The aftermath of Stalin's death showed how difficult it was to establish a productive diplomatic relationship after years of intense hostility. There was a general feeling that the departure of the dictator, which coincided with the beginning of the Eisenhower administration, made negotiations both feasible and desirable. But neither side was ready for the kind of give and take that is the substance of diplomacy.
Soviet foreign policy, masterminded by Stalin's former aide Molotov, did not substantially depart from its previous strategy of driving wedges between the United States and Europe even though the strategy had been ineffective if not counterproductive. Churchill's efforts to reconvene another summit meeting foundered on both American and Soviet reluctance to address the many seemingly intractable issues that divided the two countries. The conference of foreign ministers that met in Berlin in January 1954 to address the German question failed to advance toward its resolution; significantly, their subsequent Geneva conference on Indochina, where U.S. and Soviet interests were less involved, proved more successful in achieving a political settlement there.
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was readier than Molotov to draw new conclusions from the changing situation. But the conclusions he drew did not make him any more willing to engage the Soviet adversary in substantive negotiations. Dulles was particularly concerned about the growing Soviet nuclear arsenal and only wanted to negotiate after the United States had achieved a position of strength, by which he understood mainly military strength. He attached particular importance to equipping NATO with tactical nuclear weapons and ratifying the European Defense Community as NATO's subsidiary, through which West Germany could be rearmed.
A hallmark of U.S. superpower diplomacy was the critical importance it attached to the nuclear balance. Imputing to the Soviet Union a willingness to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons worked to its advantage by diverting attention from its weaknesses in other areas than military. Taking a narrowly military view in the assessment of the adversary limited U.S. options and made relations with America's allies more difficult. The European allies, while craving U.S. protection, no longer saw the Soviet threat in such stark terms as the Americans because of their position as the ultimate guarantors of Western security.
The different assessments of the Soviet threat led to the failure of the European Defense Community, regarded by Washington as the acid test of European willingness to stand up to the Soviet Union under U.S. leadership. During the debate that preceded the final rejection of the project in August 1954, Dulles in December 1953 threatened an "agonizing reappraisal" of U.S. foreign policy, implying a separate U.S.–Soviet arrangement over the heads of the Europeans and possibly at their expense. Yet a superpower deal did not materialize. An alternative way was found for making West Germany contribute to Western defense by admitting it into NATO.
The October 1954 Paris agreements, which reaffirmed U.S. commitment to the defense of Europe and provided for West Germany's subsequent admission into NATO, were a setback for the Soviet Union, to which its new leader, Nikita S. Khrushchev, responded by taking initiatives toward détente. According to the U.S. historian Marc Trachtenberg, the Soviet Union was ready for a European settlement whereby continued U.S. military presence on the continent would provide constraints on rising German power. But most other historians agree that the Soviet Union instead sought to weaken the American position in Europe. Rather than seeking a superpower deal, Khrushchev persistently if unsuccessfully pursued a plan for a European collective security system from which the United States would be excluded, thus leaving the Soviet Union as dominant power on the continent.
The Geneva summit of July 1955 was the first since the onset of the Cold War and the last in which Great Britain and France participated as ostensibly equal partners together with the United States and the Soviet Union. But although Britain possessed nuclear weapons and France would soon acquire them, too, the two countries' potential was so far behind that of the superpowers that it did not translate into diplomatic clout at a time when the U.S.–Soviet nuclear standoff was becoming the key item on the international agenda. This was the result of technological rather than political developments, particularly the introduction into the superpower arsenals of hydrogen bombs, the destructive power of which was theoretically unlimited, and of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting with increasing precision any target on earth.
The unresolved question was whether what came to be known as the "balance of terror" enhanced stability by deterring each side from contemplating the use of the deadly weapons, or whether the incalculable balance made the U.S.–Soviet relationship more precarious by making it dependent on unpredictable changes in military technology, the effects of which could not be estimated with any certainty. Superpower relations remained tense as Khrushchev took advantage of the American preoccupation with military balance by pursuing a successful diplomatic offensive toward other Western nations as well as nonaligned countries of the Third World. The perception that the Soviet Union was gaining political ground thus kept delaying U.S. attainment of the position of strength that Dulles had made a precondition of negotiations with Moscow. And the Soviet Union awaited further weakening of the U.S. adversary before wanting to negotiate seriously.
Disarmament negotiations, conducted on a multilateral rather than bilateral basis within the framework of the United Nations, had made little progress as each of the superpowers made proposals known to be unacceptable to the other. The Soviet Union pleaded for "general and complete disarmament" at a time when the United States regarded the West's rearmament as being the priority. For its part, the United States insisted on controls of arms reductions so pervasive that, if implemented, they would have undermined the pillar of secrecy on which the closed Soviet society was resting.
A landmark in superpower relations was the launching in October 1957 of Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, which showed that the Soviet Union was more advanced in the technology necessary for the delivery of nuclear weapons than had been generally believed. This demonstration of technological prowess encouraged Khrushchev to use his country's perceived nuclear might as an instrument of diplomacy. The calculation that the United States would be sufficiently impressed to consent to the settlement of the German question on Soviet terms underlay the demands he made that in November 1958 initiated the Berlin crisis—the first of the two major Cold War crises that tested the efficacy of the superpower diplomacy.
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