How far did peaceful coexistence ease Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the USA in the years 195361?
How far did ‘peaceful coexistence’ ease Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the USA in the years 1953–61?
Peaceful Coexistence was the term given to the new foreign policy adopted by the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953. Lavereti Beria, the first member of the Politburo to assume leadership after Stalin’s death did not give this name to his new approach immediately, but he still saw that negotiation and conciliation with the West was the best way for the Soviet Union to make progress without having to spend too much money on arms production. But it was Malenkov, who took over leadership after Beria, that introduced the term Peaceful Coexistence when he introduced his New Course which, like Beria, advocated for improved relations with the West as confrontation not longer seemed inevitable. And when Nikita Khrushchev outmanoeuvred Malenkov and assumed leadership, he made Peaceful Coexistence a fully fledged foreign policy approach to relations with the West. This new foreign policy helped ease tensions between the USSR and the West, but it cannot be seen as the only factor that helped produce what historians called the Thaw in superpower relations. Other factors include the change in leadership in America, namely the foreign policy adopted by Dwight Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles which was called the ‘New Course’, and successively the ‘Flexible Response’ foreign policy advocated by President Kennedy when he became president in 1960. In addition, there were the various summits attended by these leaders, which also lead to an improvement in relations between the superpowers. But the Soviet actions in Hungary and Berlin showed the West that despite the new foreign policy, the Soviets would allow their influence in the communist bloc to be undermined. The extent that Peaceful Coexistence had on easing superpower relations may be seen as follows.
Firstly, the policy of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ could not be ushered in were it not for the death of Stalin in 1953. To the West, Stalin’s paranoia and shrewd nature is what orthodox historians cite as the reason that relations between the superpowers could not improve after the end of WW2. Stalin’s death therefore gave the West some hope that the new Soviet leadership may be more conciliatory and trustworthy than Stalin had been, and these hopes were made true by the new policy of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’. As mentioned above, this policy was first mentioned by Malenkov and then put into action by Khrushchev when he assumed leadership of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev saw that confrontation with the West was no longer necessary, and that continued aggression would be costly for the Soviet Union. But in reality, the Soviets saw that because the downfall of capitalism was imminent, they did not have to make this downfall happen rapidly, as it would come on its own; therefore, with this notion in mind, the Soviets saw negotiation and conciliation where necessary as a better way to deal with the West than with aggression. This is perhaps why the Soviet Union finally pushed Kim Il Sung, the North Korean leader, to agree to a ceasefire in 1953, one that had been called for by the West since 1951. And to follow this conciliation was the actions of the Soviets regarding Austria and Finland, which further showed the West that the Soviets were ready to improve relations as per their new foreign policy.
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Like Germany and Berlin, after WW2 Austria was divided into four zones of occupation between the Allies(USA, Britain, France and the USSR). But by 1953, Khrushchev felt that this division was no longer necessary, and he called for a reunified, neutral Austria. The Austrian State Treaty made this reunification a reality, and after it was signed, all the Allied soldiers left the country. Another country that had been suffering from post war agreements was Finland, which had been under Nazi control during WW2. After an armistice was signed in Paris in 1947, it was agreed that Finland would pay reparations to the Soviet Union for the damages it had caused, and the Porkalla region was leased to the USSR for a period of 50 years. But by 1954, Khrushchev saw that the Porkalla region was more of a financial drain than an asset, and so he gave it back to Finland, and the influence the Soviets had over the region was reduced significantly(although the Soviets still ensured that Finland would not pose a threat to the Soviet Union when necessary, especially by intervening in elections). The ceasefire ordered upon North Korea, the reunification of Austria and the return of the Porkalla region to Finland were all signs to the West that the new Soviet foreign policy meant a more conciliatory Soviet Union. But actions in Hungary and Berlin showed the extent that this new conciliatory nature was allowed to go.
Following the reforms that were allowed to take place in Poland, the Hungarian populace began demonstrating and calling for reforms. The force of these demonstrators was so great that the Soviet army stationed outside Budapest was withdrawn, and the Soviets decided to instil Nagy as the new leader in 1956, so as to appease the people. Nagy introduced moderate reforms that were part of his ‘New Course’, and under popular pressure also moved to withdraw Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. This proved to be the final straw for the Soviets. Over a hundred thousand Soviet soldiers marched into Hungary to stop the demonstrators, and restore peace. In the process Nagy was caught and executed, and the more staunchly communist Gomulka was placed in charge of Hungary. This authoritarian reaction by the Soviets showed the West that despite their new foreign policy, they would not allow their control over the communist bloc to be threatened, and this action worsened relations between the superpowers. And worse still was the Berlin crisis of 1958-61.
By 1958, West Berlin was an island of prosperity in the midst of the poverty stricken Soviet controlled East Germany. Those in East Berlin especially saw the stark contrast in living standards, and the luxury enjoyed in West Berlin quickly drew East Berliners to cross the border into West Berlin. This exodus of East Berliners comprised mostly of youths as well as intellectuals, whom the Soviets could not afford to lose. This exodus also served in humiliating the USSR, for it showed how their people could not stand to live under their rule and would leave by any means necessary. Khrushchev blamed this exodus on the West, and he gave them an ultimatum that if the Western Allies(Britain, France and the USA) did not leave Berlin, then he would take drastic measures against them. In order to appease Khrushchev, Eisenhower invited him to the USA, and after the visit Khrushchev dropped the ultimatum. This shows us the impact that face-to-face talks had on superpower relations, but it did not mean that the ultimatum would be forgotten. In 1960, after a U2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet air space, Khrushchev raised the ultimatum again. But after Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech which told not only Khrushchev but the Berliners also that the West would not leave the people, Khrushchev ordered the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The Berlin Wall became the physical embodiment of the Iron Curtain, and was referred to in the West as the ‘Wall of Shame’ while the Soviets named it the ‘Anti-fascist protection barrier’. It was a bad advent for communism, as it showed that the Soviets had to imprison their own people. It was also another poor sign that despite the call for conciliation advocated by the policy of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ the Soviets still proved that they would act aggressively whenever their influence was threatened, and the Berlin Crisis as well as the Soviet reaction to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 showed that despite the new foreign policy, relations between the superpowers was not improved significantly, and in fact these two incidents led to an increase in tensions.
However, the introduction of Eisenhower as President of the USA in 1953, together with his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, led to an improved regard by the USA towards the Soviet Union, but at the same time it did not mean that the USA was returning to the policy of conciliation that Roosevelt had implemented in 1945. Eisenhower was elected president following his criticism of Truman’s administration of being ‘too soft’ on communism, but also because he was a well reputed solder and patriot who seemed the right leader to combat communism. Eisenhower’s ‘New Course’ was a more strident foreign policy, and comprised four key elements: the use of greater nuclear weapons, a policy of massive retaliation which involved the threat or use of nuclear weapons against communist aggression, the policy of brinkmanship and the use of covert operations. The policy of brinkmanship, explained by Dulles, was the art of going as close to the brink of war as possible, and that if one backed away from confrontation they would be lost and if one went over the brink they would inevitably start a war. But despite this somewhat more aggressive approach to relations with the Soviets, Eisenhower and Dulles both knew that with the growth of nuclear weapons came the increased threat of extinction of the human race, therefore what was needed was a dialogue between the superpowers to be established. And as per his ‘New Course’, arms spending was significantly reduced and rather than purchasing vast quantities of conventional arms, Eisenhower saw it would be better to get less conventional arms and more nuclear weapons to get ‘more bang for the buck’ as he phrased it. Arms production was another cause of tension between the superpowers, and so a reduction in arms was likely to lead to a reduction in tensions.
But tensions were also reduced through face-to-face dialogues between the two leaders. This was done through Eisenhower’s inviting Khrushchev to the USA numerous times, and as mentioned this was pivotal in 1958 when Eisenhower was able to make Khrushchev drop his ultimatum concerning Berlin. More so, Eisenhower realising that despite the aggressive behaviour of the Soviets in Hungary in 1956, Hungary was a satellite state within the Soviet sphere of influence which meant that it was technically out of the USA’s jurisdiction, therefore the lack of US action helped reduce the risk of elevating that situation to becoming another stage of conflict in the Cold War. This showed that like Khrushchev and the new Soviet foreign policy, Eisenhower also saw that conciliation where possible was necessary in order for relations to be improved and tensions reduced. Therefore the role of the USA’s leadership must also be noted for easing the tensions between the two superpowers. And this role was further carried by President Kennedy when he replaced Eisenhower in 1960. Kennedy’s new foreign policy was called ‘Flexible Response’ and it aimed at improving superpower relations by giving the USA more responses to Soviet aggression than the use of nuclear weapons. Like Eisenhower, Kennedy also saw the significance of the need for a dialogue to be established between the superpowers, so that confrontation could be limited. As such, it is clear that it was not only the new Soviet leadership and foreign policy that lead to an easing of tensions in superpower relations, but also the role of the new US leadership and subsequent foreign policies adopted.
However, revisionist historians who see that the West was more to blame for worsening of tensions between the superpowers would point out that Eisenhower’s foreign policy was more anti-communist than Truman’s ‘Iron Fist’ approach, because the policy of massive retaliation as well as brinkmanship meant that there was a greater risk of conflict between the superpowers. Also, the fact that Eisenhower wanted to lower conventional arms purchases did not mean that arms production was halted. Moreover, another factor that helped ease the tensions between the superpowers was the potential of Mutually Assured Destruction, which made conflict very risky due to the devastating nature of the nuclear weapons being produced. The rise of MAD therefore made conciliation a better course of action, as it would lessen the risk of nuclear annihilation.
In conclusion, the policy of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ helped ease superpower relations to a certain extent, for it provided an impetus for greater conciliation between the superpowers and in place of conflict, this new policy also called for deterrents from conflict such as the Arms race, Space race and Sports race. However, there were instances that Soviet actions somewhat betrayed the aims of their policy and these actions led to the worsening of tensions, namely the Soviet reaction to the Hungarian Uprising and the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. But it is clear that it was not only this new policy that led to the easing of tensions, for the role of Eisenhower, Dulles and Kennedy also led to greater conciliation and the establishing of a dialogue between the two sides helped improved superpower relations. And so I believe that it was the more conciliatory approach of the West towards the USSR in the period 1953-61 that helped improve superpower relations in this period that was known as the Thaw.