Although Khrushchev characterized peaceful coexistence as a Leninist principle that had always been the general line of Soviet foreign policy, he was referring to the period from 1922 to 1929, when the Soviet regime, for practical reasons, practiced a policy of accommodation toward the capitalist world. In fact, peaceful coexistence represented a sharp break with the Stalinist era (1929–1953), during which the dictator consistently portrayed the Soviet Union as a socialist island surrounded by a capitalist sea and preached the inevitability of conflict between communism and capitalism.
The road to peaceful coexistence actually began more than a year before the Twentieth Party Congress. On 1 January 1955, Khrushchev's colleague Prime Minister Georgy Malenkov stated that the Soviet Union's recent development of the hydrogen bomb made coexistence with the West both necessary and possible. Over the next nine months, the Kremlin followed up the Malenkov statement with a series of concrete steps clearly indicative of a new foreign policy paradigm. In May 1955, the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain, and France signed the Austrian State Treaty, which provided for the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Austria. The treaty ended a decade of four-power occupation and restored Austria's political independence. In July, Khrushchev traveled to Geneva and met with U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, and French Prime Minister Edgar-Jean Faure in the first summit meeting of the Cold War. Although this Geneva Summit failed to resolve the most pressing Cold War issues, it did allow for the establishment of a personal rapport between the leaders of the two superpowers. Finally, in September 1955, Moscow established diplomatic relations with the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany).
Multiple motives lay behind the Soviet's quest for peaceful coexistence. Khrushchev certainly believed it essential for the cause of world peace, arguing in his 14 February 1956 report to the Twentieth Party Congress that only two choices existed: either peaceful coexistence or the most devastating war in history. Furthermore, he recognized that better relations with the West would allow for cuts in defense spending and the reallocation of funds to domestic programs to improve the living conditions of Soviet citizens who had known little else but hardship since the early 1930s.
Peaceful coexistence did not represent the end of the Soviet commitment to international communism or the loss of faith in the ultimate victory of communism over capitalism. Khrushchev remained convinced that the future belonged to communism. Yet unlike Stalin, who saw communism's preordained triumph as the by-product of an inevitable clash with capitalism, Khrushchev believed that the non-communist world would voluntarily convert to communism once the Soviets had demonstrated the superiority of the Soviet socialist system.
Peaceful coexistence neither ended the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race nor produced a settlement of outstanding Cold War issues. Moscow and Washington continued to add to their nuclear arsenals, both quantitatively and qualitatively, while the status of Berlin produced a series of crises during 1958–1961. Furthermore, peaceful coexistence could not prevent new crises. For example, the U-2 Crisis of May 1960 short-circuited the heralded Paris Conference that same month, and the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis arguably brought the Soviet Union and the United States closer to a nuclear showdown than any other event during the Cold War.
The Soviet Union's new foreign policy paradigm also played a part in exacerbating the Sino-Soviet split, as the leadership of the People's Republic of China (PRC) lambasted the policy as revisionist and a betrayal of true Leninist ideology. Nonetheless, peaceful coexistence did change the tenor of Soviet-American relations for the better during the 1950s and early 1960s, producing a welcome relaxation of tensions that ultimately paved the way toward the era of détente during the 1970s.
Bruce J. DeHart
Bamberg, James. British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-75: The Challenge to Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.; MacKenzie, David. From Messianism to Collapse: Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917–1991. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1994.; Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: Norton, 2003.; Ulam, Adam. Expansion and Coexistence: Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917–1973. 2nd ed. New York: Praeger, 1974.