The New Cold War in 1963

The Cod War front between Moscow and Pekin in 1963…

In Edward Crankshaw’s study of relations between the Soviet Union and China we are reminded of an often overlooked dimension of the Cold War and one which, for many years, was well hidden by both sides. As attention was centred around divisions in Europe and the Cuban missile crisis, few understood how Khrushchev was locked in more than a mere quarrel with Chairman Mao, a leader hellbent on recognition as an equal in the pursuit of communist dominance across the globe and Crankshaw’s fascinating book brings light to the affair.

Edward Crankshaw (1909-1984) was a renowned authority on the Soviet Union and in The New Cold War: Moscow v. Pekin (Penguin 1963) he brought to a Western audience an account of a serious rift between the two giants of communism, what caused it and the potential threat to the Eastern Bloc. By 1962 relations between the Soviet and Chinese regimes had been in decline for some years, both sides had deliberately avoided criticising one another by name but by the end of that year those tensions became clear.

China’s invasion of India in 1962 brought increased pressure upon the Soviets who were locked in battle-mode with the United States over Cuba and whilst  condemnation was universal, neither superpower was prepared to assist India until their own, desperately dangerous situation was resolved. Khrushchev’s support of Nehru in a later meeting with Mao over the invasion cemented the Chinese leader’s belief that the Soviets, the Indians and the Americans all had plans to expand their borders into Chinese territories. Until then, the Soviets were remarkably quiet about the Chinese invasion, suspiciously so and in stark contrast to their earlier exuberant applause for China’s treatment of Tibet.

Khrushchev’s ability to insult and bully world leaders was well known and he treated Mao with similar distain to his Western counterparts, he believed in a unified Communist world and condemned China for what he described as reckless forays in support of revolutionary struggles which could lead to war on a wider scale. The Soviets often played the nuclear hand in attempting to gain wider support against the Chinese, Khrushchev would suggest China had no true understanding of the devastating implications of a nuclear war yet would issue clear warnings if poked: ‘But for the thousands whose imaginations were caught by Mao Tse-tung’s characterisation of the ‘imperialists’ as ‘paper tigers’, and Khrushchev’s retort that these paper tigers have ‘nuclear teeth’, very few realise that when Khrushchev attacks the Chinese for their warlike policies he is trailing a red herring’

The Chinese often irritated Khrushchev, their portrayal of communism in writing and imagery would prompt the Soviet leader to tell the Chinese to use ‘proper’ Marxist terminology, thinly veiled insults and typically Lenin-like arguments reflected a wider problem which harked back to both the Russian and Chinese revolutions exacerbated by exiled intellectuals on one side and dogmatic administrators and officials on the other. Mao was opposed to Khrushchev’s move towards nuclear domination in tandem with the American’s, as the Soviets paraded their military might the Chinese dictator spoke of the superiority of the masses in warfare, a chilling reminder of Mao’s belligerence and total disregard for human life.

Crankshaw brilliantly describes a hostile relationship between the two Communist superpowers, an intriguing game of chess at the highest level and puts light on Khrushchev’s balancing act on a number of fronts. Mao realised the Soviets superior strength but he would threaten his counterpart with ‘exposure’ as being ‘anti-Marxist’ or ‘anti-Leninist’ if his policies of appeasement towards Eisenhower or his indifference towards Tito were not favourably changed. Crankshaw believed at the time of writing that this ongoing hostility would not change without the removal or death of Khrushchev, such was the depth of feeling held by the Chinese. Written at a time when word of China’s disastrous economic policies and the humanitarian catastrophes it invoked were coming to light in the west, it becomes clear of Mao’s desire to rid itself of Soviet aid and whilst China, in the early sixties, lagged some way behind the Soviets and Americans, Crankshaw was convinced of the future:

There remains China, a threat to us all, including the Soviet Union. It may be that Commuist China will collapse under her own weight…she has come through her worst food crisis, and today the rigid doctrine of 1958 is ameliorated by the existence of millions of tolerated private plots, tended by individuals toiling as individuals. Moscow can still blackmail her by threatening to cut off oil supplies, can still withhold atomic weapons and modern arms of every kind. But it seems likely that China will survive, an independent power of colossal size, proclaiming a revolutionary creed, at least for decades to come, and creating problems on a scale to match her size and her contempt of the West, including Russia.’

This is an intriguing book, Crankshaw set the reader up for the next phase in their relations and one which gives today’s analyst an invaluable grounding in historical relations between the two countries.  Whilst Mao would outlast Khrushchev, his legacy of betraying his people will last forever and I would be interested to know the author’s view of Mao in particular once the harrowing reality of his reign became clear.


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