Cold War Evolution and Interpretations - The failed quest for "liberation"

While U.S. national security elites still hoped to force the Soviet Union to allow political independence throughout Eastern Europe, the State Department grasped the possibilities inherent in the independent communist course being pursued in Yugoslavia since the open breach in 1948 between Stalin and Josip Broz Tito. Both Truman and his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, sought to promote "Titoism" in Eastern Europe, but the confrontational quest for "liberation" of the "captive nations" undermined this effort. Right-wing critics insisted that containment was a fatalistic and unmanly (even "pantywaist," to some critics) policy, which supposedly acquiesced in Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe. In reality, Kennan's conceptualization of containment, embraced as U.S. Cold War policy, had always encompassed liberation, or rollback, of communist power in Eastern Europe.

Eisenhower intensified a campaign of "psychological warfare" that had begun under Truman in an effort to destabilize Soviet hegemony. A variety of strategies, focused especially on radio propaganda, did indeed help shake the foundations of Communist Party authority in Eastern Europe. When necessary, however, as in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956, the Soviet Union simply resorted to direct military intervention to maintain its hard sphere of influence over East-Central Europe. Nothing the United States and its NATO allies could have done, short of initiating World War III, would have altered this fundamental geopolitical reality flowing from the World War II settlement and the postwar ideological clash.

A more subtle Western approach might have enhanced the possibility of the post-Stalinist leadership loosening the bonds of authority over the East-Central European Communist Party regimes. However, by confronting the Soviet Union with both NATO and aggressive psychological warfare, Washington gave the Kremlin no opportunity to allow for liberalization, or Titoism, in the region. It was all too clear to Soviet leaders that if the "satellites" were allowed to go their own way they would end up ultimately—as in fact occurred decades later after the end of the Cold War—being transferred directly into the hostile NATO orbit. The Kremlin had no choice, short of capitulation to the West, but to protect its sphere at all costs. With psychological warfare having failed to deliver the ultimate prize of liberation, the Eisenhower administration was compelled to adopt an evolutionary approach emphasizing toned-down radio propaganda, exchanges of film, trade fairs, exhibitions, and people-to-people contacts.

Following the death of Stalin in 1953, Nikita S. Khrushchev eventually emerged as the new Kremlin leader. In 1956, Khrushchev stunned communists throughout the world by denouncing Stalin for his many "crimes" against the people. A dedicated Marxist-Leninist known for his thundering denunciations of the West, Khrushchev also took concrete steps, including meaningful cuts in Soviet defenses, toward achieving "peaceful coexistence" with the West. Khrushchev's brash style, however, combined with deeply ingrained American Cold War anxieties, continued to plague any progress toward a genuine détente. A hysterical American reaction to the Soviet launch of Sputnik , the first Earth satellite, in 1957 complicated Eisenhower's hopes for a breakthrough in the Cold War. The president's own decision to authorize a campaign of aerial spying over Soviet airspace doomed the Eisenhower-Khrushchev "thaw" in the Cold War. Hopes for achieving what would later be called détente came crashing down with Gary Powers's U-2 spy plane in May 1960. Eisenhower limped out of office decrying the "unwarranted influence" of the military-industrial complex, a phenomenon that, ironically, had gained substantial momentum on his own watch.

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