Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Geneva Conference (1955)

Four-power conference among the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France convened to discuss German reunification, the status of East European states, and disarmament. At the invitation of the Soviet Union, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, over the objections of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, agreed to meet with Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin in Geneva to discuss Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's disarmament proposals. Eisenhower shared Dulles's concerns about the efficacy of summit diplomacy and questioned Khrushchev's motives but also believed that the United States must be willing to meet directly with leaders of the Soviet Union.

Coming on the heels of the May 1955 Austrian State Treaty, which provided for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Austria, Washington and Moscow seemed committed to reducing international tensions. Although Bulganin was nominally in charge of the Soviet delegation, the Geneva Conference served as Khrushchev's debut as the real power in the post-Stalin Soviet leadership. Khrushchev's newfound confidence, based upon increased Soviet strength in both conventional and strategic arms, prompted him to call for peaceful coexistence between the Western and Eastern blocs based upon mutual strength and respect.

The Geneva Conference had mixed results for both the Soviets and Americans. On the one hand, in the short term, the summit popularized the so-called Spirit of Geneva, demonstrating the willingness of both sides to at least temporarily suspend belligerent rhetoric, which reassured much of the world. Clearly, both countries recognized the danger that nuclear weapons presented to the rest of the world. Most important, both nations agreed that nuclear war would lead to mutual genocide.

On the other hand, the Soviets rejected Eisenhower's Open Skies Proposal, a plan to open Eastern and Western bloc nations to aerial inspection of military installations; summarily dismissed his rather feeble attempts to establish freedom for Eastern Europe; and refused to support a reunified Germany except on a neutralized basis.

By December 1955 each side had begun to charge the other with violating the Spirit of Geneva. In reality, the Soviets and Americans defined the Spirit of Geneva according to their own interests. For Washington, it meant agreeing to reunify Germany through free elections, upholding the United Nations Charter calling for independence for all nations, and ending Soviet adventurism. For Moscow, it meant acceptance of peaceful coexistence, recognition of a divided Germany, and acknowledgment of its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Thus, the Geneva Conference only temporarily reduced tensions between the superpowers.

Chris Tudda


Further Reading
Dallek, Robert. Eisenhower and the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.; Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
 

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