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Enemies No More

First Cold War conference brings together Sergei Khrushchev, David Eisenhower.

Three men sat at the table, each connected by a chess game played 50 years ago by their fathers and grandfather.

One man’s father, a spy pilot, was shot down over Moscow in 1960 and held captive by another man’s father, while the third’s grandfather tried to keep things calm in America.

“I think it’s ironic that the three of us are sitting here today,” said Gary Francis Powers Jr., founder of the planned Cold War Museum in Lorton of his association with Sergei Khrushchev and David Eisenhower. “I’m glad our nations are now friends.”

On Saturday, Oct. 14, several hundred people gathered at South County Secondary School for the first Cold War Conversations conference, sponsored by the Cold War Museum. This year’s theme was the Polish and Hungarian uprisings of 1956 and how relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were tested during those disturbances.

Powers’ interest in the Cold War stemmed from his father’s two years in captivity in the former Soviet Union between 1960 and 1962, held by Khrushchev’s father, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and accused of being a spy.

For Khrushchev and Eisenhower, of course, the connection was equally strong: David Eisenhower is the grandson of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“When we talk about the Cold War, we talk about communism versus democracy,” Khrushchev said. “The big question was, 'Who will be equal?' The Soviet Union wanted to be equal. However, America was seen as the evil empire to the Soviet Union, just as the Soviet Union was the evil empire to the United States.”

IN 1956, when both Hungary and Poland tried to declare their independence from the Soviet Union, Khrushchev said they were only one part of the battle between the two newly formed superpowers, themselves trying to secure dominance in the unstable world following World War II.

“We couldn’t allow these countries to join the opposite side,” said Khrushchev, recalling his father’s political strategies.

Both the Polish and Hungarian leaders vowed their allegiance to the Soviet military, he said, but once they were given the ability to govern themselves, they joined with America and its allied forces.

The instability of Eastern Bloc nations, coupled with tension over nuclear capabilities between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, created a period of time in which neither of the countries knew how close they were to the brink of nuclear war, Khrushchev said.

“It was very difficult for [Nikita] Khrushchev to make a decision to use force” to put down an uprising, Sergei Khrushchev said of his father.

However, it was the young men who believed in fighting for the freedom of their country that made the uprising happen, Khrushchev said. Comparing the soldiers to Romeo and Juliet, they symbolized freedom much in the same way Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers symbolized love.

“Now we know that everything changed,” Khrushchev said. “Poland and Hungary left the Soviet Union and joined with the Western allies. They joined the European economic union, the people got what they wanted.”

KHRUSHCHEV COMPARED the use of strategy during the Cold War with the current situation in Iraq: people who want nothing more than to be free putting themselves in perilous situations to achieve their goal, regardless of their own safety.

Eisenhower began his presentation by thanking Powers for bringing attention to a forgotten generations of veterans, those men and women who served their government during the Cold War.

"There's the Woodstock generation, the Vietnam generation, the Me generation, but no one ever talks about the Cold War generation," said. "The sacrifice of the people who endured the Cold War deserves to be recognized."

Eisenhower remembered visiting his grandfather at the White House, which made him feel special as a child. While he was only 8 during the Hungarian uprising, he remembers the tension on his grandfather's face while trying to determine America's position in the conflict, all during an election year.

"Starting that year, the autumns of my childhood were times of tremendous change in U.S. and Soviet relations," Eisenhower said. He recalled how his grandfather appealed to Nikita Khrushchev to prevent a military action against Hungary in the belief that it would be better for a war-fractured Europe, still reeling from WWII, to solve whatever problem they had diplomatically.

Eisenhower urged those in the audience to consider the sensitivity of the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the environment that created it and how it eventually dissolved.

"Keep in mind, 50 million people died in WWII and the Cold War was just 20 years later," he said.

To put that number in better perspective, Eisenhower said that one in six citizens in the Soviet Union were killed during the war, with similar ratios in Germany and across Europe.

"The level of death and destruction touch every single family in the Soviet Union, to them the outside world was a place of danger and hostility," he said. "To prevent WWII from happening again, it was better to prevent conflict by barricading themselves from other nations."

LOOKING BACK, 1956 was a turning point in relations between the two nations, Eisenhower said.

"There was the potential for transformation, especially after the Geneva Convention when Great Britain and France were prepared to assert their independence vis-à-vis the United States the same way Hungary and Poland wanted to assert their independence vis-à-vis the Soviet Union," he said.

While the Cold War doesn't have long lists of battles that other armed conflicts have made famous, it does have its share of heroes and stories to be remembered, said.

"The Cold War is a much subtler conflict," Eisenhower said. "It is a story of achieving realms of confidence and keeping in things in line to live with each other in peace."

Closing the day-long conference, U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) thanked Khrushchev and Eisenhower for sharing their stories and memories.

"Countries like the United States are exceptions in the world; we take a lot for granted living here," Davis said.

To ensure that future generations have the chance to hear the stories of those who lived through the Cold War, South County Secondary students spent the day collecting oral histories from some of the panelists and community members who wanted to share their stories.

Jackye Brant, a history teacher with Fairfax County schools, said she wanted to attend the conference to make sure the stories are preserved.

Brant joined the Navy after high school, during the Vietnam conflict. After working with men who trained helicopter pilots, Brant became a teacher.

"I remember having a fire drill in school in Texas just so we could go outside and hear Chuck Yeager break the sound barrier," she said.

Looking across the table at some of the students who were taking oral histories, Brant told them to reap the benefits of the conference.

"If I don't tell you about it and you don't question it, it will happen again," she said.

The students compared notes about the stories they heard, from fighter pilots to messengers.

"I met John Overstreet, who was a pilot for the CIA and did reconnaissance missions over Russia," said South County student Ricky Cole. "I thought it was interesting that he went over there. He was afraid of getting shot by Russian missiles, but he did it anyway."

"I think it's really good that we're doing this," said student Alex Nenoff. "Some of the men I was talking to said they don't get as much respect as WWII veterans or Vietnam veterans. They really appreciate this."

Eighth grader Joe Corso had lunch with Eisenhower and told a little bit about the Fairfax County area before the Beltway was built.

"I like to learn about the war and how it shaped modern civilization," he said.