History Theme 4: Rising Tensions Again 1956 - 1963


The Polish Uprising 1956

  • In June 1956, a revolt against Soviet influence erupted in Poland
  • It was defeated by Poland's communist controlled army, but the Poles gained some concessions from Moscow:
  • Wladyslaw Gomulka, who had been accused of Titoism in the late forties, was released from prison. He became the head of Poland's Communist Party
  • Historians argue that Poland won control over its own economy while remaining loyal to the Warsaw Pact and friendly toward the Soviet Union
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The Hungarian Uprising 1956

  • The crisis in Hungary was inspired by the demonstrations that had happened earlier in Poland 
  • Hungary had been under the control of Soviet-influenced communism since 1945
  • Many urban industrial workers felt that the Stalinist model of communism had failed to respond to the economic and political needs of the people 
  • Mass disturbances in 1956 quickly turned into a revolt
  • The leaders of the revolt demanded that Hungary withdraw from the Warsaw Pact 
  • The USSR used military force to restore 'normality' in the state - it could not afford to lose the 'loyalty' of one of the satellite states that made up its buffer zone
  • Thousands of Hungarians were killed and many were forced into exile
  • No aid was given from the Western powers during the uprising 
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The Sino-Soviet Split

  • Towards the end of the 1950s, Khrushchev was aware that the relationship between the USSR and China were going downhill
  • Moscow had failed to suport China in its conflict with the breakaway of non-communist Taiwan in 1958; China was attempting to recover the island 
  • President Mao, the leader of the communists in China saw Khrushchev as weak and giving in to the West 
  • As a result, the USSR needed to reinforce its position as the leader of global communism 
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The Space Race 1957

  • In 1957, the USSR launched the first satellite to orbit the Earth successfully (Sputnik 1)
  • The USA perceived this move as clear evidence that the USSR was superior in the long-rang missile (LRBMs) field
  • There was no defence system against a nuclear attack from space; the massive retaliation progamme which Eisenhower was supposedly following came under pressure
  • This sparked the beginning of the 'space race' - the USA had to catch up in terms of its missile technology
  • The Gaither Report in 1957 also sparked a need for better missile technology from the USA, as the report anticipated a huge expansion in Soviet nuclear capability - however, its findings were based on assumptions of Soviet strength rather than actual evidence of this strength
  • The report concluded that the Soviet economy was growing faster than that of the USA and that expenditure on nuclear technology would double that of the USA in a decade - Gaither also suggested that the Soviets had the capacity for 1500 nuclear weapons and that they had developed an arsenal of SRBMs (short range) and MRBMs (medium range) and that the Soviets had 'probably' surpassed the USA in ICBM (intercontinental) development
  • This led to the suggestion of the USA developing ABMs (anti-ballastic missiles) which could intercept incoming warheads and a rapidly increasing ICBM expansion
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Berlin Crisis 1958

  • Between 1949 and 1958 about 188,000 trained, skilled and professional people had left East Germany to move to West Germany 
  • In 1958, Khrushchev decided to issue an ultimatum to the West; the West had six months to recognise the existence of East Germany and to accept East Berlin as an independent politicial entity and a free city. If this did not happen, the the USSR would surrender its control of its zone to the GDR
  • This would mean that the East Germans would control all access to West Berlin, and would effectively force the USA to formally recognise East Germany as an independent state and to accept the permanent post-war division of Germany and remove its troops from West Berlin
  • The West effectively ignored Khrushchev's threats and Khrushchev eventually withdrew his ultimatum 
  • Khrushchev visited the USA in 1959 to hold talks with Eisenhower - they discussed a number of issues including disarmament and the issue of Berlin, as well as agreeing to settle international issues by diplomacy rather than by force 
  • This acted as a reaffirmation of Khrushchev's faith in peaceful coexistence but also weakened the relationship between the USSR and China even further - China saw Khrushchev as giving in too easily to the West 
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The Paris Summit 1960

  • Khrushchev wanted a deal over Berlin and also an agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons in the Pacific and a ban on these weapons in Germany 
  • These aims were destined to fail when China announced that it would not consider itself bound to any agreement that it had not been involved with (i.e. Germany) 
  • The summit collapsed with the news that an American U-2 spy plane had been shot down whilst on a mission over the Soviet Union 
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Cuban Missile Crisis 1960 - 61

  • There had been unrest in Cuba since 1959, when the American backed dictator Fulgencio Batista had been overthrown by a regime led by the young communist Fidel Castro 
  • In 1959, Castro introduced a programme of agarian reform which led to considerable amounts of American-owned property being seized by the state - although these reforms were more moderate than revolutionary and did not worry the USA
  • However, when the Soviet First Deputy Premier visited Cuba in 1960 and arranged $100 million in credits with Castro, America became worried about Cuba becoming a satellite state of the USSR right on its doorstep. This move tied Cuba to the USSR economically and politically. The first shipment of crude oil arrive in Cuba in 1960 and when US-owned oil companies refused to refine it, Casttro nationalised them. American imposed economic sanctions on Cuba and reduced their imports of Cuban sugar by 95%                                                                                                                                                     


  • The plan was to enable 1500 anti-Castro exiles to land on Cuba and carry out a military coup to remove him. Kennedy chose to land them at the Bay of Pigs
  • However it was a humiliating disaster for Kennedy; it turned out that a radio station on the beach (which the CIA had failed to spot) broadcasted every detail of the operation across Cuba. Some of the exiles’ ships sank as they pulled into shore. Backup paratroopers landed in the wrong place. Eventually, Castro’s troops had pinned the invaders on the beach, and the exiles surrendered after less than a day of fighting; 114 were killed and over 1,100 were prisoners. 
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Cuban Missile Crisis 1961 - 62

  • In 1962, Khrushchev decided to deploy Soviet missiles onto Cuba
  • Khrushchev's decision to deploy the missiles can be explained by the following motives:                                                                                          

1. To defend Cuba

Khrushchev declared in 1962 that the only purpose of the USSR was to defend Cuba against an American imperialist attack. Had the USA not attacked Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, there would have been no Cuban Missile Crisis. However, some historians argue that if the defence of Cuba was the sole motive for Khrushchev, he would not have chosen such a provocative and risky strategy as placing nuclear missiles right on America's doorstep                                                                                                                             

2. To bridge the missile gap

The dominant nuclear power by 1961 was the USA. In order to rapidly redress the Soviet-American missile imbalance, Khrushchev had to place missiles on Cuba. However, if this was so important to Khrushchev, why didn't he take more care in protecting the secrecy of the missiles on Cuba? - they were easily seen by American U-2 spy planes                                                                                                                               

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Cuban Missile Crisis 1961 - 62

3. The need for a communist ally

As relations between the USSR and China had deteriorated, the Soviet Union was in need of a new global communist ally and Cuba was the perfect ally. Khrushchev wanted to spread a communist revolution throughout Cuba - this was the only time that a Marxist-Leninist revolt had succeeded in establishing control of a state since China in 1949. Also, during peaceful coexistence in the 1950s, China had suggested that Khrushchev was reluctant to back revolutionary movements in developing countries, so by placing nuclear missiles on Cuba (90 miles from the American border) Khrushchev was neutralising Chinese anti-Soviet propaganda                                                                                                                                                          

4. A link with Berlin 

Khrushchev saw intervention in Cuba as a way of putting pressure on the powers over Berlin. He may have hoped to develop a 'linkage' strategy between Cuba and Berlin where he had failed to remove Western power. The placement of nuclear missiles on Cuba was to divert attention away from Berlin - this in turn could put pressure on NATO as NATO members may have felt that the USA was placing its own regional interests above those of the Western alliance. However, although this strategy makes sense, there is no evidence to support it as Khrushchev never made any efforts to seek concessions over Berlin as part of the missile withdrawal with the USA

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Cuban Missile Crisis 1963

  • In 1962, Khrushchev agreed to remove Russian missiles from Cuba in exchange for a promise from the United States to respect Cuba’s territorial sovereignty
  • America also agreed to secretly remove missiles that it had place on Turkey                                                                                       


  • In 1963, representatives of the USA, USSR and the UK signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in outer space, underwater or in the atmosphere. This was a small but significant step in the beginning of the controlling of nuclear weapons 
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