Letters to Premier Khrushchev

Nikita Khruschev. [Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild]

[Documenting Linus Pauling’s communications with John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev. This is post 2 of 4.]

As we saw in our last post, Linus Pauling expressed intensive objection to U.S. President John F. Kennedy over the nation’s nuclear weapons testing program, but his ire was not solely aimed stateside. In addition to Kennedy, Pauling also pressed hard on Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, whom Pauling viewed as being equally culpable in bringing the world to the brink of disaster.

Over the course of the early 1960s, Pauling wrote multiple harsh letters to Khrushchev, always urging him to stop testing nuclear weapons. Khrushchev eventually responded to Pauling in October 1961, with an eight-page typewritten letter that outlined the Soviet position on testing. In it, Khrushchev put forth the notion that the Soviets wanted to end their program but could not do so, because the British and Americans were not slowing down their testing. As such, to protect the safety of his people, Khrushchev was compelled to continue testing.

To add historical weight to this idea, and to convey the intensity with which it was held, Khruschev went so far as to equate the threat posed to the USSR by the western nuclear alliance ro that of another decidedly bad actor from the past.

Try to understand, dear Mr. Pauling, what the Soviet Union would be like if it continued to refrain, as if nothing at all has happened, from taking additional measures to strengthen its defense capacity, including measures to perfect nuclear weapons, while the NATO powers are responding with threats to its proposal that a German peace treaty be concluded. If we had not taken those measures, we could have committed an act which could not be justified either by history or – even less so – by our people and by the people of those countries which fell victims of invasion by the Hitlerite hordes.

On a philosophical level, Khrushchev was quick to point out that “The Soviet people and the peoples of other Socialist countries that engage in peaceful constructive labor do not need wars.” Likewise, the Soviet government “has repeatedly declared that it is ready to sign a treaty on general and complete disarmament under the most strict international control.” It seemed then, at least from this letter, that Khrushchev might eventually be open to the idea of disarmament and that progress in that direction was a possibility.

The reality was something different though, and the Soviet testing program continued. In August 1962, Pauling wrote again to Khrushchev, this time echoing Khrushchev’s own words from the October 1961 letter. In it, Pauling urged that

…the Soviet government reconsider its decision and exert its great influence in the struggle for peace rather than in its preparation for catastrophic war.

When this plea received no reply, Pauling pushed again. In his next letter he once more exhorted that

I cannot believe that any person or any nation in the world would benefit from the decision to resume the testing of nuclear weapons. I beg that you and your associates in the governments take this matter under consideration again.

Mikhail Menshikov

This time around, the Soviets issued a response, though it came to Pauling via the Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Mikhail Menshikov. In this letter, Menshikov repeated and expanded upon Khruschev’s earlier argument, stating that the Soviets viewed the U.S. and the British as the real threats, because they had not scaled down their testing efforts. And while acknowledging the validity of Pauling’s plea, Menshikov again argued that the Soviets could not stop their testing program because of their need to protect themselves from the western nuclear powers. Quoting Menshikov:

In the face of unconcealed threats to use arms against the Soviet Union, at the time when the Western powers are feverishly speeding up the arms race[…][we hope] that the peoples will realize the forced character of our decisions, will realize that we had no other choice.

Menshikov also acknowledged that “we are aware of the consequences of the nuclear weapon tests for living organisms” before suggesting that “…at present it is far more dangerous to allow certain circles to push the world unimpededly to the abyss of World War III.” The ambassador concluded with the notion that “Any person who will look at the facts without prejudice will have to admit that it is the USA and Great Britain that are responsible.”  

Menshikov’s letter made clear that the Soviet Union was never going to stop testing without securing an agreement from the U.S. and the U.K. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the letter also marks the end of Pauling’s private correspondence with Khrushchev on the issue of nuclear testing. But this is not to suggest that Pauling gave up. Instead, he shifted his rhetoric for disarmament into the public sphere, where he could not be so easily ignored.

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