The Bidding Starts

On 4 October 1957 a shiny steel sphere the size of a beach ball hurtled through the sky, reached its orbit and then started circling the globe at about 29,000 kilometres per hour, emitting signals that radio operators around the world picked up. Taking the United States completely by surprise, the Soviet Union had successfully launched the world’s first earth satellite, opening a new chapter in the space race that was met with both awe and fear. To hurl an 84-kilo satellite into orbit, observers noted, a rocket engine as powerful as an intercontinental ballistic missile was required, which meant that the Russians could also launch atomic bombs that would reach the United States. A month later a much heavier satellite whirled overhead, carrying the first living creature to travel around the earth through space: dressed in a custom-made space suit, a little dog called Laika made history as the passenger inSputnik II.

In a bold move, Khrushchev inaugurated an era of missile diplomacy, backed up by ceaseless propaganda from Moscow about successful experiments with intercontinental ballistic missiles. The second satellite launch was designed to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution, to be celebrated in Red Square in the presence of thousands of communist party leaders invited from all over the world.

Yet, despite the triumph of the satellite launches, Khrushchev was in a vulnerable position. Less than half a year earlier he had barely survived an attempted coup against him by Stalinist hardliners Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich. Marshal Zhukov, a Second World War hero who had led the final assault on Germany and captured Berlin, used army transport planes to rush key allies to Moscow in defence of his boss. But Zhukov commanded an army, and could just as well throw his tanks against Khrushchev. Ever fearful of a military coup, the Soviet leader manoeuvred to have Zhukov deposed in early November. Justifying the purge of Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich, now referred to as an ‘anti-party group’, was one thing, but how could he explain the removal of the most decorated Soviet general to his foreign guests, who were already traumatised by his secret speech and the Hungarian revolt? Josip Tito, the fiercely independent leader of Yugoslavia who refused to take orders from the Soviet Union, was another potential source of opposition that could mar the anniversary. In mid-October he objected to a Soviet draft declaration to be published at the Moscow meeting of party leaders and declined to attend the event.

Khrushchev found a key ally in Mao, despite their differences on foreign policy and ideology. Mao, in turn, had good reason to help his rival. He had badgered the Soviet leader repeatedly for assistance in acquiring nuclear weapons. Ever since the United States had started to provide military support for Taiwan, and after the Americans introduced tactical nuclear missiles in March 1955, Mao had been set on having the bomb. Now, on the eve of the international summit, Khrushchev shored up support by signing a secret agreement with China on 15 October, providing for the delivery of a Soviet atom bomb by 1959.1

Mao was ebullient. He knew that his moment had come. Khrushchev depended on him, and lavished the Chairman and his entourage with attention. Two Tu-104s were sent to fly the Chinese delegation to Moscow. The Soviet leader, flanked by some of the most senior party bosses, warmly greeted Mao at Vnukovo airport and personally escorted him to his quarters. China was the only delegation out of all sixty-four attending the conference to be housed in the Great Kremlin Palace.

Mao was put up in Empress Catherine’s private quarters, which were upholstered in damask and the ceiling painted with foliate volutes. The entire west wing was extravagantly furnished, with tall columns topped by bronze capitals, walls draped in water silk or panelled in walnut, gilded stucco on vaults and thick carpets throughout. Mao seemed oblivious to it all and used his own chamber pot.2

On 7 November came the public climax of the anniversary gala: as Mao stood next to Khrushchev on top of the Lenin mausoleum to review the four-hour parade through Red Square, the Soviet armed forces showed off their new weapons. People waved Chinese flags and shouted ‘Long live Mao and China!’

Despite all the privileges accorded Mao, he enjoyed carping about his hosts. He disparaged the food and was scornful of Russian culture, condescending to other party delegates and aloof with Khrushchev. ‘Look at how differently they’re treating us now,’ he quipped to his doctor with a smile of disdain. ‘Even in this communist land, they know who is powerful and who is weak. What snobs!’3

But he delivered the crucial support on which Khrushchev counted. On 14 November, in front of all party delegates, he pronounced: ‘We are so many people here, with so many parties, we must have a head . . . If the Soviet Union is not the head, then who is? Should we do it by alphabetical order? Albania? Vietnam with comrade Ho Chi Minh? Another country? China does not qualify to be the head, we do not have enough experience. We know about revolution, but not about socialist construction. Demographically we are a huge country, but economically we are small.’4

But if Mao gave his showpiece pledge of allegiance, he had also come to Moscow to show that he, rather than Khrushchev, was the true senior eminence of the communist camp. He missed few opportunities to diminish the Soviet leader, even telling him to his face that he had a bad temper which offended people.5 Two days later, on 18 November, came the moment he had been anticipating. Brushing aside the conference protocol with an impromptu speech, Mao addressed the delegates from his seat, invoking his poor health for his refusal to stand up. As Khrushchev later recollected in his memoirs, Mao thought himself a cut above the rest.6 In a long and rambling monologue, the Chairman turned to Khrushchev, offering him advice as if speaking to a pupil: ‘No matter who, everyone needs support . . . There is a Chinese saying that while there is beauty in a lotus it needs the support of its green leaves. You, comrade Khrushchev, even though you are a lotus, you too need to be supported by leaves.’ As if this was not cryptic enough, Mao then declared that the showdown between Khrushchev and the Stalinist hardliners in June 1957 had been a ‘struggle between two lines: one was erroneous and the other relatively correct’. Was this to be understood as faint praise or as a veiled barb? It was certainly lost on the translator, who muttered something vague about ‘two different groups’ in which one ‘tendency led by Khrushchev won the day’. What exactly Mao said, the Yugoslav ambassador later recollected, ‘nobody except the Chinese knew’, but it produced a deathly silence.7 Further embarrassing his host, Mao then went on to describe Molotov, one of the chief plotters of the June coup, as ‘an old comrade with a long history of struggle’.8

The core of Mao’s speech was more frightening to his Russian hosts. ‘There are two winds in the world, an east wind and a west wind. We have a saying in China that if the east wind does not prevail over the west wind, then the west wind prevails over the east wind. I think that the key point of the international situation right now is that the east wind prevails over the west wind, that is to say that the forces of socialism have become overwhelmingly superior to the forces of capitalism.’

Mao continued with a review of the changing balance of power between the two camps, and then shocked party delegates with his musings about an impending world war.9 ‘Let us imagine how many people would die if war breaks out. There are 2.7 billion people in the world, and a third could be lost. If it is a little higher it could be half . . . I say that if the worst came to the worst and one-half dies, there will still be one-half left, but imperialism would be erased and the whole world would become socialist. After a few years there would be 2.7 billion people again.’10 The United States was nothing but a ‘paper tiger’, Mao continued, seemingly immune to the loss of life he was contemplating. He was bluffing, on this occasion and on others like it, but the point of all the sabre-rattling was to show that he, not Khrushchev, was a more determined revolutionary.

Mao not only totted up population figures for his audience. For some time, he had been carefully following Khrushchev’s push for a decentralisation of the economy and his undermining of desk-bound bureaucrats in Moscow in order to transfer power instead to new economic regional councils supervised by his own local henchmen. Khrushchev had criss-crossed the countryside lecturing peasants on how to increase agricultural yields: ‘You must plant potatoes in square clusters. You must grow cabbage as my grandmother did.’11 He was scathing about economists with fancy pedigrees who were ‘arithmetically’ correct but failed to understand what the Soviet people were capable of: ‘Let the ideologists of the capitalist world go on prattling for too long a time. Let the comrade economists blush. Sometimes man must exceed his own strength by making a sudden spurt.’12 And that sudden spurt, created by freeing the farmers from the dead hand of the Stalinist state, would create such abundance that even the United States would be overtaken economically: when ‘people come to know their own strength, they create miracles’. In May 1957 Khrushchev had crowed that within the next few years the Soviet Union would catch up with the United States in per-capita production of meat, milk and butter.13 Now, in Moscow, in front of foreign party delegates, Khrushchev proclaimed the success of his economic drive in his keynote address to celebrate the October Anniversary: ‘Comrades, the calculations of our planners show that, within the next fifteen years, the Soviet Union will be able not only to catch up with but also to surpass the present volume of output of important products in the USA.’14

Mao wasted no time. He publicly took up the challenge and immediately announced that China would outstrip Britain – then still considered a major industrial power – within fifteen years: ‘This year our country has 5.2 million tonnes of steel, and after five years we can have 10 to 15 million tonnes; after a further five years 20 to 25 million tonnes, then add five more years and we will have 30 to 40 million tonnes. Maybe I am bragging here, and maybe when we have another international meeting in future you will criticise me for being subjective, but I speak on the strength of considerable evidence . . . Comrade Khrushchev tells us that the Soviet Union will overtake the United States in fifteen years. I can tell you that in fifteen years we may well catch up with or overtake Britain.’15 The Great Leap Forward had begun.

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