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The Unknown Cold War

Students and Teachers Get a Glimpse behind the Iron Curtain

By Emmett Berg | HUMANITIES, March/April 2003 | Volume 24, Number 2

The modernizing of China and the dissolution of the Soviet Union over the last two decades have led to the release of hundreds of millions of pages of formerly top-secret archival documents. These documents—transnational cables, transcripts, diplomatic reports, and internal memoranda—are giving the West a new view of Sino-Soviet and inter-Soviet relations. They also hint at the dangers that might have been.

Historians are collecting and translating provocative accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis and other flash points in the Cold War. “It’s an exciting time because much of Cold War history is still in the making—we’re still just getting access to primary documents,” says Christian Ostermann, director of the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Until 1989, when it came to analyzing communist behavior and motives, historians had to rely on a hodgepodge of defector studies, public statements from Pravda, People’s Daily, and other newspapers, and partially declassified Western intelligence estimates.”

The Wilson Center and The George Washington University are partners in an ongoing NEH-supported collaboration to train high school teachers in recent advances in Cold War historiography and to build a website to store and display online resources. A summer seminar held last year on George Washington’s campus is taking place again this summer.

“Our goal is to create online resources that teachers everywhere can use when they teach the big topics of the Cold War,” says James Goldgeier, the director of George Washington University’s Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian studies. “There are all sorts of new things we didn’t know before, but textbooks and other materials used in high school classrooms can’t get updated quickly enough. . . . What they’re learning is not as current as what’s available.”

“Archives are a repository of a nation’s truths,” says Nancy Meyers, project associate at the Cold War International History Project. “We believe in the importance of primary documents. They help you to understand and interpret your own history.”

“The serious historians involved are not saying ‘we now know exactly what happened during the entire Cold War.’ We’re at an early stage of an historical research process that would normally take decades to sort out but has been compressed due to the Cold War’s abnormal secrecy and the sudden opening of communist sources,” said James Hershberg, professor of history at George Washington University. “But we do know a lot more about many key events, and are uncovering whole narratives that didn’t exist for us before. Overall it’s inducing more humility and respect for complexities, ambiguities, and nuances of Cold War history as opposed merely to filling in gaps from our perspective or that of Washington.”

In the early 1990s, scholars began unearthing new information about the Cuban Missile Crisis as it was viewed from Moscow and Havana. The new information appears to undercut much of what Americans know of the thirteen-day crisis, which arose following intelligence that the Soviets were building nuclear missile sites in Cuba and after a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba and its American pilot killed.

In audiotape transcripts, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev voices fear that Fidel Castro’s revolutionary passion would lead to a third world war, and cites that fear as a reason to pull missile bases from Cuba. Other declassified documents report that Soviet forces possessed not only mid-range nuclear missiles threatening American cities with attack, but also submarine-based tactical nuclear weapons that would have been used to repel a U.S. attack on Cuba—a scenario that almost certainly would have led to all-out nuclear war. At the time the Americans had tactical nuclear weapons in Germany, but none on the blockade vessels, which were relying on conventional weapons. President Kennedy opted for a blockade over the wishes of U.S. military commanders, who wanted to invade. Eagerness for a show of strength was not limited to one side, however; declassified documents show how Khrushchev overruled a skeptical Communist politburo and armed Cuba with nuclear weapons.

Castro himself, hosting a conference on the crisis in Havana in 1992, accused Khrushchev of giving in to the Americans too soon. And at the same conference, President Kennedy’s former speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, said that he intentionally removed from the official record President Kennedy’s secret assent to remove missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets pulling their missiles from Cuba. Officially the U.S. maintained there was “no quid pro quo” in persuading the Soviets to stand down.

The admission from Sorensen came after prodding by former Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Dobrynin had met secretly with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on October 27, 1962, during the height of the crisis. The diplomat’s declassified report to the Soviet Foreign Ministry following his meeting characterized Kennedy as upset but focused. “He didn’t even try to get into fights on various subjects, as he usually does, and only persistently returned to one topic: time is of the essence and we shouldn’t miss the chance,” Dobrynin wrote in his report.

The revelations about the Cuban Missile Crisis surfaced partly because of conflicting declassified documents. Glasnost in Russia in the late 1980s made it possible for Khrushchev’s family to release parts of his tape-recorded memoirs that had been withheld for national security reasons. Castro then published some of his letters as a rebuttal, which led to further declassification by Moscow. Finally Castro agreed to hold a conference in Havana in 1992, which led to Sorensen’s admission.

The 1986 introduction of glasnost in the Soviet Union allowed greater public discourse on political and social issues. The revolutions that erupted throughout Eastern Europe at the end of the decade and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union flung open archives in Russia and other former Soviet republics, some only for a short time. After President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, the Communist Party was put on trial to bolster Boris Yeltsin’s case against it, and in the process hundreds of documents were declassified. “All of the party-to-party relationships in the Communist world, which were more or less opaque to us, have become far more susceptible to researchers,” Hershberg says.

“Archival access can be an indication of how democratic a country is—in terms of its transparency, openness, and accountability,” says Ostermann.

The events previous to and following the death of Josef Stalin in 1953 are now known in much greater detail, which is leading historians to recast their view of the Korean War and the turbulent years following the Soviet leader’s death.

Mao’s only visit to Moscow to meet Stalin, which he made following the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949, culminated in the proclamation of a Sino-Soviet alliance in February 1950. The alliance peaked during the Korean War as China intervened for almost three years on behalf of North Korea. Declassified documents show the initiative for the North attacking the South came not from Stalin but from Kim Il Sung, who pleaded with Moscow unsuccessfully in 1947 and 1949 for permission to attack. The attack came only after the North Korean dictator received permission from both Mao and Stalin to attack, essentially daring the Soviets or the Chinese to appear weak.

In his transcribed meetings with Mao, Stalin appears to sanction another world war on the premise that in 1950 the USSR and China were strong enough to outlast the U.S. and the British, but not if Japan and Germany were allowed to industrialize again. Declassified documents give different versions of Mao’s readiness for war. According to an October 2, 1950, telegram sent to Stalin by the Soviet ambassador to China, Mao and his comrades feel “it is necessary to show caution” regarding the dispatch of Chinese divisions to North Korea. In 1987 the Chinese released a copy of Mao’s own telegram to Stalin, also dated October 2, 1950, and written in his own hand, but missing the mark of the telegraph operator. The Chinese version reads in part that Chinese troops will “launch a counteroffensive to destroy the invading American forces.” That clause apparently never made it to Moscow.

“Contrary to what some initially suspected, Mao’s draft cable is an authentic document,” says Ostermann. “But due to disagreements within the Chinese Communist Party leadership, it was never actually sent, and the briefer, far more reserved cable was delivered in its stead.”

He adds, “Mao’s October second document is among the few declassified by the central archives in Beijing, partly in response to the Cold War International History Project’s publication of the Russian version.”

Declassified documents also may weaken a long-held interpretation of U.S. foreign policy: the view that President Eisenhower’s 1953 threat to use nuclear weapons against North Korea--what became known as “brinksmanship”—led directly to the cessation of hostilities on the peninsula. Documents from former Soviet archives paint a different picture of the end of the Korean War, and point not to Eisenhower’s nuclear threat but to Stalin’s funeral in March of 1953. The documents indicate that while the Chinese foreign minister was in Russia to attend Stalin’s funeral, he conferred with Russian diplomats and they came to the decision that the war in Korea was of no more use.

Many other tremors—perhaps the beginning of the end—followed Stalin’s funeral. Before the end of the decade, the Soviets would put down an uprising in East Germany, invade Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and see Khrushchev’s secret 1956 speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes get leaked to the New York Times. “Moscow’s relationship with the Eastern European allies evolved quite dramatically. Until 1956 it was pure and simple diktat,” says Vladislav Zubok, a fellow at the National Security Archive.

Mao called Khrushchev an “accommodationist” and a “time-server” during face-to-face summits, according to transcripts opened during the last ten years. The alliance fell apart in the early 1960s. Border guards from the Soviet Union and China even came to armed conflict in 1969 in a dispute over territory along the Ussuri River, during which hundreds of soldiers from both sides died. Chinese reports of the first shooting match denounced the Soviets for their “blatant provocation” of the border guards.

Ostermann has recently unearthed an account of the incident in a Soviet report sent to East Germany. The report claims that thirty armed Chinese advanced on the island of Damansky and “violated the border,” at which point the officer in charge demanded that they leave Soviet territory. “But within the first minutes of the exchange, our border guards came under crossfire and were insidiously shot without warning. At the same time, fire on the remaining parts of our force was opened from an ambush on the island and from the Chinese shore.”

“The East German archives are a back door into Soviet policy through 1989 and the Soviet view of the Cold War,” says Ostermann. “They are the most open archives in the world. At the time of reunification, they were opened as the nation reconciled with its past. Elsewhere, there is a thirty-year rule.”

Other links in the Iron Curtain, such as the Berlin Wall, would last longer than the Sino-Soviet alliance, but not because of a strong Soviet grip, according to recently obtained declassified documents. Hope Harrison, a professor at George Washington University, says a dozen years of researching archives in Moscow and Berlin has led her to believe that East Germany played a crucial role in the construction of the wall.

“Within weeks of Stalin’s death, East Germany was asking that a wall be built. The Soviets called it politically unacceptable and grossly unrealistic . . . they told the East Germans they needed to find other ways to keep people in the country,” says Harrison, whose book, Driving the Soviets Up the Wall: Soviet-East German Relations, 19531961 will be published in September.

East Germany’s advantage was its position as a socialist state at the doorstep to the West. “The most important place that Communism needed to be shown as superior was in Germany,” says Harrison. “It was the home of Marx and Engels. Khrushchev was supposed to be the last true believer in Communism, so he put a lot of eggs in that basket. It was also the reason he didn’t want to build the wall. ‘What kind of a workers’ paradise is this going to be if we wall in the people?’”

In all, the declassified documents depict a much more critical role for third-world powers in the Cold War than previously discerned by Western historians or reported by Chinese and Soviet state news outlets. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 is now being reconsidered. Declassified documents articulate Soviet fears of unrest in its Muslim-dominated south and in the Communist regime installed just one year previously in Afghanistan. “The Kremlin thought the Afghan Communist leader Hafizullah Amin was about to ‘pull a Sadat’ and expel the Soviets,” according to Hershberg. The U.S., noting that the shah in Iran had been recently deposed, and fearing the Soviets were planning to capture a warm-water port by invading Afghanistan, responded by issuing diplomatic overtures to Iran, and by arming mujahideen in Pakistan.

Professor Goldgeier, who will oversee the high school teacher seminar at George Washington University this summer, says the wave of newly declassified documents is evidence that “it’s not as though the Cold War ended and we’ve moved on to new issues.” He expects to present a draft website to the teachers’ seminar this summer so the teachers themselves can offer suggestions as to which documents on the site to highlight, how to give “a flavor for the detective work” behind the documents, and how interpretation of the documents supports or discredits views of the Cold War.

“Primary matter is hard for high school students to use. They need to be taught how to place the documents within a broader context of what happened,” says Meyers. “We want students to feel they can take control of their own history, and get excited about it–that history is not just a matter of dates, it is a living thing.”

Historians today have to rely on diplomacy and an encyclopedic memory while rummaging through countless primary documents from previously unavailable sources that range from Soviet party archives and foreign ministry archives to Eastern European and East German archives. The Cold War International History Project works with fellows across the world to continue its research into these archives. “We have a member of Parliament and an adviser to the Bulgarian National Security Council. One fellow has established a Cold War center in Budapest,” says Ostermann. The center also has institutional partners in Beijing and in Shanghai, which are now publishing a Chinese Cold War history bulletin. “Working with documents takes a lot of personal and professional courage in many countries where archival access is not a citizen’s right.”

By consulting the National Security Archives, scholars can access copies of Russian documents on the Korean War and Vietnam that have now been reclassified in Moscow. “Russian scholars shouldn’t have to come to D.C. to look at their own archives,” Ostermann says.

Many documents of foreign origin are available on the Internet for public view at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s website, These range from diplomatic transcripts to a 1980 KGB memo informing the Communist Central Committee of a planned memorial service for John Lennon: “The KGB has taken the necessary measures to identify the instigators of this gathering and is in control of the situation.” Domestic documents can be found through the National Security Archive at George Washington University, available electronically at

“We’re still scratching the surface, what with the retrenchment in Russia and the Chinese, Vietnamese–and the Cuban archives having never opened up,” says Ostermann. “A lot of surprises are still awaiting Cold War historians.”

About the Author

Emmett Berg is a writer in Los Angeles.

Funding Information

The George Washington University and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project have received $301,873 in NEH support for their summer seminar and accompanying website.