold war, American policymakers often had to guess at the intentions of the Kremlin, and they often guessed wrong. It was only after the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s that Washington realized that the "evil empire" had long been rotting from within.

The Soviets' weaknesses are vividly demonstrated in a trove of documents that will be released this week by the Russian government: the deliberations of the Politburo from 1954 to 1964. They show Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev and his comrades worrying about planes that won't fly and bread lines that won't go away. At the same time, the Soviets are willing to take hair-raising risks. Khrushchev talks about shooting down American planes over Berlin in 1961 and asserts that the United States would "capitulate," a dangerous assumption that could have escalated into World War III. The Soviet chieftain is full of bluster. Should Jackie Kennedy be given a silver tea service before the 1961 Vienna summit? "Presents can be given even before a war," Khrushchev says. JFK is a "son of a bitch."

The Soviets of the early '60s sound a little like North Korea's despots of today, "shouting 'We are here! We are here! Respect us!'" says Timothy Naftali, a historian at the University of Virginia's Miller Center who spent three years examining the documents under an arrangement with the Russians (his book, "Khrushchev's Cold War," will be published next fall). If so, it would be a mistake to overestimate North Korea's strength--or under- estimate its recklessness.