A2 History (Unit 3) IR 1945-2004 (6) the Geneva Summit, 1955; the problems over Berlin and Germany, 1958–1961

Source: BBC History & Macro History

Geneva Summit July 1955

Nikita Khrushchev was the most intellectually aggressive member of the new collective leadership in the Soviet Union, and the Presidium was coming under his influence. He wanted to lift some of the burden from people under Soviet control, and he wanted to ease Cold War tensions. But he did not trust the West. Ringing in his ears was Stalin’s remark that after he died the capitalists would wring the necks of his successors like chickens.

In early 1955, tensions arose over small islands next to the China’s mainland that were occupied by Chiang’s forces – the islands ofQuemoy and Ma-tsu. Communist China was shelling the islands and talking about liberating Taiwan, and Dulles talked about “tactical” atomic bombs. There was talk of bombing China’s cities. The majority leader in the Senate, Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, denounced the talk of war among the Republicans. Public opinion in the US was disturbed and unenthusiastic about another war against China. Dulles’ strategic policy called “massive retaliation” so far was just making people nervous. The Australians and Canadians were upset with Dulles. But the Soviet Union was not supporting China with a threat of nuclear retaliation should the United States use nuclear weapons. China ended its shelling, and the Eisenhower administration let the crisis pass.

On May 5, 1955, Soviet leaders were made more nervous as the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany)joined NATO. On May 14, the Soviet Union signed agreements with its satellite regimes, creating what was called theWarsaw Pact.  According to the agreement, each member nation would be defended against “imperialist” interference or military intervention.

In May, Britain and France proposed a conference with Soviet leaders to ease tensions, while the Soviet Union was trying to negotiate a withdrawal of the World War II allies from their occupation of Austria. The suspicions of Secretary of State Dulles were overcome, and the four powers – the US, Soviet Union, Britain and France – signed an agreement that reestablished Austria’s independence, with the proviso that Austria would remain “forever neutral” in foreign affairs. The Kremlin pulled its troops out of Austria, and Austria became the first nation divided at the end of World War II to achieve reunification.

Eisenhower was impressed by the Soviet Union’s behavior regarding Austria, and he argued in favor of accepting a British and French proposal for a summit meeting at Geneva. He was concerned about the arms race and was hopeful that a summit meeting would help create an atmosphere of trust between the Soviet Union and his administration. Dulles argued against it, and so too did some Republican Party hardliners who were reminded of the Yalta summit meeting.

The summit meeting opened on 18 July 1955. Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and Britain’s new prime minister, Anthony Eden, discussed disarmament and European security. Eisenhower announced his “Open Skies” proposal. The British and French were enthusiastic, but Khrushchev was not. He  believed that “Open Skies” would help LeMay improve his target data. Also he did not want to expose his bluff concerning the Soviet Union’s retaliation capability: the United States had an overwhelming superiority in ability to deliver nuclear weapons. Khrushchev said that Eisenhower’s proposal, “Open Skies'” amounted to spying.

Dulles left the Geneva summit impressed by the Soviet leaders desire for good relations with everyone – what was called the spirit of Geneva. Khrushchev left Geneva still concerned about Soviet competition with the West and what he called their tricks.

 Problems over Berlin 1958-62

By the 1960s Berlin was still divided – the USSR controlled the East and the USA guaranteed freedom in the West. Thousands of refugees escaped to West Berlin each day – much to the embarrassment of the USSR – so in 1961 Khrushchev closed the border and ordered the construction of a wall to stop people leaving.

Youtube documentary – ‘The Wall’ 1958-1963

The problems in West Berlin

West Berlin was a worry and an embarrassment for the Soviet Union in 1961:

  • Nearly 2,000 refugees a day were fleeing to the West through west Berlin – hardly proof of the Soviet claim that the Communist way of life was better than capitalism!
  • Many of those leaving were skilled and qualified workers.
  • The Soviets believed (rightly) that West Berlin was a centre for US espionage.

At the Vienna Summit of June 1961, therefore, Khrushchev demanded that the USleave West Berlin within six months. Kennedy refused and instead guaranteed West Berlin’s freedom.

On 13 August, Khrushchev closed the border between East and West Berlin and started building the Berlin Wall. At first, the Russians regarded it as a propaganda success, but as time went on, it became a propaganda disaster – a symbol of all that was bad about Soviet rule.

Vienna Summit Conference, June 1961

Entering the year 1961, Berlin was still divided. A third of it had been the Soviet Zone and was now a part of East Germany, otherwise known as the German Democratic, a Soviet invention in 1949. Republic. zones. The rest of Berlin was a part of the Federal Republic of Germany, otherwise known as West Germany, also founded in 1949. West Germany was a member of the military alliance called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which the Russians saw as a product of evil intentions.

By treaty agreement dating back to Yalta in February 1945, US and other Western troops were free to patrol the Soviet zone in Berlin and Soviet troops were free to patrol the other zones in Berlin. Berlin was deep inside East German territory but the Soviets were supposed to provide free access from what was now West Germany to Berlin.

East Germany’s local communist-in-charge, Walter Ulbricht, was concerned about a serious loss of manpower, especially young people and skilled manpower passing freely into West Berlin and beyond to West Germany. Ulbricht convinced the Soviet leader Khrushchev that the border had to be closed. Khrushchev wanted better relations with the West and he wanted to talk to Kennedy to get an agreement on the Berlin issue.

Kennedy and Khrushchev met in Vienna in early June, 1961, amid great fanfare and the parading of Jackie Kennedy and Nina Khrushchev in public, Jackie getting all the cheers. Meeting between the two men were planned as an informal exchange of views.

At the meeting, Kennedy labored under the conception that the Soviet Union was bent on fomenting revolution around the world – a view reinforced by Khrushchev’s pledge in January to assist movements of national liberation. And Khrushchev argued that it was not Soviet policy to try to make revolution, holding to his view that he merely wanted to assist others who were themselves changing their society. Khrushchev argued about balance of power, about Laos and nuclear testing. Having discussed with Ulbricht to question of closing the border between east and west Berlin, Khrushchev stressed the importance of an agreement on Berlin.

The successful Berlin Airlift of 1948-49 was considered of little relevance as Khrushchev confronted Kennedy with a threat to sign a peace agreement with East Germany that would impinge on Western access to Berlin by turning over control of the access roads and air routes to the East Germans. Khrushchev said that the Soviet Union “would never, under any conditions, accept US rights in West Berlin” after it had signed a peace treaty with East Germany (Kempe, p. 247). Khrushchev resorted to what has been described as his usual bluster and threats. He told Kennedy that “force will be met by force,” that it was for the United States to decide whether there will be war or peace and that his decision to sign a peace treaty with East Germany was irrevocable.

Kennedy is described as having been shocked by the threats. This was not the friendly problem solving that he had been looking forward to. Kennedy insisted not that the US have continued access to East Berlin but that the US and its allies continue to have access to West Berlin. And Kennedy was to be described as having conveyed US acquiescence to the permanent division of Berlin.

Khrushchev gave Kennedy an ultimatum, saying that the Soviet Union will sign the treaty by December 31 if the US refuses an interim agreement. To this, Kennedy replied, “Then, Mr. Chairman, there will be a war. It will be a cold, long winter.”

The Berlin Wall as a symbol

Source A

A photograph of the Berlin Wall.

Black and white photo of the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall shortly after its construction

Source B

In 1963, President Kennedy visited West Berlin and made his famous ‘I am a Berliner’ speech next to the Berlin Wall:

There are many people in the world who really don’t understand what is the great issue between the free world and the communist world – let them come to Berlin!

There are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the communists – let them come to Berlin!

All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ [‘I am a Berliner’].

President Kennedy, 1963


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