Norman Cousins Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Quest for Peace: Conversation with Norman Cousins, 9/12/84 by Harry Kreisler

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Kennedy and Khrushchev

There was a glorious moment in the early '60s when there was a confluence of public opinion and political leadership in the East and the West to stem this tide, and you were a very important participant, as a special envoy between Kennedy and Khrushchev, and then in the effort to mobilize public opinion for the partial test ban. I'd like to talk a little about that experience. What stands out in your mind about Kennedy and Khrushchev at that point in time that made possible their common recognition of this problem of the bomb and the need for some sort of an agreement?

Well first of all, you have to realize that Kennedy had a little momentum from President Eisenhower, and that Eisenhower never gave up on the need to create, in the mutual interest of both countries, a rational basis for survival. And you recall too that he was frustrated in his attempt to have direct discussions with the Soviet leaders because of the U-2 incident. We find a parallel to that in what happened in Vietnam, with the bombing on the eve of negotiations, which destroyed the possibility of negotiations at that time. But at least Eisenhower understood that the security of the United States, and the safety and well-being of the American people, depended not on the pursuit of force but on the control of force. Hence, you had some momentum left over from Eisenhower when Kennedy began.

Kennedy quickly was surrounded by those who not only wanted to keep the arms race going, but for the reasons that I gave before (that this was a good way of competing with the Soviet Union, that the Soviet Union would wilt under the pressures of so much demand on production, that this would deflect production from the farms and from the industrial sector), to extend it. But Kennedy was interested not just in the welfare of certain sectors of the American society that were benefiting from the arms race. Kennedy recognized the absurdity of the arguments that they were using, and recognized also the great dangers involved in the production of these weapons which had nothing to do with security, because when the weapons were used, there'd be security for no one. And so Kennedy felt that it was important to establish these controls, but at the same time, Kennedy was not going to knuckle under to Soviet pressure on the political level, or the world level. And that was why, in Cuba, Kennedy made known to the Soviet leadership that though he believed very deeply in peace and the need to fashion approaches to peace, he was not going to allow the Soviet Union to expand indefinitely or to build a ring around the United States that would result in even greater pressures against us. Because the Soviet Union was trying to do the same thing to us that we were trying to do to the Soviet Union. And Kennedy felt that a dialog with the Soviet Union had to be based on mutual recognition, mutual respect for the security requirements of both countries. After the missile crisis of Cuba, which threw a great scare into everyone, an atmosphere existed for pressing ahead with some responsible and perhaps far-reaching efforts designed to reduce tensions in the world and to lay the basis for putting an end to the arms race in a way that would not jeopardize our genuine American security.

It seemed that the place to start would be by putting an end to nuclear testing. An attempt was made to persuade the American people that there was no danger in nuclear testing, that there was no problem with respect to radioactive fallout. Kennedy knew, of course, that this was nonsense because he had reports from within the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] which showed that the American farms had been dusted by poisonous, radioactive strontium. Strontium is already in the bones of American children. It was turning up in American teeth that were tested. Kennedy knew that if it were true here, then it was also true in the rest of the world, and so he felt that a ban on nuclear testing was necessary -- not just in the national interest, but in the human interest. And he felt that since the Soviet Union was involved in testing, and since the Soviet Union must also accept responsibility for what was happening as a result of the testing along with the United States, this was a good place to begin in trying to apply the brakes. Just a beginning; nothing that could be regarded as a massive gain in arms reduction, but just as setting the stage for other things. Efforts were made to block this. All sorts of misrepresentations were made, and the negotiations with Khrushchev reached an impasse over inspection.

That would be the number of on-site inspections that the Soviets would permit?

Yes, and at time, since I was going over to see Mr. Khrushchev on behalf of Pope John Paul XXIII in an attempt to negotiate the release of the Ukranian archbishop who had been interred since the end of the war, the president asked me to bear witness to his good faith in seeking negotiations, because he felt that the Russians were very suspicious and wondered whether the United States really meant it. And he was realistic and wise enough to know that that was a real issue, whether we were using talk of a test ban for propaganda purposes. He wanted me to bear witness to the fact that he was really serious and that there was no one in government, either Republican or Democratic, who was more genuinely concerned about the need to reach workable agreements with the Soviet Union to reduce the tensions between the two countries. And that was the background for the conversations that I had with Nikita Khrushchev.

And Khrushchev, when you met him, conveyed this same sense of the pressures on him that you were just talking about in reference to our own presidents, with his own military bureaucracy wanting not to reach an agreement with Kennedy.

Yes, Khrushchev said, "I don't think that you really understand what the situation is over here." He said, "The fact of the matter is that my military keeps coming to me all the time and saying that they can't accept responsibility for the security of the Soviet Union unless they are able to proceed in all these directions, and that testing is vital for the development of certain weapons that the United States has been secretly testing, and that if we did have a treaty, the United States secretly would find a way of circumventing the treaty to the disadvantage of the Soviet Union." The generals felt that Khrushchev was being naive in having discussions with the United States. And so you had this mirror image of both countries having to contend with these forces. But Khrushchev, I think, was a genuine Russian patriot, which is to say, he recognized the history of his nation, and this goes back some centuries and not just to the revolution. He was a deep student of the Russian soul, not just of Russian history. He felt that he did not want to be a party to a nuclear war and he was willing to undergo the criticism inside the communist world that he had knuckled under to Kennedy by withdrawing the missiles from Cuba. His pride was not the issue, he said, the only issue was to prevent that war. There was no doubt in his mind that the war would have started, and he didn't think that the cause of Russian history would be served by the destruction of the Soviet Union. He was perfectly willing to forego his pride, and perhaps national pride, in withdrawing the missiles. Of course, the question was, therefore, why did he put the missiles there in the first place? And there you get into a different context. The context was one in which each nation tries to get the advantage over another in a struggle for the balance of power. And both those worlds came into conflict over Cuba -- the world of national rivalries where you try to find every advantage, which the Russians were trying to do, and then the world where you had to deal with the consequences.

When you came back from seeing Khrushchev, you met again with Kennedy and you suggested to him the idea of a speech at American University. He was probably going to speak there anyway, but this notion of the need for a new era of détente in relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.

When I came back after seeing Khrushchev, I could explain to him, or try to present to him, the problem as Khrushchev saw it, which had to do with inspections. Khrushchev genuinely believed, on the basis of discussions between American Ambassador Dean and the Soviet representative Gromyko, that the United States would reduce the number of inspections it required from six to three. Kennedy had felt, understandably, that he didn't want to go before the Senate to seek a treaty on something that could not be verified, and had tried to persuade the Soviet Union of the need for inspections. Khrushchev, on the other hand, took the position that the Soviet Union could be monitored very easily, in view of modern instrumentation, from without, and that any explosion of any consequence would turn up on this instrumentation. And that six inspections, therefore, were an attempt of the United States to get into the Soviet Union to find out other things. The American military bitterly resented the fact that the Soviet Union could find out anything they wished because we were an open society, and yet we knew very little about where their military installations were and we knew very little about their total military picture. And Khrushchev felt that he was not under any obligation to provide that information, and therefore the notion of six inspections seemed to him to be excessive. Well finally, they agreed on the principle of inspections. The moment the Soviet Union agreed on three, we asked for six. After we asked for six, the Central Committee of the Communist Party used this as evidence of their belief that the United States wasn't really serious. Well, I went through this sequence with the president, who understood Khrushchev's personal position, and felt that it was possible to arrive at a limited treaty, because above-ground explosions would certainly be known, and the underground explosions were not of the same order of consequence. If we had the first treaty on atmospheric tests, after establishing good faith, we might after a year or two proceed to a treaty on the underground tests. As Kennedy said, he "understood the position of the old man." And then I went back there again in April. It was after that April trip that I spoke to the president about the fact that I thought that the situation of the Soviet Union with respect to China, was such that the Soviet Union was then at a very critical point and that this would be a very good time to try to seek a workable basis for the reductions of tensions between the two societies, and that we ought to make a breath-taking offer to the Russians to get the Cold War behind us and proceed on mutual concerns without sacrificing our national interests. The president agreed with this, and he used the occasion of the commencement talk at American University on June 10, 1963, to make this historic statement.

Kennedy said in that speech, "As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity, but we still hail the Russian people for their many achievements in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, and ultimate acts of courage." And then he compared the Americans and the Russians by saying we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's future, and we are all mortal. President Reagan only very recently spoke of the Soviets as, "The focus of evil in the modern world." For someone like you, is it discouraging that after all of this time we seem to still be waging this grand fight over these very important issues?

Considering the stakes, I don't think that we can afford to be despairing, because when you're despairing you're de-vitalized, when you're de-vitalized you lose all your energy and you're no longer in motion. And I think that the proper cue is to attempt, somehow, to find new sources of energy to deal with such aberrations. But to be fair to President Reagan, since that time he's made a number of other statements to which I would hope that we would give emphasis. I'd much rather take the statement that the president made about the fact that a nuclear war cannot be won and therefore a nuclear war must not be fought, and then try to hold him to that in terms of specific, day-by-day actions. And then, in terms of the kind of support that he would receive for that kind of statement, to recognize that this is where the realities are, and then to attempt to give substance to that statement, which he has not done to extent that I think that he should. But, we can't give up. We can't give up on the President of the United States. And where there appears to be positive signs, I think the American people should rally behind those positive signs and create as much energy as they can in that particular direction.

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