Superpower Relations and the Thaw in the Cold War

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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.  
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  • 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 ...

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