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Cold War Warriors

The "Thaw" in Gettysburg

John Murphy
Commander, U. S. Navy Retired

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited President Dwight D. Eisenhower at his Gettysburg farm in September 1959. It was an unplanned change to a two week tour of the U.S. that began in New York on Wall Street, then went to U.S. farms in the Midwest, and culminated with a tour of Hollywood and special receptions with the stars of stage and screen, including Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine and the cast of the movie "Can-Can."

Gettysburg was an afterthought, but a good one in that talks at the Camp David Presidential retreat in Maryland had bogged down and appeared to be going nowhere. It was hoped that they would lay the groundwork for a major Summit the following year.

Ike was ill and Khrushchev was restive and grumpy, but agreed to a Gettysburg visit. After a brief helicopter flight northwards from Camp David the two leaders landed at the Eisenhower farm south of Gettysburg. Khrushchev was introduced to the Eisenhower family on the back porch of the President's home. He played the role of grandfather with Ike's grandchildren - a role he obviously enjoyed. Then he was given a full-blown tour of Ike's prized Angus beef operation which concluded with Ike "gifting" the Premier a prized Black Angus heifer.

Khrushchev loved anything to do with agriculture and the ambience of this place transformed him. Ike taught him the English word for "friend" and they had become friends. There had been an apparent "thaw" in Soviet-American relations at Gettysburg.

It was similar to the "Khrushchev thaw" that had occurred in the USSR six years earlier, when Khrushchev set out to de Stalinize the country after the death of Josef Stalin. Khrushchev later described Ike's home as "a rich man's house, but not a millionaire's."

Had Gettysburg led to a thaw in East West relations? It appeared so. The planning continued for a summit in Paris the following May.

On the morning of 1 May, 1960 Khrushchev got into his limousine for a ride from his dacha to the annual Parade in Red Square. Then he received urgent, classified reports that an American U2 aircraft had departed its base in Peshawar, Pakistan and was headed directly over the Soviet Union towards the large, industrial city of Sverdlovsk in the Urals. He had seen such aircraft over Soviet territory before and his son Sergey said it drove him crazy. He had given orders that such aircraft should be shot down immediately, but his Air Defense forces had been unable to do so. This time it was different.

Before the Red Square parade had concluded the Soviets had downed the U2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers and he had been captured - alive! Khrushchev rejoiced, but then exploded in rage. How could his "friend" Eisenhower do this to him? Then again, Ike probably knew nothing about it, right? Was this the act of renegades at CIA determined to undermine "the thaw" between the U.S. and the USSR?

"Net" he was told. Ike had personally authorized the Powers mission. Khrushchev was furious. Ike had betrayed him. The Summit was finished.

All these events were discussed in some detail at a two-day symposium in September 2009 at Gettysburg College hosted by the College's Eisenhower Institute. Present were such notables as Ike's granddaughter Susan Eisenhower, Khrushchev's son Sergey Khrushchev, Susan Eisenhower's husband, Professor Roald Sagdeev (former head of the Soviet Space Research Institute), former Eisenhower Administration officials and Ambassadors to the USSR, as well as top academics who specialized in the Eisenhower and Khrushchev eras.

If only I had known what these folks knew - back in September1959!

When Ike was touring Khrushchev at his Gettysburg farm, I had just completed an Intensive Russian program in Washington D.C., and reported as the Operations Officer at a Black Sea warning site. Since I was fluent in Russian, I was constantly being asked questions like…. "Who is Nikita Khrushchev? What is his background?" And "Why is Khrushchev going to the U.S.? What is he really trying to do there?" I usually said, "I'll have to get back to you." And I am … it only took fifty years.

Sergey Khrushchev was a top Soviet missile engineer and close confidante to his father during the momentous events of his tumultuous political career. There were no mysteries or enigmas for Sergey. Only problem was we were not on speaking terms back in 1959.

What went wrong? Why did the Cold War not end at Gettysburg? Here are some things that I learned at last year's symposium and during my own career as a Cold Warrior from 1959 to 2009.

Weak countries bluff about their arms capabilities. "Weak" countries tend to lie and mislead you as to their actual military strength. Khrushchev needed a couple of more years in the late 1950s for his new weapons systems to become operational. Meanwhile, he wanted us to believe he had them. Fake it "till you make it!" Sound familiar?

U2's and other Covert programs were essential - We had no way of knowing whether or not Khrushchev's grandiose claims were real. We had to be sure. Special intelligence programs such as the U2 and my warning site on the Black Sea were needed as a "sanity check" on a man who really was a "riddle, wrapped in a mystery..." etc.

We overestimated and underestimated the Soviets - On one hand we got caught believing Khrushchev's propaganda about superior Soviet science and new weapons developments. On the other hand, we tended to look down upon the Soviets. We thought they had to steal our secret weapon designs to compete. Sometimes they did, but then chose to take an entirely different path from ours (e.g. titanium submarines and spacecraft).

Khrushchev was an erratic, simple man looking for respect. We now know that Khrushchev's erratic behavior was not only confusing us, but his closest associates in the Soviet government as well. The same man who could not tolerate a U2 program could plot the placement of Medium Range Ballistic Missiles in Cuba. Missiles capable of conducting nuclear attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. Still Khrushchev begrudged Ike photos of his missile ranges. Khrushchev did not really think about what he was doing. He just did it!

Satellites were about to replace aircraft as strategic surveillance systems. It is ironic that the great hopes of Gettysburg in 1959 were lost in Khrushchev's overreaction to the Gary Powers U2 incident in 1960. At the Four Power talks in Paris in May 1960 - Khrushchev opened the meeting with an impassioned attack on Eisenhower and his U2 program.

The host, France's President Charles DeGaulle responded: "That satellite you launched just before you left Moscow - to impress us - overflew the sky of France eighteen times without my permission. How do I know that you do not have cameras aboard which are taking pictures of my country?"

Touché! The Cold War was about to march on for another three decades. Satellites were about to replace aircraft for strategic surveillance. And there was nothing that a target country could do, except "cover up" their precious secrets. Something that Khrushchev forgot to do when he put missiles in Cuba.

But … that is another story. The Cuban Missile Crisis: Khrushchev's final gambit.

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