Sunday, 29 December 2013

The USA and the world: 1950s and early 1960s, a bipolar world

Pages 24-25 of the textbook: "A bipolar world" (LESSON 2, 1950s and early 1960s)

The world split into two enemy blocs...

Up to Stalin’s death in 1953, relations between the superpowers were tense because of the arms race and because of the Korean War (1950-53). There was then a relative easing off of tension (because there was a “thaw” in the USSR).

The "peaceful coexistence" promoted by the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1953-64) was undermined by:

  • the USA creating its first H-Bomb (thermonuclear or "hydrogen" weapon) in 1952 (the USSR made its own a year later) which accelerated the arms race;
  • the Budapest Uprising in 1956;
  • the Soviets creating the first ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) i1957 (the Americans a year later);
  • renewed tension in Berlin (the Soviet leader gave an ultimatum to the USA, UK and French troops present in Berlin to leave in 1958, which lead to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961);
  • Castro taking power in Cuba i1959;
  • the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October-November 1962.


Comments on document 1, page 24:

Communist North Korea attacked South Korea in June 1950. North Korea had been occupied by the USSR after WWII, and South Korea by the Allies. The United Nations (set up in 1945) condemned the invasion and sent its troops (made up mostly of soldiers from the USA) to push back the North Korean army. The Soviet Union never got directly involved in the fighting but supplied North Korea with weapons. China then sent troops to back up North Korea in 1951 and the UN forces were pushed back beyond the 38th parallel. The war ended partly because President Dwight Eisenhower threatened to use atomic weapons if the Chinese refused to negotiate. The Panmunjon Agreement (1953) imposed the militarized borders that still exist today between the two Koreas.

The Korean War shows that the USA was prepared to support a corrupt regime (South Korea) as long it served its purpose of fighting communism. Note however that the USA had not intervened to stop the USSR dominating Eastern and Central European countries, or stopped China from becoming communist. The Korean conflict was a way for the USA to again appear strong against the Soviet Bloc. Note that the Korean conflict did not, in the end, escalate, mostly because the USSR was not directly involved in the fighting. (Read document 1 and answer the questions).

The foreign policy that the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev promoted was one of “peaceful coexistence” with the West; because of this, some of the satellite states of the USSR felt that they could challenge the hegemony of the USSR. In October 1956, there was a popular uprising against the communist government in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. It was crushed the following month by Soviet troops who came “to assist… the Hungarian authorities”.

The links between the different members of the Soviet Bloc countries were political (communist one-party rule), economic (COMECON single market), and military (Warsaw Pact). The Soviet intervention in Hungary was presented as moderate though over 2,000 Hungarians were killed (read document). The Soviet Union could not accept that Hungary leave the Soviet Bloc because it would have set a precedent, destabilize the Warsaw Pact and therefore compromise the defence strategy of the USSR.

Comments on page 25: Is any dialogue possible?

Despite the different crises, dialogue was maintained between the superpowers: both wanted to avoid WWIII!


At the American Exhibition in Moscow (1959): Khrushchev, Nixon, Vorochilov

Comments on document 3, page 25:

The black and white photograph above, dated July 1959, shows Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, drinking Pepsi at the American Exhibition in Moscow. He is talking to Richard Nixon, the US Vice-President (and future President) in an “informal” but direct way (as was his habit). They are discussing the merits of their respective economic systems. The situation is somewhat incongruous because the leader of the communist system is drinking Pepsi, one of the firms emblematic of the American free-market! Khrushchev was open to dialogue and could even be affable. This photo illustrates the fact that, despite the numerous hot spots, there was indeed a kind of peaceful, if very uneasy, coexistence.



Because so many (more than 200,000) East Germans fled to the West via West Berlin airport, the East German government built a wall around West Berlin in 1961 (the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the two Germanies were reunited the following year).

Comments on document 4, page 25:

Khrushchev and JFK (President of the USA from 1961 to 1963) had lengthy and constant correspondence (November 1960 to October 1963). These extracts of their correspondence, from October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis shows that dialogue avoided the escalation of the crisis into (nuclear) war. The crisis, the worst of the Cold War, was the result of the placing of Soviet missiles in Cuba (and the intention by the USSR of siting more). These were within striking range of Washington D.C., the US Federal capital. Cuba, under Castro, was a communist dictatorship supported by the USSR. The Soviets wanted to place missiles there because the US had put missiles in Italy and Turkey which were in striking range of Moscow. The crisis was resolved when both sides agreed to withdraw their missiles. Both sides were aware that, as JFK said (cf. document 4) “no country could win” a nuclear conflict, and that continued dialogue was necessary to avoid tension, to bring about a “d├ętente affecting NATO and the Warsaw Pact” (JFK).


JFK visits the Brandenburg Gate, photo by Will McBride (1963)

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (elected in 1961assassinated in November 1963) took a strong stance against the Soviet Union. He went to Berlin in June 1963 to denounce the erection in 1961 of the Wall. He was not against the idea of peaceful coexistence, but he did not want to compromise his anti-communist convictions.

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