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129. Memorandum of Conversation0

SUBJECT

  • Khrushchev’s Wartime Experiences

PARTICIPANTS

  • The President Secretary
  • Herter
  • Ambassador Lodge
  • Ambassador Thompson
  • General Goodpaster
  • Mr. Akalovsky
  • Chairman Khrushchev
  • Foreign Minister Gromyko
  • Ambassador Menshikov
  • Mr. Soldatov
  • Mr. Troyanovski

During their breakfast conversation, the President and Mr. Khrushchev were talking about the costly error in military operations of becoming inflexible and refusing to give up a foot of ground. The [Page 460]President recalled that hitler kept reinforcing the North African front with excellent fighting units long after the Germans were contained in Tunisia and when the complete destruction of their forces had become inevitable and simply a matter of a few short weeks. He reinforced them practically to the date of surrender. The President said his own method had been to reinforce success and turn an advance into exploitation.

Mr. Khrushchev agreed with these observations, and expressed the admiration the Russians had had for General Eisenhower as a commander. Mr. Khrushchev then, as I recall, recounted some incidents from the war in Russia. He said he was the “political commander” (in this capacity holding a position parallel to that of the military commander) of a field army on the southern front in the Kiev area. At one point in the German advance, in spite of great efforts the Russians had made to save this revered city, encirclement of their whole force had become imminent and he and his military commander has issued orders to withdraw. The army on his flank, of which he said Timoshenko1 was the military commander, had issued similar orders. The army group commander had not objected to these orders, but when they reached Stalin he revoked them and gave orders that the army would stand fast and not withdraw. When he was informed of the fact that Stalin had canceled this particular order, Mr. Khrushchev continued, he immediately realized that Marshal Vasilevski,2 then Chief of Staff, apparently did not have the courage to argue with Stalin and to explain to him the validity of the order from the military standpoint. Marshal Vasilevski was in general a yes-man and never had the courage to defend his own point of view. Khrushchev then telephoned to Stalin, but Stalin would not come to the telephone. Instead he had Malenkov,3 who shared his office with him, talk to Khrushchev on the phone. Khrushchev said he knew that Stalin was in the room with Malenkov—in fact, their desks were only about fifteen feet apart—because he could hear Stalin in the background talking to Malenkov. Stalin would not come to the phone, and would not agree to permit the withdrawal of the armies. Khrushchev told him that Timoshenko, who was an outstanding soldier, agreed with his (Khrushchev’s) views. Stalin said that this simply showed that Khrushchev had undue influence over Timoshenko. Khrushchev said this was untrue because Timoshenko was a strong-minded man and no one could influence him unduly. In the final event the armies were made to stand fast. They were encircled and practically destroyed by the Germans. Their equipment was completely lost. And this was all the fault of [Page 461] Stalin’s stubbornness. Stalin had a tendency to make military decisions thinking primarily in terms of prestige considerations, without taking into account the actual military situation. This, Mr. Khrushchev said, was very wrong and had affected unfavorably the course of military operations during the war.

Khrushchev went on to say that had Zhukov been in Vasilevski’s spot, this would not have happened. Zhukov would have stood up to Stalin. He was a very strong-minded man and could not be swayed from what he thought was right. (At this point Mr. Khrushchev turned to the President, and said that Zhukov was a man of unshakable convictions, which is a fine thing in a military man, adding with what amounted to a leer, “so long as this is limited to military things.”) He said that Zhukov was by no means faultless, however, because at a later stage Zhukov made an attack in the Kharkov sector in spite of being told that his flanks were insecure and he was risking encirclement by powerful German armed forces. Zhukov went ahead, in a bull-headed way, and his forces were encircled and suffered very great losses. He said that Zhukov would never accept responsibility for this, and he quoted an old Russian proverb that Generals win cities and soldiers lose them.4

Khrushchev spoke of hitler’s great mistake at Stalingrad. The Russians were strong only in the city and Field Marshal Von Paulus5 could have crossed the river and captured the Soviet forces and the area by flanking maneuvers. At that time the Soviet lines in the western part of the big encirclement were quite weak and could have been broken through very easily. However, hitler gave orders that the city be taken frontally since it had become a matter of German honor and prestige. [Page 462]This was an impossible task for Von Paulus. In addition, he held Von Paulus in place long after he should have broken out to the west, and instead tried to have other forces break through to Von Paulus with forces that were quite inadequate from a long distance away. By the time he permitted Von Paulus to attempt a western movement, the Soviet forces had been strengthened to the point where no escape was possible.

  1. Source: Department of State, Conference Files: Lot 64 D 560, CF 1475. Secret; Limit Distribution. Drafted by Akalovsky and Goodpaster and approved in the White House on November 10.
  2. Semen Konstantinovich Timoshenko.
  3. Marshal Aleksander Mikhailovich Vasilevsky.
  4. Malenkov was a Soviet member of the State defense committee 1941–1945.
  5. In a memorandum for the record, November 27, John S.D. Eisenhower wrote he had seen this Department of State memorandum of a conversation which he attended and had the following to add after this paragraph:

    “Apparently on this Kharkov offensive, Khrushchev was still serving in the capacity of a political commander or commissar. Again, he telephoned Moscow and spoke to Zhukov who ordered, in the name of Stalin, that Khrushchev’s army make this attack. Khrushchev, at this time, warned that the entire army of 400,000 men might be destroyed. Zhukov ignored this. Forced to make the attack, Khrushchev’s army did in fact suffer decimation. As a sequel, some five years later, at an official gathering, Mikoyan, under the influence of alcohol, brought up the subject with Stalin and pointed out humorously that Khrushchev had been right in protesting this costly attack at Kharkov. In his lighthearted mood, Mikoyan failed to see the intense anger on Stalin’s face as he rose from his chair. Khrushchev himself saved the moment by saying to Stalin: ‘It is all right. We would have lost the 400,000 men had we attacked or defended.' This seemed to satisfy Stalin.” (Eisen-hower Library, Staff Secretary Records, International Series)

    Khrushchev’s account of the battle of Kharkov is at some variance with his earlier recollection of this episode, which he presented in his “secret speech” to the 20th Party Congress on February 25, 1956. For text of this speech, see The New York Times, June 4, 1956.

  6. Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus.