6) Challenging the Cold War System


Despite the traditional Cold War narrative that it was a bipolar conflict with 2 blocs, if you zoom in you notice that it was actually multipolar. The blocs seem to have been more flexible than is believed, and the war itself seems to have had different stages: immediate post-war, early (First) Cold War (blocs built), the détente (loosening of the blocs), and the late (Second) Cold War.

It was believed that the small Third World powers had no agency in government, but it seems they actually did. Europe experienced bloc-building by the superpowers, a division of the continent, a strenghtening of cohesion within the blocs, and the Berlin Wall. The bipolarity and the superpower leadership seemed confirmed, but the superpowers soon became challenged by Europe. This challenge seemed to come in the wake of the 'completion' of the bloc-building and came about due to:

  • The lower 'existential' threat (after the division of Europe there were fewer frictions).
  • The globalisation of the Cold War (the battleground had moved from Europe to the Third World where there were hot wars and proxy wars).
  • The rise of China and the Sino-Soviet split.
  • European resentment at the superpowers (they wanted their freedom back).
  • There were rising student revolts in the west, especially because of the Vietnam War.
  • The various powers' leaders and their individual aspirations (de Gaulle wanted to make France one of the leading superpowers, for example).
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Cracks in the Soviet Bloc began to appear, especially when challenges began to appear from Romania and Albania after the incidents with Yugoslavia, and after the Prague Spring. But, there were also challenges to the US leadership of the west. The US policies, specifically in the Third World were targetted. The European governments were also criticising US colonisation, and its interventions in the Third World were raising questions about whether the US had an imperialist agenda. De Gaulle's pursuit of grandeur and his attempt to overcome the Cold War also caused problems. Although the challenges were real, they were limited. Like, de Gaulle 'irritated' the US and the other allies but he never broke with Washington, and the challenges by some Soviet satellites remained limited, and when they weren't, Moscow brought them back into line. Dealing with the challenges was more brutal in the Eastern European case than the Western.

The Western Bloc was predominantly built on voluntary alliances based on self-interest which allowed for more room for manoeuvre and held it together. The Eastern Bloc was predominantly created and held together by force with meant it was more limited.

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The Communist Leadership Challenge

The Sino-Soviet split challenged the Soviet communist leadership. It divided the world communist movement and led to cracks forming in the Soviet Union. Chariman Mao Zedong was the undisputed leader of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and was a major ally of Stalin. The formal alliance and partnership was established following the communist victory in China in 1949. There was some distrust, but Mao looked up to Stalin.

Mao had won a civil war and then clearly aligned with Stalin, both of whom were major megalomaniacs. The Soviet Union served as a source of ideological inspiration to China, but they still formed their own form of communism. Russia provided economic and military aid, and China provided technological assistance, like with the Chinese atomic bomb. China was very reliant on Russia's financial support to rebuild and modernise following the war. But, the alliance didn't outlive Stalin for very long. Both countries were some of the largest in the world and China was one of the most populated, which means when they split, it created cracks in the entire Eastern Bloc.

China challenged Russia's leadership following Khrushchev's rise to power. His ascent, Moscow's destalinisation campaign, Beijing's regained self-confidence and increase in strength, Mao's radicalisation (the 'Great Leap Forward' of the late 1950s to early 1960s involved a great leap forward in industry and agriculture, but was really a massive famine), and the long history of hostility between China and Russia (e.g. China sided with North Korea in the Korean War but Russia didn't get involved) all led to the split. The split broke out into the open in the early 1960s and both countries began trying to get allies from the Eastern Bloc, further splitting it.

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The Chinese-led 'more revolutionary' yet smaller bloc, and the Soviet-led 'less revolutionary' but larger bloc showed the division of the world communist movement. The split also led to Khrushchev's downfall in 1964 as he'd lost a large part of communist power. The rivalry was also played out in Europe in Albania as they managed to challenge the Soviet Union's leadership. The challenge wouldn't have lasted long without China's help. The die-hard Stalinist regime of Albania was led by Enver Hoxha who had come to power very early on. He feared the hegemonic aspirations of Tito's Yugoslavia and so sided with the Soviet Union against him. So, he was angered by Khrushchev's willingness to compromise with Tito and he believed this was undermining the socialist cause. Simultaneously, China were also challenging the USSR for being too soft. It was an opportunity for the Chinese to gain a major ally in Europe, and the ultra-leftism won Tirana the support of Beijing. This ultimately led to the Soviet-Albanian split. In October 1961, Khrushchev accused Albania of Stalinist deviationism at the 22nd Congress of the CPSU. In response, the Albanians accused Khrushchev of anti-Marxist activities and endangering the socialist camp. Moscow suspended diplomatic relations with Tirana in December 1961.

Albania became a Chinese outpost in the heart of Europe. It relied on China due to its poor state, although China had very little money too so it was a relatively poor country. Beijing and Tirana teamed up and continued to accuse Moscow of deviationism. In 1964, the Kremlin attempted to reassert its control over the world communist movement through a conference of communist parties. But, it failed. On the 15th October, Khrushchev was relaced by Brezhnev as General Secretary of the CPSU.

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Romania soon got involved too. In the late 1950s, Georghe Gheorghiu-Dej became leader. His regime involved stalinist purges and terror, including labour camps, although they didn't match the gulags in brutality. Gheorghiu-Dej took Moscow's side in the Soviet-Albanian split and the Sino-Soviet split, but there was a policy shift in 1962. Khruchshev's strong anti-Stalinism and Soviet pressure on Romania to specialise in the production of raw materials and agriculture led to the declaration by the Romanian Communist Party in April 1964 that each socialist state could choose its own way towards socialism. They clung onto sovietisation and world communist leadership, but it didn't ally itself with the Soviet Union, China or the West. But, it didn't break with the Soviet Union either as it wasn't able to. 

Nicolae Ceaușescu succeeded Gheorghiu-Dej following his death in 1965 and pursued and excentuated this policy line. Romania's foreign policy led to it being welcomed by the West which strenghtened his domestic position. Romania became the first country from the Eastern Bloc to establish diplomatic relations with the FRG in 1967, it joined the GATT in 1971, the IMF and the World Bank in 1972 (which were all western organisations), it had preferential trading status with the European Common Market from 1973, and it condemned the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

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Events leading to the Prague Spring

The Prague Spring technically began during Khruchshev's leadership, but it actually occured under the new Soviet leadership. The new leadership wanted to stop the reforms and re-estabilise the Soviet Bloc. This quest for stability and cohesion was majorly tested in Czechoslovakia. Here, the leadership that had benefitted from and was compromised by the stalinist purges was still in place in the early 1960s. Other countries had overcome the worst of the stalinisation period or removed the worse stalinist leaders. The Party Secretary, Antonín Novotný, was against the reforms despite giving full rehabilitation to some of the victims of the purges. He was relcutant to engage in destalinisation, and their holding onto Stalinism discredited the regime to the general population and especially to intellectuals and reformers. There was mounting pressure for the renewal of the party leadership from within Czechoslovakia and from Moscow in the early 1960s.

Slovakia, especially communist Slovaks, were very annoyed with Czhechoslovakia. They wanted destalinisation for Slovak communists and so were also calling for more equal treatment for Slovaks and Czechs. Slovakia was resentful at Czech domination and desired the rehabilitation of party members that had been persecuted for nationalist leanings. Alexander Dubček was one of the most outspoken members of the Slovak communists and was a reformist First Secretary of the Slovak Communist Party. With the Slovak intelligentsia in 1963, he brought about the resignation of Viliam Široký, the Czech PM, (heavily involved in the purges after the war), and the rehabilitation of the Slovak communists. He permitted greater intellectual and press freedom in Bratislava, thus showing the first steps towards freedom.

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There was a period of post-war 'boom years' where most economies saw a sort of boom. But, in 1963, Czechoslovakia became the first eastern European country to record negative growth, which was strange. Far-reaching economic reforms were called for. These included ensuring the planning commission could no longer set targets for the whole economy, leaving room for manoeuvre with focus being placed on the grander scheme of things instead. This meant that individual initiatives should be allowed which would increase consumer rights and give some real power to the workforce. The reform plans were formally accepted in 1965, but they were diluted by officials as it didn't mean they had to be implemented. Professor Ota Šik (who called for the reforms) gave a public statement in 1966 saying that economic reform required political reform. Commission on the political system also came to similar conclusions. The political system had to be reformed. Dubček called for reform in October 1967 at the National Party Central Committee meeting. He wanted better treatment of Slovakia, the separation of party and state (but the party is the state in communism), and called for Novotný to step down. Novotný accused Dubček of bourgeois nationalism, but Dubček won. Novotný had lost touch with the popular mood. Dubček became Party Secretary on the 5th January 1968 effectively making him the leader of Czechoslovakia.

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Dubček began his reforms in the spring of 1968. He was trained in Moscow, was fluent in Russian and there was no reason to believe he wouldn't be able to install their version of communism that allowed a little leeway. But, they soon began to regret the leadership change. His reforms included rehabilitating victims of the purges, and those remaining from the stalinist period were forced out of key positions. He also lifted censorship and class antagonisms were no longer acute. His plan involved Soviet-style communism superceded by history, democratisation, meritocratic-based political and economic system, market-based economic reforms, federal institutions, and better relations with advanced capitalist economies which would further trade and bring in more technology. This plan declared class struggle as obsolete which undermined the ideological basis of communism. So, Moscow and Czechoslovakia's neighbours weren't happy.

Their neighbours feared a 'democratic infection'. Ulbricht, for example, saw Czech writers as a tool for the west against the socialist countries and didn't trust Dubček to keep these developments under control. Gomułka was dealing with widespread student protests where he beat professors and students into submission. Criticisms of Czechoslovakia were coming from many countries, until on the 23rd March 1968, Czechoslovak leadership was reprimanded by the Warsaw Pact leaders during a meeting in Dresden. They saw Dubček's reforms as counter-revolutionary, and on the 4th-5th May, Brezhnev chastised the Czechoslovak leaders in a bilateral meeting in Moscow. Prague tried to reassure the Warsaw Pact allies that despite domestic reforms, its international alignment would stay the same. But, the Soviets didn't believe them.

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The Prague Spring

The freedom of the press seemed to be producing western views, which Ulbricht didn't like. Dubček hoped that through allowing this freedom, he could later enlist them to support his action plan and rally the nation behind him. The Soviets planned for military intervention and eventually the Warsaw Pact moved onto Czechoslovak soil. Dubček was called to rein in the public debate by restoring censorship but he was still relying on them for his action plan and refrained from repressing overly critical voices. Prague had to re-confirm communist leadership by repressing its people, but instead, they were seeking a dialogue with Moscow still trying to convince them they didn't need intervention. But this was futile.

On the night of the 20th-21st August 1968, the Warsaw Pact invaded. Troops from all the Warsaw Pact states (excluding Romania) participated but it was predominantly Soviet troops. The western leaders were taken by surprise but they remained passive for fear of endangering the détente. The Czechoslovak leadership was forced to Moscow and forced to sign the Moscow Protocol which asked for a return to the status quo with the reintroduction of censorship, banning of political clubs, a purge of the most noted liberals, and a return to central economic planning. In 1969, Dubček had to leave his position due to the protocol which made space for an orthodox communist to bring the country back to communism. But, the people didn't want this and Moscow didn't want to use force so they had to leave Dubček in power for a while as a co-leader for a transistion phase. But, he had to introduce measures that were in line with communism and was eventually forced out of power.

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The Consequences of the Prague Spring

  • The Prague Spring caused the 'Brezhnev Doctrine' which stated that the Warsaw Pact would intervene wherever socialism was in danger. But, this criteria was up to Moscow to decide. So, it wasn't easy to know when a country would endanger socialism to an extent that would result in a forceful response.
  • It also exposed the impossibility of reform. Civil society movements seemed to be the only things that could bring communist rulers and their regimes to their knees in combination with a new leader in Moscow, so there was more bottom-up reform.
  • The trustworthiness of the Soviet Union in international relations was also undermined. But, the west were keen on the détente working out, so they were still willing to make deals with the Soviets. It was communism that took a big hit.
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The Enfant Terrible

There was trouble in the west too with General Charles de Gaulle, although he got a significantly calmer rebuke from the west than Dubček in the east. He embarked on a pursuit of 'grandeur' hoping to make France a big superpower again. He aimed to break up the bipolar Cold War international system and move beyond it as he didn't think it would last. He challenged American leadership while also benefitting from their protection. But, his pursuit failed due to France's limited means. Although it did influence the long-term transformation of the Cold War. France was a major beneficiary of US aid, receiving a substantial amount from the Marshall Plan (ERP) as well as receiveing security from NATO, mobilising this military aid during the Indo-China war. The US also quietly supported French efforts for a nuclear weapon.

De Gaulle was seen as a 'saviour'. He was a WWII hero and had been very openly critical of the weak 4th Republic, presenting himself as the only credible alternative. He returned to power in 1958 creating the foundation of the 5th Republic with a new constitution which gave him extensive foreign policymaking powers. He aimed to re-establish France's international rank, but he needed internal stability and international credibility to achieve this. So, he needed to resolve the Algerian 'problem' (who were seen as being part of France) which concerned their counter-insurgency war. De Gaulle wanted to get France out of Algeria as they were receiving massive international criticism for it and it was bringing instability to France. Once the counter-insurgency war was gone, de Gaulle had free reign to go on the offensive and strengthen France's economic and military base for the remaining years he had in power.

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The bipolar international system meant a medium power like France didn't have much of a say. So, the system needed to be transformed. De Gaulle was an original Cold Warrior as he was very anti-communist and anti-Soviet. He believed the Cold War to be temporary and that the communism in the East wouldn't last forever allowing France to return to its previous European power status with the US no longer being a European power. He thought Europe had to take its destiny into its own hands and he wanted to engage with the Soviet Union as the leader of the Western Bloc. So, he had to challenge the US.

He was frustrated with the 'Anglo-Saxon' dominated Atlantic order (he meant Anglo-American) as France and the other European countries weren't getting a say in anything. In 1958, he proposed a tripartite directorate to Eisenhower and Macmillan where all major questions would be discussed and decided by the 3 powers. But, the idea was rejected. The 2 powers were happy to do this but they didn't want to institutionalise it as it wasn't institutionalised between the US and UK either. There wasn't an Anglo-American conspiracy going on, they just had a close security relationship and they didn't want a formalised leadership like de Gaulle was suggesting.

After the 'rejection', de Gaulle instead focused on Franco-German cooperation and European integration, but led by France. He aimed to strengthen western Europe and France's role was to engage with the Soviet bloc. His initial priority was the redistribution of power in NATO so he made a plan that gave more political voice to the EEC by creating an inter-governmental union of states with a large strategic autonomy without the US. But, the plan was defeated in spring 1962 because of the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises, and his solidarity with Adenauer at first precluded any attempt to overcome the East-West divide.

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By 1964, de Gaulle focused on overcoming the Cold War order. The potential increase of superpower control of Europe in light of the Soviet-American rapprochement following the crisis years, a more 'predictable' Soviet behaviour after Khrushchev's fall (he was adventurous with foreign policy), a Soviet need for moderation towards the west due to the Sino-Soviet Split, an increased autonomy in the Soviet Bloc, and Washington's insistence on US primacy in the western alliance all led to de Gaulle's aim. A relaxing of tensions was very important following the Crisis Years where the world came very close to nuclear war. So, a direct line was set up in the White House to the Kremlin, for example. Because of the efforts, there was a slight relaxation. But, the Europeans believed there would be more bipolar control of Europe, believing the voice of the Europeans wouldn't be taken into account. So, de Gaulle increased his engagement with the East as an antidote to US hegemony. The increasing contact with the USSR and its satellites culminated in de Gaulle's 1966 visit to the USSR. While France were looking for more autonomy and engaging with the Soviet Union, the US were adamant on maintaining their control over the western bloc.

De Gaulle wanted to end the division of Europe, but his role shouldn't be overstated. The Soviets were pleased with de Gaulle's opposition to US hegemony, but were irritated by his promotion of autonomy in the East. They were also disappointed by his refusal to subscribe to Moscow's vision of European security. He, of course, wouldn't do this though as France's security depended on the US.

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France's allies all had different views.

  • Washington saw their containment of communism as being undermined by France and they were wary of a European settlement where they were excluded.
  • Bonn was suspicious of a potential deal between Paris and Moscow as this deal could be detriment to West Germany.
  • The western powers were worried and irritated by France's disengagement from NATO, and there was a consternation in Washington that de Gaulle's increasingly global assault on US hegemony as he was even challenging America's position in Latin America.

But, 1968 marked the end for de Gaulle. There was a student revolt and social unrest, and a weakening of the regime that eventually led to de Gaulle's resignation. A financial crisis also hit that clearly undermined the foundation of de Gaulle's diplomacy and illustrated the limits of grandeur which systematically undermined the strength of the French foreign policy. The crushing of the Prague Spring also occured in 1968, and there was a pursuit of a détente within the logic of the Cold War.

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