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10-08-2015, 17:19

Khrushchev and the Era of Peaceful Coexistence

The first clear sign occurred after Stalin’s death in early 1953. His successor, Georgy Malenkov (1902–1988), hoped to improve relations with the Western powers to reduce defense expenditures and shift government spending to growing consumer needs. During his campaign to replace Malenkov two years later, Nikita Khrushchev (1894 –1971) appealed to powerful pressure groups in the party Politburo (the governing body of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) by calling for higher defense expenditures, but once in power, he resumed his predecessor’s efforts to reduce tensions with the West and improve the living standards of the Soviet people. In an adroit public relations touch, Khrushchev publicized Moscow’s appeal for a new policy of “peaceful coexistence” with the West. In 1955, he surprisingly agreed to negotiate an end to the postwar occupation of Austria by the victorious allies and allow the creation of a neutral country with strong cultural and economic ties with the West. He also called for a reduction in defense expenditures and reduced the size of the Soviet armed forces. At first, Washington was suspicious of Khrushchev’s motives, especially after the Soviet crackdown in Hun- gary in the fall of 1956 (see Chapter 8). A new crisis over Berlin added to the tension. The Soviets had launched their first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in August 1957, arousing U.S. fears—fueled by a partisan political debate—of a “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union. Khrushchev attempted to take advantage of the U.S. frenzy over missiles to solve the problem of West Berlin, which had remained a “Western island” of prosperity inside the relatively poverty- stricken state of East Germany. Many East Germans sought to escape to West Germany by fleeing through West Berlin—a serious blot on the credibility of the GDR and a potential source of instability in East-West relations. In November 1958, Khrushchev announced that unless the West removed its forces from West Berlin within six months, he would turn over control of the access routes to the East Germans. Unwilling to accept an ultimatum that would have abandoned West Berlin to the Communists, President Eisenhower and the West stood firm, and Khrushchev eventually backed down. Despite such periodic crises in East-West relations, there were tantalizing signs that an era of true peaceful coexistence between the two power blocs could be achieved. In the late 1950s, the United States and the Soviet Union initiated a cultural exchange program, helping the peoples of one bloc to become acquainted with the nature of life in the other. While the Leningrad Ballet appeared at theaters in the United States, Benny Goodman and the film of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story played in Moscow. In 1958, Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States and had a brief but friendly encounter with President Eisenhower at Camp David, his presidential retreat in northern Maryland. Predictions of improved future relations led reporters to laud “the spirit of Camp David.” Yet Khrushchev could rarely avoid the temptation to gain an advantage over the United States in the competition for influence throughout the world, and this resulted in an unstable relationship that prevented a lasting accommodation between the two superpowers. West Berlin was an area of persistent tension (a boil on the foot of the United States, Khrushchev derisively termed it), and in January 1961, just as newly elected president John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) came into office, Moscow threatened once again to turn over responsibility for access to the East German government. Moscow also took every opportunity to promote its interests in the Third World, as the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America were now popularly called. Unlike Stalin, Khrushchev viewed the dismantling of colonial regimes in the area as a potential advantage for the Soviet Union and sought especially to exploit anti American sentiment in Latin America. To improve Soviet influence in such areas, Khrushchev established alliances with key Third World countries such as Indonesia, Egypt, India, and Cuba. In January 1961, just as Kennedy assumed the presidency, Khrushchev unnerved the new president at an informal summit meeting in Vienna by declaring that Moscow would provide active support to national liberation movements throughout the world. There were rising fears in Washington of Soviet meddling in such sensitive trouble spots as Southeast Asia, Central Africa, and the Caribbean.