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The Post-Stalin Thaw and the bid for Peaceful



In the 1950s the Cold War, although in many ways the same, was changing in character

* Globalization of the Cold War

* Nuclear Arms Race

* Stalin’s death in ’53 and the Thaw

However, a more thorough relation of tensions – détente – was not to emerge until after the shocks of the Berlin crisis ’61 and more particularly the Cuban Missile Crisis ‘62

Timeline of coexistence and confrontation characterising 1953 – 61

1951 – Churchill elected PM, and in a surprise move from his reputation as a ‘Cold War warrior’ pressed for a summit with the Soviet Union to end the Cold War.

November 1952 – Election of Eisenhower, reflecting a ‘hardening of US attitudes’

March 1953 – Death of Stalin, the politburo avoided one person consolidating power and confirmed the collective leadership of Malenkov, Molotov, Beria, Bulganin and Khrushchev. Policy of destalinisation introduced

July 1953 – End of the Korean War. It had a traumatising effect on the US population with 32,629 US killed, 103,284 injured and the deaths of 3m aprox. Korean civies.

* American anger was reflected in the policies of Dulles – rollback and massive retaliation

* Limitations of these policies demonstrated by the lack of a US response to Soviet suppression of protest in East Germany (1953) and more significantly Hungary (1956)

August 1953 – PM Malenkov recommended a policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the West

1954 – Eisenhower’s Domino theory announced

July 1955 – First summit since Potsdam held in Geneva. No agreements made but the friendly atmosphere was dubbed ‘the spirit of Geneva’, raising the possibility of future concord.

February 1956 – Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ dramatically extended destalinisation by condemning Stalin’s rule in a closed meeting of the Communist Party.

1957 – Eisenhower Doctrine. In conjunction with Domino Theory, ‘Roll Back’ and ‘Massive Retaliation’ extended US military alliances world-wide in an attempt to firmly contain communism.

1958 – Khrushchev emerges as head of Soviet State

September 1959 – Hopes for the possibility of peaceful coexistence raised by the success of a second summit held at Camp David.

May 1960 – U2 Spy Plane Incident. Soviet walkout at the third summit in Paris ended both the summit and hopes for ‘peaceful coexistence’

1961 – Berlin Crisis. Marked the return of the Cold War

What changes took place in superpower relations between


Prior to 1950 the Cold War had developed due to the circumstances arising from the post-war world and had been focused on Europe.

The Development of Globalism

* Communist takeover of China in 1949 turned attention to the far-east

* Korean War (1950-1953) and events in Vietnam in 1954

* European decolonisation resulted in newly independent states appearing in the ‘third world’: needing financial assistance coupled with the fear that other superpowers would take the opportunity to extend their influence if they did not the Cold War developed into conflict on a global scale.

The Nuclear Arms Race

* In 1949 the USSR developed its own atomic bomb, shaking US confidence in the process at the speed at which the Soviets had developed a nuclear capability.

* The US not only considerably increased its conventional weaponry during the Korean War

* But developed the thermonuclear bomb in 1952 and the hydrogen bomb in 1954

* The USSR developed its own hydrogen bomb less than a year later

* The development of harnessing nuclear weaponry to missiles gave the arms race on an increasingly destructive and dangerous dimension

The ‘Thaw’

* After 1953 (Stalin’s death) there was a collective awareness of the need for East-West dialogue

* Leadership of both USA and USSR recognised the importance of avoiding/limiting conflict where possible

* Diplomatic attempts to establish a dialogue between the superpowers led to the ‘thaw’ in the Cold War.

The ‘thaw’ took on a paradoxical nature. Alongside the spread of conflict and the development of the arms race, superpower relations experienced a diplomatic ‘softening’ of relations; in comparison to the bitter antagonism of the early Cold War.

What issues caused tension between the Superpowers in the period 1948-1955?

Tensions between East and West remained strong during the time period, issues that had caused division in the early years were still present and continued to have the potential to provoke a crisis, yet the situation was also changing.

The ‘German Problem’

* Berlin blockade a failed attempt by Stalin to solve the ‘problem’

* Ended hopes of German reunification, both sides were unhappy with the outcome and disputes continued over the status of a reunited Germany.

Rise of Communism in the Far East

* Communist takeover of China in ’49 raised US fears of spread of Communism to far-east

* Korean War ’50-’53 reinforced US perceptions of the aggressive and expansionist tendencies of the Soviet Union as Stalin was considered to behind Communist North Korea’s attack on the Capitalist south.

* Rise of communism in Vietnam seemingly confirmed US suspicions.

European Decolonisation

* European no longer possessed the will nor the resources to retain their vast overseas empires.

* The power vacuum left by the defeat of Nazi Germany had been filled by 1948

* However, the process of decolonisation brought about another power vacuum in large parts of the ‘Third World’

* Middle East – Area of particular strategic importance because of its oil supplies.

* Had previously been in the control of France and Britain whom relinquished their control over the region after WW2

* Both superpowers were keen to not allow the other to exert its influence over the region

* Israel was established as an independent country in 1948 with the British withdraw from Palestine

* British troops were withdrawn from Egypt in 1955 despite continued Ango-French ownership of the Suez Canal

* The developing hostility between Israel and the Arab states threatened to draw the Superpowers into conflict as they both sought to exert their influence over the region.

* Indochina

* French control was broken by the bloody defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

* As the French withdrew, the USA became concerned about the spread of communism in the region.

Soviet Actions in limiting Destalinisation

* After Stalin’s death in ’53 Malenkov (the new Soviet PM) introduced the ‘New Course’

* This policy allowed a limited degree of liberalism within the USSR

* Terror and repression were partially relaxed

* Khrushchev developed the policy of destalinisation further after 1956

* Seeing the ‘New Course’ and relaxation of terror and repression occur in the Soviet Union, the communist states of Eastern Europe called for a similar liberalisation within their own regime.

* Demonstrations broke out in Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland against governments that refused to move away from strict Stalinist policies.

* The unrest was crushed by government troops, this appalled the West and condemned their actions but did not intervene directly. Raising tension

* The use of Soviet troops to crush an uprising in Hungary brought about a similar response by the West and once again raised tension.

The Arms Race

* Both States took action to ensure they did not fall behind in their capacity to wage war.

* The Arms Race was a cause and consequence of the tension of the Cold War

* By the end of 1955 the USA had 560 strategic bombers to the USSR’s 60

* So started the seemingly limitless and ironical arms race, whereby the Soviet’s attempt to catch up with the USA led to the US increasing arms output in fear of being overtaken by the Soviet Union.

What factors promoted a ‘thaw’ in Superpower relations between 1948-1955

After 1953 there were attempts to establish some dialogue between the superpowers, helped in part by the change in leadership of both the Soviet Union and the USA. However, the ‘thaw’ was the result of factors within the wider context of international relations that pushed both sides towards seeking some degree of accommodation with the other.

The Consolidation of Positions

* By 1949 the Iron Curtain marked a defined line between the two superpowers spheres of influence in Europe. Marking a border between the two different spheres of influence

* The insecurity of the second half of the 1940’s had been caused by both sides attempting to mark out their areas of dominance.

* By 1949, the division of Europe had become entrenched, the US military commitment to NATO was a strong indication to their commitment towards defending Europe from Communism. Whilst, the Warsaw Pact of 1955 symbolised Soviet commitment to protecting Eastern Europe from US imperialism.

* The USA and USSR were forced to accept the resulting division of Europe and thus with their positions more secure the superpowers were more willing to attempt negotiation.

Death of Stalin

* Stalin was perceived in the West as the dominant factor in the development of the Cold War

* Liberal Historians who have emphasised the role of personality have seen Stalin’s death as the determining factor in the development of the ‘thaw’.

* During 1948-49 the initiative appeared to be getting away from the Soviet’s, failure of the Berlin blockade, the formation of NATO and the defection of Yugoslavia from COMINFORM were all failures for Stalin’s foreign policy. His death in 1953 provided the opportunity for a new soviet leadership to change its approach to the west.


* In the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death it was unclear to the West who was in charge of Soviet foreign policy, Beria, the long-serving head of the secret police took the initiative and offered the West a proposal for a reunified, neutral Germany.

* Beria – ‘all we want is a peaceful Germany and it makes no difference to us whether or not it is socialist’

* Beria’s motives may have been to distance himself from Stalin’s policies, or an attempt to impress his colleagues in the Politburo.

* However his association with the terror of Stalin’s rule was too much for the other members of the Politburo and he was arrested within months: accused of being a British spy.

* With the execution of Beria an opportunity to end the division of Germany was lost.

Malenkov’s New Course

* With the removal of Beria, Soviet foreign policy fell into the control of Malenkov who with Khrushchev and Bulganin formed a collective leadership.

* Malenkov recognised the limitations of a hard-line approach of confrontation with the West and decided to embark on a ‘New Course’

* Malenkov did not believe the war between capitalism and communism remained inevitable and that therefore resources could be directed away from arms and heavy industry and towards consumer goods and raising living standards within the USSR

* There was still the belief that the collapse of capitalism was inevitable, but war was not needed to ensure its demise.

* War was now a risky strategy with the advent of the nuclear age, and there were other safer methods that could be used to defend communism while waiting out the inevitable collapse of the capitalist system.

* Khrushchev criticised Malenkov’s ‘New Course’ during his struggle for power, but when he achieved his objective he was to adopt and develop the ‘New Course’.

Khrushchev and Peaceful Coexistence

* Building on the ‘New Course’ Khrushchev articulated a new approach towards the West which became known as Peaceful Coexistence

* Khrushchev believed that the collapse of Capitalism was inevitable and therefore he saw Peaceful Coexistence was the best way of conducting relations in the meantime. Nuclear war was not worth the risk.

* Khrushchev – ‘There are only two ways – either Peaceful Coexistence or the most destructive war in History. There is no third way’

* He developed this theory between 1955-57 and by June 1957 he was firmly established as the leader of the Soviet Union and able to pursue this policy relatively unhindered.

Eisenhower and Dulles

* Eisenhower became president in 1952

* His war record and his post as head of NATO allowed him more protection against McCarthyism and ‘being soft on communism’

* Had the self-confidence from his military career to pursue his own policies and was a firm believer in face to face diplomacy.

* ‘New Look’ was hard-line approach to foreign policy and won much support in the US

* Dulles (secretary of state) talked of ‘rolling back’ communism and the ‘liberation’ of Eastern Europe. Based on ‘massive retaliation’ and the policy of brinkmanship

* Dulles – ‘the ability to get to the verge without getting into war is the necessary art. If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost’

* In private however, Eisenhower and Dulles were cautious and understood the destructive nature of nuclear weapons. Their policy was based on a reasoned approach to the situation they faced.

* Eisenhower was conscious of the power and influence exerted by the military-industrial complex and was aware that economic resources that could improve living standards were being diverted into arms production.

* The US military, which had undergone massive expansion during the Korean War was in danger of distorting and unbalancing the US economy. With the growth of expensive nuclear missiles, an agreement with the USSR appeared necessary.

Therefore, from the early 1950s, the Governments of both the USA and USSR were facing the same pressures. Pushing them towards reaching an accommodation.

Economic Pressures

* The desire 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 aprox 1/3 of the economy was geared to the military sector

* In the USA over 12% of GNP was spent on armaments – Eisenhower’s ‘New Look’ was designed in part to save money of conventional arms by relying on fewer but more powerful nuclear weapons

* Neither country could sustain huge military costs without long-term damage to its economy

Avoiding Nuclear War

* Both Superpowers had the A bomb (1949) and H Bomb (1955)

* Destructive power of the H-Bomb (x1000 more powerful than A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima) posed a very real danger to the existence of life on earth.

* Moral dilemma for leaders whom the responsibility of using the weaponry fell

What, if anything were the achievements of the ‘Thaw’?

* The ‘Thaw’ in relations that developed after 1953 resulted in a series of summits between Eisenhower and Khrushchev – the ‘Geneva Spirit’

* The achievements of these summits was certainly limited, but meaningful dialogue between the powers was a significant step forward.

* Election of Eisenhower and death of Stalin enabled an armistice to be concluded in 1953 to end the Korean War.

* New Soviet leadership put pressure on North Korea’s Kim Il Sung to agree to a ceasefire. There had been stalemate since ‘51

* January 1954 – Berlin Foreign Ministers conference. Soviet representative Molotov, called for the creation of an all-German government out of those in West and East Germany to begin the move towards reunification.

* Although the West opposed this idea – calling for free elections before the creation of a German Government, it was seen as rather more constructive than previous provocative Soviet proposals.

July 1954: Geneva Conference – discuss problems in Asia/S.E Asia

* Korean armistice confirmed

* Settlement reached to allow French to withdraw from Indochina

* Despite Dulles reservations over the wisdom of the settlement (communism in N. Vietnam) the agreement was endorsed by all involved.

* The Communists had not been as obstructive as the West feared.

New Soviet Approach – early 1955, USSR agreed to the reunification of Austria as long as it remained neutral.

July 1955: Geneva Summit Meeting – leaders of USA/USSR/GB/FRANCE

* Issue of German reunification raised – Khrushchev prepared to allow if Germany remained neutral

* However, was made more complicated by the admission of West Germany into NATO in May 1955

* For USA, West Germany of vital strategic importance.

* Khrushchev suggested the dismantling of NATO and Warsaw Pact and a new system of collective security in its place.

* West weren’t prepared to agree to this, but were willing to look at arms limitations

* Eisenhower suggested ‘open skies’ to verify arms agreements, Khrushchev refused this offer.

* Conclusion: Both sides went in with high hopes, however the only agreement to come out of the summit was the cultural exchange of scientists, musicians and artists.

* Eisenhower – blamed ‘Soviet duplicity’ for the summits failure. Yet recognised the potential for a future agreement. Hope was ‘badly blurred by the Soviets, (but) at least the outlines of the picture remained’

* Khrushchev – Geneva had seen his policy of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ fail to secure any concessions from the West.

* Peaceful Coexistence however, did have an effect on relations within the Soviet Bloc.

* Success – Improvement in relations with Communist Yugoslavia

* Failure – Split with China – Mao had not been consulted about destalinisation, who was practicing Stalinist policies within China. His resentment led to a breach in relations with the USSR.

The ‘Thaw’ was a cautious and limited move towards establishing a meaningful dialogue between the USA and USSR. Yet by 1955 the level of trust and understanding between the Superpowers had not substantially improved: the essential dynamics of the Cold War remained unchanged.

What do the Crises between 1956 and 1962 tell us about the nature of the Cold War conflict?

Reveal the superficial nature of the Cold War ‘Thaw’. Highlighted the need for some form of rules by which conflict should take place and therefore be limited. This conclusion is exemplified by the examination of 4 Cold War crises during this period.

The Hungarian Rising 1956

* Challenge to the post-war settlement

* Evidence of Soviet vulnerability in Eastern Europe, undermining the image of a confident and powerful Soviet regime.

* Although showed the willingness of the Soviet Union to maintain a tight hold over its sphere of influence.

* Importance of the Warsaw Pact that helped Soviet dominance and organisation, ensuring other eastern bloc states contributed to the Soviet control

* Soviets internally confused how to deal with the uprising, yet during 1950s USSR enjoyed parity with USA and the West was less unware of internal confusion and was less than confident in its ability to deal with the Soviet threat.

* Important in establishing the rules of the Cold War – USA empty rhetoric over ‘rolling back’ and ‘liberalisation’ in the east.

* The uprising complicated Western attempts to consolidate the prevailing balance of power and peace with USSR was principal foreign policy.

* Eisenhower regime regarded the revolution as inconsistent with the pursuit of American national interests and taught Eastern Europe they could not rely on West to rid it of its unpopular regimes.

* However, revolution served to discredit the USSR and the international Communist movement – USSR had crushed a popular workers’ uprising.

* Until the rising, the official Communist movement had enjoyed considerable cultural authority amongst the western intelligentsia. After ’56 significant sections of this progressive opinion became estranged from the movement.

* Accelerated the dismantling of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe –

* Depth of popular hatred for the regime was revealed and undermined the confidence of the Soviet leadership.

* Ruling elite realised the application of 1950’s style coercion would no longer work in E.Europe. After the revolution was crushed, new Hungarian PM Janos Kadar set about introducing ‘gloulash communism’ – slowly the regime of coercion was relaxed and life was liberalised

* Similar methods were introduced in other E.European countries, principally Czechoslovakia.

* By 1970s economic reforms and the gradual decline of state repression indicated that the days of the Soviet imposed regime were numbered. October 1956 helped to consolidate a trend that would lead eventually to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Berlin 1958-62

* West Germany (NATO 1954), East Germany (WARSAW PACT 1955)

* West Germany had undergone a ‘economic miracle’ since WW2, whilst East Germany struggled to present itself as a meaningful independent state.

* The East German failure to win over its people was exemplified by the growing exodus across the ‘Iron Curtain’

* 1 ½ million between 1950-55

* The influx of East German citizens into the West, many of them young and skilled was a threat to Soviet power and prestige

* In 1958 Khrushchev issue an ultimatum calling for the removal of all occupying forces from Berlin. Berlin would become a free city with the existence of East Germany formerly recognised by the West.

* However, the unique position of West Berlin as an island of capitalism within communist Germany was a powerful propaganda tool for the West in undermining the Socialist bloc.

* It was only after Eisenhower invited Khrushchev to the US that he dropped the ultimatum. SUCCESS OF EISENHOWER’S PERSONAL DIPLOMACY

* The ultimatum was renewed in June 1961 when Khrushchev met Kennedy at the Vienna Summit. The ultimatum was rejected, the West firmly believed in the concept of four-power administration

* Both sides called up reservists in 1961 as the flood of refugees became a torrent, by June 1961 over 2.6m had left the GDR since ’49, 300,000 since January 1961 (6months). Partly caused by GDR’s 1960 decision to collectivise the remaining farms

* Khrushchev gave the approval for the East German Government to build the Berlin wall: preventing the loss of young and skilled workers, stabilising East Germany and successfully contained the threat posed to the Soviet sphere of influence by Berlin.

* 13th August 1961 – Soviet’s closed the East-West border except for specified crossing points

* 17th August 1961 – Erected the Berlin Wall

* 11,000 Western troops confronted the vastly superior Soviet conventional forces

* The USA as in Hungary issued statements of condemnation but did nothing to intervene directly

* The USSR had been careful to avoid interfering with the rights of the West within the city

The Berlin Wall became a symbol of the economic and political bankruptcy of the eastern bloc: yet despite the rhetoric and tension generated, the wall illustrated the growing entrenchment and stability of the superpowers spheres of influence in Europe.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962

* Illustrated the impact of individual leaders – Khrushchev: tendency to push limits and test his opponents

* Kennedy: relative youth and experience

* Cuba, which the USA perceived to be in its ‘backyard’ had turned Communist in 1959 after a civil war. Took the cold war into Latin America, which had been considered part of the USA’s spheres of influence since the Monroe Doctrine 1863

* Khrushchev, under pressure from the USA in the arms race which had by 1962 had developed a sizeable lead in the Arms Race

* Khrushchev installed nuclear bases in Cuba in response to US bases in Turkey

* The development of an increasingly large number of nuclear missiles gave the crisis the potential to be devastating

* Personalities, Geography (threat to US sphere of influence) resulted in an especially hard-line US policy when the Soviet leadership was acting in an increasingly unpredictable manner.

* Kennedy threatened to use nuclear weapons if Soviet ships carrying missiles did not return to Russia and the bases dismantled. BRINKMANSHIP in action

* However, Kennedy was keen to ensure opportunities for a peaceful compromise were pursued – the difference between hard-line public rhetoric and caution and negotiation in private was vital in Kennedy’s approach

The impact of the Cuban Missile Crisis on superpower relations

* Khrushchev was widely perceived to have ‘backed down’, at home and abroad, however the USSR did gain concessions on the removal of US bases in Turkey

* Dangers of nuclear annihilation exposed by the crisis led to a recognition on both sides that relations had to be improved

* If ideological tensions were too deep to relieve tension then some rules at least were needed to establish the conduct of conflict.

* Hot line telephone link and Nuclear Test ban treaty of 1963 were the first steps in cooperation that developed in the 1970s into Détente.

Taiwan Crisis 1954-58

* August 1954, Shek authorized the movement of troops to the Nationalist stronghold islands of Quemoy and Matsu.

* Mao saw an opportunity to “liberate Taiwan”, ordering the bombing of the occupied offshore islands beginning in September 1954.

* The USA considered nuclear weapons, although Eisenhower followed a diplomatic path by enacting the Formosa Resolution in January 1955. Pledging the American defence of Taiwan in the case of a communist invasion, but left vague whether the United States would intervene to protect the islands off China’s mainland.

* Passage of the resolution produced a series of indirect negotiations between the US and China (in which the Chinese agreed to cease bombing Quemoy and Matsu), and the First Taiwan Straits Crisis ended in May 1955.

* The United States and Taiwan entered into a mutual security pact, strengthening the connection between the two nations and making Mao’s “liberation” efforts more difficult to achieve.

* By 1958, however, tension in the Taiwan Straits resumed. Concerned with increased American involvement in Taiwan and frustrated with the failure of his more moderate policy, Mao assumed a hard-line approach.

* Ordering the bombing of Quemoy in August 1958, grounded in the belief that an international crisis could benefit the Chinese. Paint the US as imperialist aggressors, and demonstrating China’s independence from the dominant communist power of the era – the Soviet Union.

* Eisenhower reiterated America’s resolve to defend Taiwan (and the offshore islands even though they weren’t explicitly listed in the Formosa Resolution), both in rhetoric and by his decision to send a large naval contingent to the Taiwan Straits. Eisenhower’s forceful stance and Soviet pressure convinced the Chinese to end the bombing and seek a peaceful settlement with the Nationalist government in October 1958.

* US had made a comprehensive commitment to Taiwan. PRC was angered at the timidity of the USSR. Strained superpower relations between USA, USSR and China


* Between 1956 and 1962 events in Hungary, Berlin, (Taiwan) and Cuba revealed both the potential dangers of crisis and confrontation, the superficial nature of the ‘thaw’ and laid done rules each side was prepared to adopt in order to stabilise relations.


* Due to the political structure of the Soviet Union left after Stalin, a large degree of power was invested in Khrushchev and thus changes in foreign policy were strongly influenced by the personal preferences of individual leaders.

* Destalinisation – had a marked impact on superpower relations as well as the Soviet’s control over their satellite states

* His changing temperament could either promote a ‘thaw’ in superpower relations (peaceful coexistence) or push the world towards nuclear annihilation (Cuban missile crisis).

* He was removed from power in 1964, the Politburo accused him of ‘hare-brained scheming’, he had become increasingly unpredictable.


* Eisenhower was very much in command of his administration and had great experience in foreign affairs. He was the first US President to define a successful national security policy and strategy in the nuclear age.

* His greatest successes came in foreign policy and the related area of national defence spending. Ending war in Korea and refusing to get drawn into subsequent conflict. He made peace and kept the peace, saving untold billions and lives.

* He understood the risks of erring on the side of activism and wisely accepted a minor setback rather than hazard a major disaster

* His greatest failures were his lack of vision. His Cold War attitudes became increasingly outmoded in a world where nationalism was an ever more powerful force – (e.g. unappreciative of Mao’s nationalism)


The context of superpower conflict was changing after 1948.

* Growing stability of entrenched positions in Europe gave both sides some security in which to operate.

* Pressures arising from the nuclear arms race and economic concerns meant different approaches to the conduct of Cold War relations were needed.

* Change of leadership in both USA and USSR promoted a different approach to their foreign policies, attempts to establish the framework for improved relations were made possible.

* Although tension was reduced, there was little in the way of tangible achievements for either side by 1955.

* Periodic crises from 1956-62 illustrated how the ‘thaw’ could easily give way to more dangerous conflict and how much the direction of superpower relations could depend on individual superpower leaders.



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