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The Thaw in the Cold War 1953-1959

Stalin had left behind him a world of suspicion, distrust and fear. Suspicion, distrust and fear were as great in his own country as anywhere else, for he had ruled as a dictator and had never set up a definite procedure for transferring power to another leader. Immediately after his death, a five-man presidium, or council, took over the rule of the Soviet Union. The presidium chose Georgi Malenkov, who had been Stalin’s right-hand man, as the new premier, but a number of factions were struggling for control of the government and one of them was led by Lavrenti Beria, the chief of the secret police. He was a serious threat that at one point tanks were called out to prevent the secret police from seizing the government. On July 10, 1953, Beria was charged with treason; six months later he was shot.

In 1955, Malenkov himself was removed from office and Marshal Nikolai Bulganin became premier. It was plain that the real power in the Soviet Union was Nikita Khrushchev, the moonfaced, elderly chairman of the Communist party. On February 24, 1956, Khrushchev made a speech before the Twentieth All-Union Party Congress, a meeting of Communist party delegates from all parts of the Soviet Union. Representatives of almost every Communist party in the world were also present. It was the first such congress since Stalin’s death and the delegates knew they had been summoned to Moscow to hear something of great importance. Even so, none of them were prepared for what they heard that day.

For Khrushchev’s speech was a direct and merciless attack on Stalin and Stalin’s policies. For years, Communists throughout the world had insisted that Stalin was a great teacher and humanitarian, a father of peoples, a leader who was showing mankind the way to a better world. Now Khrushchev was stating that this was all false and that Stalin had actually been a despot as savage as the worst tsars in the history of Russia. No one could doubt the truth of what Khrushchev was saying. He spoke with authority, because for years he had been one of Stalin’s most faithful henchmen.


“Stalin was a very distrustful man, sickly suspicious.” said Khrushchev. “We knew this from our work with him. He would look at a man and say: ‘Why are your eyes so shifty today?’ or ‘Why are you turning around so much today and not looking me directly in the eyes?’ . . . Everywhere and in everything he saw enemies, ‘twofacers,’ and ‘spies’.”

Stalin was not content to voice his suspicions. He had stopped at nothing to get his way. Khrushchev told of how Stalin ordered the secret police to “beat, beat and once again beat” to wring confessions from men he suspected of treason. Using these confessions to justify himself before the world, Stalin had murdered most of his old revolutionary comrades, as well as the highest ranking officers of the Russian army.

Russia had paid dearly for Stalin’s stubbornness and egotism. Millions of Russians died in the war because Stalin refused to believe that Germany would invade Russia in 1941, although he had been warned by President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and even his own spies. During the war Stalin often insisted on taking personal command of military affairs, overruling generals and other advisers who knew more than he did of the actual conditions at the front and when the war ended, he took credit for the victory, which had been won in spite of him and not because of him.


Hour after hour, well into the night, Khrushchev spoke, his voice shaking with emotion. He exposed the incredible horrors and cruelties of Stalin’s rule; he recited crime after crime that Stalin had committed. During the last months of his life, Stalin had been planning another great purge. Some of the leading men in the government, including Khrushchev, were on his list for execution. The list also included entire groups of people, such as the Jews, whom Stalin hated. As in the 1930’s, there were to be trials and confessions proving a plot against his life, to be followed by another terrible massacre. Fortunately, Stalin had died before he could carry out his plan and all talk of a plot ended.

Khrushchev’s speech dumbfounded his audience — and the world. Communists everywhere were confused and bewildered, for the speech raised as many questions as it answered. Why had Khrushchev waited until three years after Stalin’s death to speak out? Khrushchev never did answer this question satisfactorily, but it was clear that he was struggling for power against men who had been even closer than he to Stalin; by denouncing Stalin, he was indirectly denouncing them.

There were other questions as well. Did not Khrushchev share Stalin’s guilt? He had worked closely with Stalin since the 1930’s and had actually carried out purges and executions on his own. Why, therefore, should he place all the blame on Stalin? Khrushchev did not answer these questions, nor did he admit that the real cause of Stalinism might lie in the despotic system of government rather than in the personality of one man. Was it not possible for another Stalin to gain power in the future? Again Khrushchev gave no answer. He was at the top now and he had no intention of making radical changes in the system.


Nevertheless there were changes. By 1957, Khrushchev had become premier and all of the original presidium, including Malenkov and Bulganin, had been ousted from their positions of authority. They were not exempted or imprisoned as they almost surely would have been during Stalin’s time. Some were retired, while others were given insignificant jobs in remote parts of Ruanda. Malenkov, for example, became manager of a power station in eastern Siberia.

Khrushchev did in fact bring to an end some of the worst practices of the Stalin era. He saw to it that the power of the secret police was reduced, that the large slave labour camps were shot down, that writers and other intellectuals were allowed to work with a little more freedom. Little by little, the iron curtain was raised to permit more visitors to Russia and more trade and contacts with the outside world.

Khrushchev stated that his final aim was to give the Russian people the kind of abundance and prosperity that Americans already enjoyed. In trying to achieve this aim, he had to abandon the traditional Communist methods of force and terror. Increasingly, his government relied on persuasion and reason in its dealings with the people. For example, when Khrushchev wanted to bring the virgin lands of Siberia under cultivation, he did not resort to forced labour. He asked for volunteers and offered to pay them well. When his project proved unsuccessful, the officials in charge — all except Khrushchev, of course — lost their jobs and not their lives.


While Stalin had been alive, countless statues, paintings, books and songs had reminded Russians of his genius and wisdom. Now the statues and paintings disappeared from view and the books and songs were taken out of circulation. Cities, streets, factories and power plants that bore Stalin’s name were given new names; the city of Stalingrad, for instance, became Volgograd. Stalin’s fall from grace was completed in 1961, when his body was removed from the great tomb in Red Square and buried in a simple grave outside the Kremlin wall.

Even before Khrushchev’s speech, relations between the East and the West had begun to improve. The first break in the cold war came when the fighting ended in Korea. The truce talks which had been going on for nearly two years, made rapid progress in the spring of 1953. On June 26, an armistice was signed between the United Nations forces, led by the United States and the Communist forces, led by China. It was exactly three years and a day since North Korea had attacked South Korea. The boundary separating the two countries, along the thirty-eighth parallel, was little changed from what it had been before the invasion.

A year later, another war in Asia ended. In July of 1954, the French gave up Indochina, after fighting against communist guerrillas for eight years. A peace conference of eighteen nations, held in Geneva, divided Indochina into four countries: North Vietnam, which was controlled by Communists; South Vietnam, which was pro-west; Cambodia, which was neutral; and Laos, which formed a government made up of all three factions. The delegates to the conference realized that the situation was too unstable for the peace agreement to last very long but, as far as the West was concerned, even a bad agreement was better than none. The French army had been badly beaten and the war had proved to be a terrible drain on France.


A third important treaty was signed in 1955; it ended the occupation of Austria by American, Russian, British and French armies. During World War II, the Allies had agreed that Austria should become a nation again, even though Hitler had made it a province of Germany. Due to the cold war, the four occupation armies had remained in Austria year after year, but Stalin’s death opened the way for a final treaty. The Austrian Peace Treaty was approved in June, 1955, the armies left soon after and Austria, though neutral in the cold war, joined the ranks of democratic nations.

With these treaties, some of the more serious conflicts between the West and the Communist nations had been removed. There was less distrust and more of a desire to settle the questions of the cold war. In July of 1955 the heads of state of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France met in Geneva for the first “summit” conference of the post-World War II era. Not since 1945 had such a conference been held. While the leaders of the “Big Four” did not agree to anything specific, they did agree on the need for a general plan of disarmament and they promised not to “take part in any aggressive wars.”

In 1959 another summit conference took place, this time under unusual circumstances. Nikita Khruschev, the premier of the Soviet Union, came to the United States for a two-week visit. After touring some large cities, factories and farms, he met with President Eisenhower. For two days they conferred at Camp David, the presidential mountain retreat in Maryland. Once again they stated their desire for peace and they decided to hold another conference in Paris the following year. They also agreed that President Eisenhower would visit Russia before retiring from office.

Eisenhower and Khrushchev were now officially committed to the doctrine of peaceful co-existence. According to this doctrine, opposing social systems need not engage in violent conflicts. They could continue to be different and to compete without becoming enemies. In accepting peaceful co-existence, the United States and the Soviet Union were recognizing the brutal facts of power politics and modern weapons. By 1955 it had become clear that all-out war could no longer bring real victory to one of the opposing sides. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had hydrogen bombs, which were even more destructive than the atomic bombs which had been dropped on Japan. A single H-bomb could demolish an entire city of millions. Each side could now destroy the other and so, as Winston Churchill put it, a “balance of terror” had developed in the cold war. It was this “balance of terror” that made peaceful co-existence necessary.

As international relations improved, the tensions of the cold war relaxed within the two countries. In the United States, the mood of suspicion and distrust that had produced “McCarthyism” gradually passed. Increasingly, Americans spoke their minds freely without fear of being called pro-Communist. The American tradition of due process of law began to assert itself again. As vacancies occurred on the Supreme Court, President Eisenhower appointed justices who were determined to protect the nation’s civil liberties. In a number of important decisions between 1953 and 1959, the Court limited the power of Congress and the states to deny persons their constitutional rights, however unpopular their ideas.

The Shift in public opinion brought about the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy. He had become the head of a Senate sub-committee, with broad authority to investigate whatever and whomever he pleased. Although the Republican Party had won control of both houses of congress in 1953, McCarthy continued to attack the federal government and serious differences rose between him and President Eisenhower. In 1952, McCarthy said there had been “twenty years of treason”; in late 1953, he was saying there had been “twenty-one years of treason.” Indirectly, he was calling Eisenhower a traitor.

Beneath these personal differences lay a deeper — and more important conflict. The group of people in the United States for whom McCarthy Spoke insisted that the only way to deal with the Communist nations was to talk tough, act tough and never compromise. These people also regarded anyone who disagreed with them as a Communist sympathizer. President Eisenhower held different views. He believed that it was possible to reach agreements with Russia without sacrificing America’s honour. Above all, Eisenhower and those who agreed with him wanted to avoid a split between the United States and its European allies, a split which the aggressive policies of McCarthy’s supporters would almost surely have brought about.

The showdown between Eisenhower and McCarthy came in the spring of 1954, when McCarthy accused the Secretary of the Army of “covering up” evidence. The leaders of the administration charged that McCarthy was trying to get back at the army because it had refused to grant special favours to one of his assistants who had recently been drafted. A Senate committee ordered the army and McCarthy to testify before it in a series of hearings. Although the committee cleared both the army and McCarthy of each other’s charges, the hearings were broadcast on television and they proved to be a fascinating spectacle. Day after day, for three months, people throughout the country watched McCarthy in action. They did not like his behavior and his popularity fell sharply.

Several months later, McCarthy defied a Senate committee that was investigating his election. For this violation of its rules and traditions, the Senate voted on December 2, 1954, to “condemn” him. By the time he died in 1957, he had ceased to be a power in American politics.

Eisenhower’s policies, meanwhile, had won the overwhelming support of the American people. He was re-elected in 1956 by an even larger majority than in 1952 and he was one of the most popular presidents in American history.

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