Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Paris Conference (May 1960)

Aborted East-West summit meeting. After U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev met at Camp David in September 1959, a thaw in East-West relations began to take form. Eisenhower and Khrushchev appeared ready to discuss outstanding East-West issues at a four-power (United States, Soviet Union, France, Great Britain) summit, the first such meeting since the Geneva Conference of July 1955.

Within the Western camp, opposition arose against the personalized bilateralism of Camp David. Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) Chancellor Konrad Adenauer feared that German reunification might be sacrificed on the altar of a U.S.-Soviet détente. French President Charles de Gaulle postponed the date of the Paris Conference until mid-May 1960, after the explosion of the first French atomic bomb and after Khrushchev's state visit to France.

In early 1960, Eisenhower hoped to negotiate a nuclear test–ban treaty by offering concessions on Berlin. He was inclined to recognize the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany), to accept the Oder-Neisse Line as Poland's western border, and to offer West German nuclear abstention to stabilize the status quo in Berlin. In March 1960, when Khrushchev for the first time agreed to allow international inspections to verify a nuclear test–ban treaty, Eisenhower, against the advice of the U.S. defense establishment, decided to accept a partially unverified test ban. Several Soviet moves after Camp David convinced Eisenhower that Khrushchev genuinely wished to solve East-West problems. First, Khrushchev publicly withdrew his Berlin ultimatum in October 1959. Second, in December 1959 the Soviet Union signed the Antarctica Treaty, providing for, among other things, a demilitarized zone in the Arctic. Third, Khrushchev announced a unilateral cut in the Soviet Army by 1.2 million men in January 1960. With British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan also calling for a test-ban treaty, the chances appeared bright for an international agreement on the eve of the Paris Conference.

Following the Soviet downing of an American U-2 reconnaissance plane on 1 May 1960, however, Khrushchev publicly attacked the U.S. action. Washington at first refused to acknowledge overflights of the Soviet Union and produced a press release stating that a weather plane over southeastern Turkey had inadvertently strayed into Soviet airspace. But on 7 May 1960, when Khrushchev disclosed that the U.S. pilot was still alive and that the plane's wreckage was clearly identifiable, the United States had no choice but to own up to the incident. In an attempt to save the summit, Eisenhower decided to deny personal responsibility, which proved disastrous. On 7 May, the U.S. government announced that Eisenhower had not authorized the U-2 flight of 1 May. Soon, however, news stories reported that Eisenhower was either lying or was no longer in control of his own government. To counter this public relations imbroglio, on 9 May 1960 he reversed course and accepted full responsibility for the incident, hoping to defuse the situation once and for all.

Eisenhower realized that Khrushchev would use the U-2 affair as a bargaining chip but hoped that he would still be interested in serious negotiations with the West. On 15 May 1960, Khrushchev delivered to de Gaulle and Macmillan several conditions for his participation in the summit. Eisenhower had to apologize for the U-2 flights, promise to discontinue the U-2 program, and punish the persons responsible for the overflights. Despite such unpalatable conditions, Eisenhower continued to believe that he could come to terms with Khrushchev once they met in person. On 16 May, however, at the first official session of the four-power meeting, Khrushchev delivered a forty-five-minute tirade against U.S. policies and publicly repeated his conditions for continuing the summit talks. Eisenhower replied with restraint but refused to apologize, although he did hint that he might discontinue the U-2 flights. This was a vague and empty commitment, however, as the U-2 was soon to be eclipsed by the first orbiting U.S. spy satellites. Khrushchev left the preliminary conference meetings, and the Paris Conference was officially declared over on 17 May 1960.

The failure of the conference provided Berlin with a respite of about a year. But when Khrushchev met with Eisenhower's successor John F. Kennedy in Vienna in early June 1961, the Soviet leader reenergized the Berlin Crisis and ultimately erected the Berlin Wall in August 1961. On 1 September 1961, the Soviets resumed atmospheric nuclear tests, breaking a three-year mutual moratorium. The United States and Britain also resumed nuclear testing before finally concluding a Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union on 25 July 1963, only months after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Paris Conference's failure resulted not only in a significant blemish on Eisenhower's reputation and legacy but also represented a lost opportunity to downgrade—or perhaps even end—the titanic Cold War struggle of the preceding fifteen years.

Christian Nuenlist


Further Reading
Beschloss, Michael R. Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.; Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: Norton, 2003.
 

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