Crumbling Certainties


In the 1970s, two giants still dominated the world, as they had done since 1945, and they still often talked as if the world was divided into their adherents or enemies. But changes had come about in the way they were regarded. Some believed the United States to have lost its once overwhelming military preponderance over the Soviet Union and perhaps any preponderance at all. The perception was wrong, but many, and even some Americans, shared it. Those easily frightened by signs of instability wondered what would happen if another confrontation arose. Others thought that a more even balance might make such a crisis unlikely. Other relevant changes, too, were difficult to weigh up. The two once more or less disciplined blocs, surrounded by small fry in danger of being swallowed by them, were showing signs of strain. New quarrels were beginning to cut across old ideological divisions. More interesting still, there were signs that new aspirants to the role of superpower might be emerging. Some people even began to talk about an era of detente.

Once again, the roots of change go back some way and there are no sharp dividing lines between phases. The death of Stalin, for instance, could hardly have been without effect, although it brought no obvious immediate change in Russian policy, and even more difficulty in interpreting it. Subsequent changes of personnel led after nearly two years to the emergence of Nikita Khrushchev as the dominant figure in the Soviet government, and the retirement in 1956 of Molotov, Stalin’s old henchman and veteran of Cold War diplomacy, from his post as foreign minister. There had then followed a sensational speech by Khrushchev at a secret session of the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. In it he denounced the misdeeds of the Stalin era and declared ‘coexistence’ now to be the goal of Russian foreign policy. The speech was soon given wide publicity, which shook the monolithic front communism had hitherto presented to the world, and for the first time alienated many communist sympathizers in western countries who had been hitherto untroubled by Soviet realities - or, perhaps, the revelations allowed them to express an alienation they already felt at no cost to their consciences.

Together with announcements of Soviet reductions in armaments, Khrushchev’s speech might have heralded a new mood in international affairs, had not the atmosphere in 1956 quickly been fouled. The Suez adventure called forth Soviet threats to Great Britain and France; Moscow was not going to risk Arab goodwill by failing to show support for Egypt. But the same year had also brought more anti-Soviet rioting in Poland and a revolution in Hungary. Soviet policy had always been morbidly sensitive to signs of deviation or dissatisfaction among its satellites. In 1948, Soviet advisers had been recalled from Yugoslavia, which was then expelled from the Cominform. Yugoslavia’s treaties with the USSR and other communist states were denounced, and five years of vitriolic attacks on ‘Titoism’ began. Not until 1957 did the two governments finally came to an understanding when the USSR climbed down and symbolically resumed its aid to Tito. Yugoslavia’s damaging and embarrassing survival as a socialist state outside the Warsaw Pact, however, had made Moscow even more sensitive to tremors in the eastern camp. Like anti-Soviet riots in East Berlin in 1953, those in Poland in the summer of 1956 showed that patriotism, inflamed by economic discontent, could still challenge communism in places nearer its heartland. Similar forces help also to explain how disturbances in Budapest in October 1956 grew into a nationwide movement that led to the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the city, a new Hungarian government promising free elections and the end of one-party rule. When that government also announced its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, declared Hungary’s neutrality, and asked the United Nations to take up the Hungarian question, the Soviet army returned. Thousands fled the country and the Hungarian revolution was crushed. The UN General Assembly twice condemned the intervention, but to no avail.

This episode hardened attitudes on both sides. The Soviet leadership could again reflect on how little they were liked by the peoples of eastern Europe and therefore became even more distrustful of western talk of ‘liberating’ them. Western European nations were again reminded of the real face of Soviet power and sought to consolidate their growing strength.

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