The post-Stalin thaw in superpower relations between 1953 and 1962 and Khrushchev’s policy of Peaceful Coexistence

The post-Stalin thaw in superpower relations between 1953 and 1962 and Khrushchev’s policy of Peaceful Coexistence

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  • Created by: georgie
  • Created on: 15-04-10 20:37


Peaceful coexistence was a hesitant move towards better dialogue between the superpowers. Khrushchev accepted the Marxist belief that the downfall of capitalism was inevitable, and peaceful coexistence was the best way of conducting relations in the meantime. Nuclear war was too dangerous to contemplate; the two systems would have to accept the existence in the short term. The policy of Peaceful coexistence was encouraged by the change in soviet leadership, but there were also factors relating to the wider context within which international relations were operating that pushed both sides towards seeking some form of accommodation with each other. The fact that by 1949 the division of Europe into two camps had been established and consolidated gave relations between East and West a degree of stability. The Iron Curtain was now a defined line marker the border of recognised spheres of influence. The creation of NATO and the Warsaw Pact forced the USA and USSR to accept the division of Europe. Another contributory factor in the development of the thaw was the military and economic context of the time. The arms race resulted in large amounts of money being committed to military expenditure, distorting the USA’s and USSR’s economies and requiring funds that could be spent on solving social problems. The changes in US foreign policy (Eisenhower’s “new look” and Kennedy’s “flexible response”) were another factor. It is arguable as to whether there was a “total” thaw, as many crises occurred during the period in question, for example the Berlin Crisis 1958-62, and the U2 incident in 1960. The willingness of both sides to meet during the period can largely be accredited to the policy of Peaceful Coexistence.

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Peaceful coexistence successes

Peaceful coexistence had several successes. One of them was the armistice concluded in Korea in 1953. The change in leadership in the US and USSR had provided the impetus needed to reach a conclusion, but it was the USSR’s foreign policy that particularly encouraged cooperation - the new soviet leadership put pressure on Kim Il Sung to agree to a ceasefire.

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Peaceful coexistence successes

Another success of the period was the Austrian State Treaty in 1955. A key objective of post-1945 Austrian governments was ending the Four Power occupation and preventing the permanent division of Austria. The Allies' greater preoccupation with Germany delayed formal treaty negotiations with Austria until January 1947. By then, however, the larger strategic issues of the Cold War overshadowed the negotiations. Following Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's death in March 1953, the Austrian government, headed by the newly elected chancellor, Julius Raab, sought to break the stalemate by proposing that Austria promise not to join any military bloc. In late 1954 and early 1955, however, the Western Allies and the Soviet Union feared that the other side was preparing to incorporate its respective occupation zones into its military bloc. In February the Soviet Union unexpectedly signalled its willingness to settle the Austrian question. Four days of intense negotiations produced a draft treaty premised on permanent Austrian neutrality. The Western Allies only grudgingly accepted the draft for fear that it would be a model for German neutrality. They particularly objected to a proposed four-power guarantee of Austrian neutrality, believing that it would provide an opportunity for Soviet intervention in Austria. Under strong Western opposition, the Soviet Union dropped the proposal. On May 15, 1955, the State Treaty was signed. The treaty forbade unification with Germany or restoration of the Habsburgs and provided safeguards for Austria's Croat and Slovene minorities. Austrian neutrality and a ban on foreign military bases in Austria were later incorporated into the Austrian constitution by the Law of October 26, 1955. The 40,000 Soviet troops in Austria were withdrawn by late September. The small number of Western troops that remained were withdrawn by late October. Khrushchev regarded the treaty as a more mature approach to international relations.

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Peaceful coexistence successes

Another accomplishment of Peaceful coexistence was the soviet withdrawal from Finland in 1956. Under the Finnish-Soviet peace treaty, signed in Paris in 1947, the terms of the 1944 armistice were largely confirmed. Finland was to pay $300 million in reparations to the USSR, and lose lands along its border to the USSR. In addition, the Soviet Union was given a 50 year lease to the Porkkala region. By the autumn of 1956, Khrushchev was ready to withdraw the soviet presence form Porkkala. He saw no reason to retain soviet influence in a non-communist country, and saw the region as more of a burden than an asset. During the late 1950’s and 1960’s, Finland followed a more neutral position with regards the superpowers, but the USSR was still able to exercise some influence in the country (in 1962 it forced the withdrawal of a candidate for president of Finland).

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Geneva Summit 1955

The stated mission of the 1955 Geneva Summit was to reduce international tensions. The Summit can be seen as an extremely important building block to better friendships and more open communication between the leaders of 'The Big Four' (the USA, USSR, Great Britain and France). The leaders were able to develop relationships and have an optimistic outlook on a peaceful and cooperative future. There were no substantial agreements on German reunification or a limit to arms. There were however cultural agreements on the exchange of artists, musicians, and scientists between the USA and the USSR. This was significant as under Stalin the Soviet Union had been closed off to the rest of the world.

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The role of Beria

Beria, the long serving head of the secret police, took control of the politburo after Stalin’s death. He offered the West a proposal for a reunified, neutral Germany, arguing that “All we want is a peaceful Germany and it makes no difference to us whether or not it is socialist”. This statement caused great concern in East Germany, where it seemed that the soviet leadership was prepared to abandon the country to capitalism. Ulbricht had started to impose a Stalinist system which concentrated on heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods. The decision to raise the work norms (in short the principle 'more work for the same salary') was perceived as a provocation, which would conceivably lead to deterioration of the living standard. The uprising of June 1953 was a largely spontaneous action, with strikes spreading across the country. Soviet troops were needed to restore order, leading to the arrest of 25, 000 people of whom 400 were executed.

These developments were a serious blow to Beria’s foreign policy initiative and undermined his attempt to gain the leadership of the USSR. His motives for the German initiative may have been to distance himself from Stalin’s policies or to impress his colleagues, but on both these counts he failed. He was arrested in July 1953 and executed in December on spurious treason charges.

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The role of Malenkov

With the removal of Beria, soviet foreign policy fell into the control of Malenkov, who with Khrushchev and Bulganin formed a collective leadership. Despite this change, the softer tone towards the West was maintained and even further developed. Malenkov believed that war between capitalism and communism was no longer inevitable and therefore resources could be diverted away from arms and heavy industry towards consumer goods and raising living standards in the USSR. He embarked on a “new course”. This policy was criticised by Khrushchev during his struggle for power, yet after Malenkov’s removal from the post of Prime Minister in 1955, Khrushchev can be seen to have used the “new course” as a basis for his policy of “peaceful coexistence”.

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Khrushchev's inconsistency

In some instances instead of praising Khrushchev’s foreign policy for bringing about a post- Stalin thaw, it would also be appropriate to claim that his inconsistency caused crises that increased international tension, for example with the Polish and Hungarian revolts in 1956. The death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and the resulting de-Stalinization prompted debates about fundamental issues throughout the entire Eastern Bloc. Khrushchev's speech, On the Personality Cult and its Consequences, had wide implications for the Soviet Union and other communist countries as well.

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In Poland, in addition to criticism of the cult of personality, popular topics of debate centred around the right to steer a more independent course of "local, national socialism" instead of following the Soviet model in every detail. For example, many members of the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) criticized Stalin's execution of older Polish communists during the Great Purge. The PZPR Secretariat decided that Khrushchev's speech should have wide circulation in Poland, a unique decision in the Eastern Bloc. Bierut's successors seized on Khrushchev's condemnation of Stalinist policy as a perfect opportunity to prove their reformist, democratic credentials and their willingness to break with the Stalinist legacy. In late March and early April, thousands of Party meetings were held all over Poland, with Politburo and Secretariat blessing. In June 1956 workers rioted to protest shortages of food and consumer goods, bad housing, decline in real income, trade relations with the Soviet Union and poor management of the economy. The Polish government initially responded by branding the rioters "provocateurs, counterrevolutionaries and imperialist agents". Between 57 and 78 people—mostly protesters—were killed, and hundreds were wounded and arrested. Soon, however, the party hierarchy recognized that the riots had awakened a nationalist movement and reversed their opinion. Wages were raised by 50 percent, and economic and political change was promised. Public meetings, demonstrations, and street marches took place in hundreds of towns across Poland. A concurrent upsurge in religious and clerical sentiment took place.

Edward Ochab, the Polish Prime Minister, nominated Władysław Gomułka for First Secretary of the Party. Gomułka was a moderate who had previously fallen afoul of the Stalinist hardliners' faction and had been purged in 1951 after losing his battle with Bierut.

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Poland continued

The Soviet leadership viewed events in Poland with alarm. De-Stalinization was underway in the Soviet Union as well, but the Soviet leadership did not view the democratic reform that the Polish public desired as an acceptable solution. In Moscow, the belief was that any trends towards democracy in one bloc country could lead to the destruction of communism and the ruin of Soviet influence in the region as a whole. Eastern Europe created a fence between Soviet Communism and Western Democracy, and any break in the wall could end Soviet power. Eventually, when Khrushchev was reassured that Gomulka would not alter the basic foundations of Polish communism, he withdrew the invasion threat and agreed to compromise, and Gomułka was confirmed in his new position. The enthusiastic public support offered to Gomułka contributed to the legitimization of communist rule in Poland, which incorporated mass nationalist, anti-Soviet feelings into the prevailing power structures.

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Information about events in Poland reached the people of Hungary via Radio Free Europe's news and commentary services between 19 October and 22 October 1956. The revolt began as a student demonstration which attracted thousands as it marched through central Budapest to the Parliament building. A student delegation entering the radio building in an attempt to broadcast its demands was detained. When the delegation's release was demanded by the demonstrators outside, they were fired upon by the State Security Police (ÁVH) from within the building. The news spread quickly and disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital.

The revolt spread quickly across Hungary, and the government fell. Thousands organized into militias, battling the State Security Police (ÁVH) and Soviet troops. Pro-Soviet communists and ÁVH members were often executed or imprisoned, as former prisoners were released and armed. Impromptu councils wrested municipal control from the ruling Hungarian Working People's Party and demanded political changes. The new government formally disbanded the ÁVH, declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October, fighting had almost stopped and a sense of normality began to return.

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Hungary continued

After announcing a willingness to negotiate a withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Politburo changed its mind and moved to crush the revolution. On 4 November, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. Hungarian resistance continued until 10 November. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months thereafter. With most of Budapest under Soviet control by 8 November, Kádár became Prime Minister of the "Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government" and General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party.

Khrushchev’s “secret speech” had been a source of encouragement for many of the protestors. His inconsistency meant that the policy of peaceful coexistence was shown to be exclusively to improve relations with the West, not with the USSR’s satellite states.

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The role of US foreign policy

The post-Stalin thaw in superpower relations between 1953 and 1962 could also be seen to be a result of changes in US foreign policy. The New Look was the name given to the national security policy of the United States during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It reflected Eisenhower's concern for balancing the Cold War military commitments of the United States with the nation's financial resources and emphasized reliance on strategic nuclear weapons to deter potential threats, both conventional and nuclear, from the Eastern Bloc of nations headed by the Soviet Union. The "New Look" strategy economized by cutting back on Army divisions (much to the chagrin of the soldiers), and emphasizing instead nuclear weapons, which gave "more bang for the buck." Eisenhower’s foreign policy largely consisted of hard line rhetoric to please the American public, which could have made international relations worse as it appeared to be aggressive (for example the policy of Massive Retaliation In the event of an attack from an aggressor, a state would massively retaliate by using a force disproportionate to the size of the attack. The aim of massive retaliation is to deter an adversary from initially attacking).

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Eisenhower and Dulles also favoured the policy of brinkmanship- the escalation of threats in order to achieve one's aims. Eventually, the threats involved might become so huge as to be unmanageable at which point both sides are likely to back down. However, the only example of brinkmanship employed by Eisenhower and his advisors was the threat of the use of nuclear weapons in Korea. It worked and the Chinese backed down. This, and Eisenhower’s attendance of the Geneva Summit, shows that despite the rhetoric, the US government was willing to talk to the Soviets. Indeed, at the summit Eisenhower proposed an “open skies” program, whereby spy planes would be allowed to fly over each other’s territory in order to verify arms agreements. The USSR refused, but the proposal showed a spirit of cooperation.

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When Kennedy came to power, Flexible Response was implemented to develop several options across the spectrum of warfare, other than the nuclear option, for quickly dealing with enemy aggression. The Kennedy doctrine did not include the ability to fight nuclear wars because of the idea that it would undermine deterrence, was technologically unworkable, would fuel the arms race, and was not politically feasible. Importance was also placed on counterinsurgency (covert operations) and the development of unconventional military forces, unconventional tactics, and “civic action” programs.

The strategic doctrine for Kennedy’s Flexible Response was Assured Destruction. Flexible response made second strike capability its guiding principle of deterrence. In the event of Soviet nuclear aggression, the Soviets would know that enough U.S. nuclear capability would survive their strike to destroy their cities and industry. Robert McNamara argued for the definition of what was “unacceptable” to the enemy as the destruction of 50% of industry and 25% of the population. Deterrence depended on influence to show that violence and aggression did not pay, and being explicit about the level of destruction the US was willing to inflict on the enemy was one way to illustrate this point. Assured Destruction relied on deterrence by punishment, precision, and credibility.

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Economic realities

The other factor that contributed to the development of the post-Stalin thaw in superpower relations between 1953 and 1962 was the military and economic realities of the time. Pressures arising from the nuclear arms race pushed both sides into an accommodation with each other. Throughout the 1950s unemployment in the USA was high, and there were many people living below the breadline. Both the USA, and the USSR, needed to reduce military spending without losing face, to increase funds available to solve social problems.

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Limitations of the "Thaw"

Molotov’s proposal at the Berlin foreign ministers conference in 1954 for an all German government was rejected by the West, who wanted to hold elections first. The issue of German reunification was raised again at the Geneva summit in 1955. The question of a reunified Germany’s neutrality was complicated by the FRG’s admission into NATO. Khrushchev suggested that both NATO and the Warsaw pact be dismantled and replaced with a new system of collective security. The West did not agree, though Eisenhower did propose an “open skies” program, whereby spy planes would be allowed to fly over each other’s territory in order to verify arms agreements. The USSR refused.

The Polish and Hungarian Uprisings in 1956, the Berlin Crisis 1958-61 and the U2 Incident in 1960 all showed the fragility of superpower relations. Both superpowers also failed to reduce military expenditure in any meaningful way, and the advent of the space race prevented further cooperation (the technology could have military applications).

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jack martin

well good :)


So good, thankyou!!


This set of 17 revision cards covers the 1950s very well, with a great deal of detail. Particularly useful for analysing whether there was a thaw in relations.


Really useful thanks!!


This is very useful, it filled in the blank areas of my knowledge and provided me with extra info. Thanks 

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