In the late 1950s, both the USSR and the USA opened their windows to dialogue and ‘peaceful coexistence’. The new policy was introduced by Khrushchev, and was soon welcomed by the United States. Attempts to establish a dialogue between the superpowers led to what has been termed a ‘thaw’ in Cold War relations. However, many underlined tensions between the two superpowers still existed. They both continued to believe that the other side could never be trusted and had strong suspicions about each other’s moves. Their attempts to communicate often ended in creating new ‘frosts’ between them; something that made universal agreement almost impossible.
From the early 1950s the governments of the USA and the USSR were facing he same pressures, pushing them towards reaching an accommodation with each other. These were economic pressures and the fear of nuclear war.
Both countries were trying to answer the question: How to reduce military spending to free resources for other sectors of the economy? Domestic reforms and living standards were held back by pouring money into an unproductive military sector. In the USSR approximately one-third of the economy was geared to the military sector. By 1954 over 12 per cent of the USA’s GNP was spent on armaments. Eisenhower’s ‘New Look’ was designed in part to save money on conventional arms by relying on fewer but more powerful nuclear weapons. Neither country could sustain huge military costs indefinitely without long-term damage to its economy.
Both superpowers possessed atomic bombs by 1949 and the hydrogen bomb by 1955. The destructive power of the H-bomb, a thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, posed a danger to the existence of life on earth. This was to weigh heavily on the minds of those leaders on whose shoulders responsibility for using nuclear weapons would fall.
These concerns pushed the superpowers towards some accommodation with each other. It was a hesitant and delicate process but the trend was there.
The policy of ‘Peaceful Coexistence was put forward by Khrushchev in the late 1950s. It suggested that capitalism and communism should accept the existence of the other, rather than use force to destroy each other. As a communist, Khrushchev believed that capitalism would collapse eventually due to its own weakness. Thus, war with its danger of nuclear devastation was not worth the risk.
Khrushchev’s policy of peaceful coexistence was part of a new foreign policy adopted by the Soviet Union. The death of Stalin on 9th March 1953 provided the opportunity for his successors to try a different approach to dealing with the West. Within weeks after Khrushchev was given control of the Party a clear process of destalinisation was under way with the relaxation of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, release of private land to peasants and an amnesty for approximately 1 million prisoners. However, there were limits to the new freedom.
After Stalin’s funeral Malenkov launched a peace initiative, stating, ‘we stand as we have always stood for the peaceful coexistence of the two systems’. This represented a denial of the Marxist theory of inevitable conflict with capitalism and provoked controversy within the Politburo and criticism from Mao Zedong, who rejected peaceful coexistence.
The first signs of a thaw were the end of the Korean War in July 1953, the settlement of border disputes with Turkey and Iran and the recognition of Israel.
Churchill gave a very enthusiastic response to peaceful coexistence and he appealed for an East-West summit to end the Cold War. However, Eisenhower did not share his enthusiasm. In his meeting with Churchill in Bermuda on December 1953 to discuss relations with the Soviet Union, he described the new Soviet Union as nothing but a tart, ”despite bath, perfume or lace it was still the same old girl”.
The United States were concerned about the communist take over of China. Eisenhower feared the relentless advance of communism through Asia. This was dramatically expressed in the Domino Theory of April 1954: ‘you have a row of dominoes set up and you knock over the first one…”. However, the successful test of the first Soviet H-bomb in August 1953, a peace settlement in Indochina in July 1954 and Churchill’s continued insistence encouraged Eisenhower to explore peaceful coexistence.
Eisenhower had spoken of the need for Soviet deeds not words and in April 1955 the Soviet Union proposed a formal peace treaty with Austria. This was successful and led to full independence for Austria on 15th May 1955. In a further success of peaceful coexistence Khrushchev and Bulganin visited Yugoslavia in May 1955, and despite a very cold reception endorsed Tito’s leadership and ended years of hostility.
By spring 1955 peaceful coexistence had significantly reduced East-West tension and the Soviet Union proposed a summit. The Geneva Summit of June 1955 was the first meeting of Allied leaders since Potsdam. The key issue for the Soviet Union and the ultimate test of peaceful coexistence was the future of Germany. Marshall Aid had revitalised West Berlin and West Germany had been rearmed and admitted to NATO in May 1955. However, the West refused Soviet requests for the recognition of East Germany and rejected proposals for a unified but disarmed Germany. Khrushchev blamed Dulles for the lack of progress. Yet, the ‘Spirit of Geneva’ in terms of friendly exchanges held out the prospect of future agreement.
Eisenhower’s contribution to peaceful coexistence was to propose an ‘Open Skies’ treaty allowing the aerial inspection of each other’s territory, but the United States had most to gain and Khrushchev dismissed it. In secret Eisenhower had already authorised U2 missions over the Soviet Union. The success of Geneva was the relaxation of tension and the realisation that ‘no country attending wanted war”.
However, Soviet confidence was shattered in October 1956 by widespread protests in Poland and Hungary for greater political freedom. Events in Poland were settled peaceably with the replacement of the Soviet leadership with popular Polish communist leaders but in Hungary protest turned to open revolt. The Red Army crushed the revolt with the deaths of some 30,000 protesters and the Hungarian Prime Minister, Imre Nagy, was imprisoned and executed. The actions of the USSR in Hungary indicated that there were limits to the independence of the eastern bloc countries. The Soviet Union showed willingness to maintain a tight over its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.
The USA and Britain led the protests against Soviet actions in Hungary. Yet, other than issue statements of condemnation, the West did little to intervene in a crisis that was seen to be within the Soviet sphere of influence. The talk of Eisenhower and Dulles about liberating those living under communism against their will was shown to be empty rhetoric, of which there was much during the period of the Cold War.
The Hungarian Rising and the controversy surrounding Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin produced an anti-Khrushchev coalition in the Politburo and in June 1957 the Politburo voted 7 to 4 to dismiss him as party leader. Yet, Khrushchev survived the challenge to his leadership and finally managed to assume total authority over the Party.
However, the criticisms of Khrushchev also exposed the limited success of peaceful coexistence in moderating US hostility. The Eisenhower Doctrine of March 1957 echoed the Truman Doctrine and guaranteed assistance ‘against armed aggression from any country controlled by international communism’. The successful launch of Sputnik in October 19578 was a triumph for Soviet technology, as it was the first to ‘concur’ space. However, it intimidated the United States and provoked a hostile response. Eisenhower continued to remain very sceptical of peaceful coexistence.
The situation in East Germany continued to concern Khrushchev, as West Germany was becoming more and more prosperous. In November 1958 he demanded an immediate Western withdrawal from Berlin. The opportunity for a breakthrough arose in September 1959 when Khrushchev accepted an invitation to Camp David. His visit was a significant success and the American public warmed to the communist leader. The press spoke of the ‘Spirit of Camp David’ and a formal summit meting was agreed for Paris in May 1960. However, Khrushchev blundered at a press conference when he boasted, ‘We will bury you’. He was speaking in the context of economic competition and probably being a little sarcastic, but his words rekindled the US sense of threat.
During the following years, tensions increased between China and the Soviet Union, as Mao Zeodong was increasingly critical of peaceful coexistence. In July 1960 the dispute with China burst into the open as Khrushchev condemned Chinese communism following Mao Zedong’s complaint that ‘peaceful coexistence was a bourgeois pacific concept’. Khrushchev never trusted China, and in a bizarre adoption of US rhetoric accused Chinese of a ‘desire to rule the world’.
In my opinion, agreement between the superpowers was not possible during the Late 1950s. Although they both made efforts to achieve peaceful coexistence, the fear of each other did not let then succeed. Also, the advance of communism in China threatened the United States and events in Korea and Vietnam justified the ‘Domino Theory’. This was made worst by Mao’s criticism of peaceful coexistence. The Soviet Union was willing to loosen up its foreign policy in Eastern Europe. Yet, this was limited as shown in the events in Poland and USSR’s attitude towards the Hungarian Rising in 1956. I believe that peaceful coexistence was a period of relative freedom from tension, however not a universal agreement. The West lost a great opportunity to end the War!