75. Letter From the Ambassador in the Philippines (Bohlen) to the Deputy Director (Plans) of Central Intelligence (Wisner)1

Dear Frank: I was more than pleased to get your letter of August 30 giving Isaiah’s thoughts on recent Moscow developments.2 As always I find them most stimulating and he has the facility of bringing out new facets in any subject.

I give you below such comments as I can make from here. There is a vast difference, as I have again learned, from being in daily touch with the Soviet situation and attempting to work out some consecutive thoughts when the information is intermittent and fragmentary.

While I certainly did not anticipate any such spectacular developments, or at least not so soon, I have not found anything in the June events in Moscow to change any of my basic thinking on Soviet developments. On the contrary, I believe the manner in which this occurred demonstrated possibly more than anything else that collective leadership was indeed a reality and not a fiction. Had, as many people thought, Khrushchev been building his power position to a point of absolute mastery there would have been no need for a two-week fight including an eight-day Central Committee meeting for him to put down the opposition. From all indications I got here, the argument in the Presidium was real and not pro forma and I have yet to receive any information which would indicate that police or other armed force was used or threatened to bring about the final result. It seems to have been a question of who had the majority where and when. It would of course be folly to predict anything for the future, but I am by no means certain that the expulsion of Malenkov, Molotov, Kaganovich and, in a lesser level, Shepilov marks the end of a collective leadership and a return to one-man rule. It might even mark a trend in the opposite direction since apparently K had to bring the CC into the act which, so far as I am aware, is the first time that it has been made the final arbitrator of a dispute of this nature in the Presidium. It could therefore mean that in the future the circle of power will be broadened from the Presidium to include 133-odd voting members of the CC. Consequently [Page 158] whoever is top dog will have to in the last analysis obtain and retain the support of more people than in the post-Stalin period.

With reference to the specific passages you cite, I am not sure that Isaiah is right in presenting Malenkov vs K as a personal power struggle pure and simple. This is of course possible, but I don’t think in the post-Stalin Soviet set-up that this factor plays as great a part as it did in the past. It would seem to be based on the assumption that there is one position, i.e. First Secretary of the CC, which has so much power that it is worth in itself struggling for and, as indicated above, the very fact that this group could hope to succeed against K would seem to indicate the position does not have any such power in itself. I would therefore be inclined to put Malenkov (although in a different context) in the policy fight. At a certain point policy disputes, as in all governments and particularly dictatorships, eventually end in a power struggle among the disputants. I agree that you cannot organically list Malenkov among the “Old Guard” and therefore his disagreements with K’s policies were probably of a somewhat different nature than Molotov’s and Kaganovich’s. I am inclined to believe that all three for different reasons saw in K’s domestic policies a real danger of loss of the collective political power of the top leadership and being Marxists feared that economic decentralization if pushed forward with the vigor which K usually throws into these matters would inevitably lead to some form of loss of control at the top. By that I do not mean revolution or violent overthrow but real problems of maintaining a political monopoly in a few hands with a certain degree of loss of control in economic matters. I’ll admit I’m influenced by Mikoyan’s ready and apparently favorable agreement the last day I was in Moscow with my observation that economic decentralization in Marxist terms must lead to political decentralization.3 This may be one of the reasons why Mikoyan is still there and the others are out.

Following along the same line I would be inclined to believe that neither side planned this thing very carefully before the actual conflict. I cannot believe that Khrushchev and Bulganin accompanied by Serov would have spent a week in Finland just prior to the event if he had planned a coup of this dimension. Conversely, given the experience in conspiracy and general dirty work that all three of the opposition leaders had it seems to me unlikely that they would have done such a clumsy job if this had been a carefully planned coup timed to coincide with Khrushchev and Bulganin’s absence. I am of course operating on very little evidence, but it seems to me that there was a confluence of those who disagreed with K’s policies for [Page 159] different reasons along about this time over some question due to come up in the Presidium. Some of the opposition to K’s policy, particularly on the part of Molotov and to a somewhat less publicized degree Kaganovich, have been known for some time. Malenkov’s exact role remains unclear but given the age factor it is probable (and here Isaiah is right) that he was destined to take the top slot if the opposition movement had been a success. There were obviously many other factors besides economic decentralization involved and I would be inclined to give some weight to a rather frivolous one, namely that these three men who are rather serious and on the whole sober individuals were really concerned at K’s freewheeling tendency to make off the cuff remarks and probably even commit the group by snap decisions, especially in the field of foreign policy.

With reference to the sentence you quote in sub-paragraph (g) on Hungary4 I am in full agreement. I feel that those who feel differently are talking about a different matter. It is true that for the short run Russian ability to crush ruthlessly revolt in the face of Western inaction may have given them some prestige among Communist regimes in EE, but I am sure even the Russians do not consider that such a naked use of force in the long run is a “victory”. Shooting people down has never been in history a final solution and certainly the Hungarian events did not solve any of the problems which the Russians face and will continue to face in my opinion in maintaining these regimes in Eastern Europe.

With reference to the military, again pleading lack of knowledge, I have seen nothing which would indicate that K’s victory was due to the military as an independent cohesive force. It stands to reason if Zhukov had been against him he would have had great difficulty in eliminating the others. It does not follow that he is in any sense a prisoner of the military. On the contrary, I agree with Isaiah that Zhukov on the whole being somewhat of a pragmatist probably agrees with most of K’s policies. I also agree that a military dictatorship would be probable only in the event of an emergency so [Page 160] great, either domestic or foreign, i.e. war, which would threaten the regime. I cannot see any reason why the Army as such, even assuming that distinct Army point of view is possible, would wish to take over the direction of all Soviet affairs except in the case of extreme necessity to preserve the system.

With reference to your (d),5 while there obviously was quite a struggle, I do not believe that K has committed himself to any one faction but rather, as indicated above, to the CC as a whole and then only in the sense that he will be forced to keep his majority intact in that body. K’s position, therefore, in my mind should not be compared to Stalin’s but in very different circumstances more to Lenin’s and I believe that his future depends in large measure on the success of his policies, primarily internal, and to a lesser degree in the foreign field.

On your (e)6 I still believe that the Party by the nature of things will gradually lose out if the decentralization program is carried forward seriously and I do not see in the June developments a victory for the Party over the bureaucracy. As I may have mentioned during the briefing at your place, the provincial levels of the Party are considerably less impressive than the top leaders and are presumably so regarded by the factory managers and economic powers there than in Moscow. In other words, the bureaucrats, if such is the right word, will have the real operational power in the economic regional set-up and will probably be less disposed to listen to Party hacks at that level than the Ministers were to the Presidium. It must be recalled in this connection that the division between the Party apparachi and the real technocrats is greater at the provincial level than at the center where more often the top Ministers are also members of the Presidium.

On your (f)7 the role of ideology is such a slippery one in Soviet affairs that it would take quite a dissertation to run down all of its ramifications. I believe, however, that ideology played a part in [Page 161] the recent developments, particularly the “different roads to socialism” concept, not on grounds of ideological purity but on practical grounds of the consequence of pursuing one or the other courses of action which in Bolshevik history frequently are depicted in ideological terms. Ideology has shown itself to be so flexible that without serious loss of power at the top I would not believe for the foreseeable future that Soviet leaders will have too much difficulty in finding the proper ideological formula to deal with whatever policy they are pursuing and for that reason will never run out of carrots. However, if disarray sets in at the top and the process of spreading the power which, though it has not gone very far has been a continuing factor since the death of Stalin, gets to the point where the monolithic character of the regime is impaired, the lack of convincing ideology could become extremely important.

I realize the foregoing is very brief and I don’t know that there is much point of my trying to look into a crystal ball from this distance. However, going deeper into the matter I am inclined to regard what has happened in the Soviet Union in June as a further manifestation of its basic contradiction of which I have spoken before and that is the contradiction between the social and economic changes in the Soviet Union brought on by the process of industrialization and the antiquated forms of political rule which were devised and perfected in quite different circumstances. The story is not over and I think we will see further developments, not necessarily in the near future, as a result of this basic contradiction.

[Here follow brief personal comments and a passing reference to the national elections scheduled in the Philippines.]


  1. Source: Department of State, Bohlen Files: Lot 79 D 379, Research Notes 1957. Secret; Eyes Only. Small sections of this letter are printed in Bohlen, Witness to History, pp. 453–456.
  2. Not printed. (Department of State, Bohlen Files: Lot 79 D 379, Research Notes 1957) Reference is to Isaiah Berlin and to Wisner’s quoting of Berlin’s private comments made in London on August 9.
  3. Bohlen’s conversation with Mikoyan is described in telegram 2374 from Moscow, April 17. (Ibid., Central Files, 661.00/4–1757)
  4. Subparagraph (g) of the August 9 memorandum of conversation with Berlin was quoted by Wisner as follows:

    “‘He does not believe the Soviets will provoke the Poles if it can possibly be avoided and is convinced that Khrushchev cannot afford another Hungary which, in Berlin’s view, was a disaster for the Russians.’ [This continues to be my own view and most of the current Washington thinking is likewise generally in accord. However, there is an important difference of opinion as to the nature and extent of the ‘disaster’ for the Russians, some feeling that on balance Hungary has turned out to be a ‘victory’ for the Russians simply because in crushing the revolt they demonstrated their willingness and ability to do so and the ineffectuality of the West—both as applied to Hungary and to similar situations elsewhere.]” The bracketed note is Wisner’s.

  5. In point (d) Wisner wrote that, according to George Kennan, “it must have been quite a struggle and that Khrushchev won out at great cost, probably committing himself on several issues to the military and perhaps to others, possibly to the Central Committee as a body.”
  6. In point (e), Wisner asked the following question: “Recalling your statement that the Party would probably lose importance with the implementation of the decentralization program, would you feel that Khrushchev’s stress on the role of the party is more leading from weakness than an assertion of strength. The bureaucrats may be dispersed by the new program, but does this really break their power?”
  7. In point (f), Wisner made the following comments:

    “Certainly the ideology is not a matter of deep concern, but apparently they have to go through the motion of elections, parades, agitprop sessions, etc., to keep the society functioning. ‘Carrots’ may be necessary, but is not at least the semblance of faith also needed? What would happen if the current apathy toward all this turned into disgust and revulsion?”

  8. The source text is not signed.