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COLD WAR, 1953-60 (1 of 11)

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Cold War: the Eisenhower Years

Conflict within the Soviet Bloc | Eisenhower and anti-Communism, 1953-54 | US intervention in Iran | France requests Help in Vietnam| Support for Ngo Dien Diem | Tensions and Geneva, 1955 | Poland and Hungary | Nasser and the Middle East | Thaw and Comedy, 1959 | Castro and Eisenhower | Cold War Mindsets

Conflict within the Soviet Bloc

During the Korean War, Stalin ordered intensified industrialization and thereby created a greater hardship in the Soviet bloc nations. Very little there was being manufactured for consumption and pleasant living. Agriculture in these lands was being collectivized. The middle classes were being stripped of their possessions, and parents were becoming estranged from their children because of indoctrination in the schools.

Communists in the Soviet bloc nations who were seen as insufficiently supportive of Stalinism were still being described as "bourgeois nationalists" and Titoists. Hundreds of thousands who had joined the Communist Party in the idealistic days of resisting fascism were purged. Some were jailed and some were executed, as had been the communist leader Lazlo Rajk in Hungary. In 1952 in Czechoslovakia, the Secretary-General of the Communist Party, Rudolf Slansky, and others were accused of being Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionists. They stood trial. Slansky made a false confession and he and nine others – seven of whom were Jews like Slansky – were executed. In Poland, the secretary of the Communist Party, Wladislaw Gomulka, and various communist cabinet ministers were arrested and imprisoned.

In the Soviet Union around this time, the crackdown against bourgeois culture was in full swing. Composers, artists, writers and poets were accused of being insufficiently proletarian in outlook. Stalin had been annoyed by the admiration of many Soviet Jews involved in the creation of Israel in 1948, and "rootless cosmopolitan" was one of the charges thrown at Jews and some others. To be a cosmopolitan was to be an admirer of the capitalist West. Stalin still feared the West;s influence. In the Soviet Union people were sacrificing again, receiving little economic reward for their labor, the average wage bringing from 20 to 40 percent less purchasing power than it had in 1928 – just before Stalin's industrialization.

Stalin's leading underling in his cultural war had been Andrei Zhdanov. He had died in 1948, and there were suspicions that doctors had caused his death. In January 1953, nine doctors were arrested and charged with having poisoned Zhdanov and with having tried to poison others. The doctors, most of them Jews, were accused of being paid by US and British intelligence agents and of serving the interests of international Jewry.

Stalin was seventy-three, his health fading, and while fearing doctors, in March 1953, he died. Great crowds of people stood in the cold and wept. Their leader and father figure, who had seen them through decades of trouble, was gone.

A Shaky Succession to Collective Leadership

Succeeding Stalin as premier was Georgi Malenkov, who had been Stalin's aid, a member of the Politburo and deputy premier. With Malenkov were the other nine members of the Presidium – the name changed from Politburo in October 1952. One of its members was Lavrenty Beria, who was also still head of the intelligence and police agency called the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs). Another Presidium member was Nikita Khrushchev.

Publicly the new leadership displayed loyalty to the great fallen leader, Stalin, but signs of an immediate softening appeared among them. There was talk of producing more consumer goods. And now that Stalin was dead, criticism against him arose. Nikita Khrushchev blamed Stalin for having launched the Cold War while the Soviet Union had not yet recovered substantially from World War II. He condemned Stalin for the blockade that inspired the Berlin airlift and underestimating US resolve (Berlin 1961, by Frederick Kempe, p 10). Beria described the Doctors' Plot instigated by Stalin as a hoax. Beria advocated reducing the severity of penalties for minor crimes, reforms that would eliminate "inadmissible" police methods, and he spoke of protecting the rights of citizens guaranteed under the Soviet Union's Constitution. Women married to foreigners would be allowed to leave the Soviet Union to join their husbands. And there was talk of making life easier for people in the satellite nations.

Beria is quoted by historian Frederick Kempe: "All we need is a peaceful Germany. Whether it is socialist or not isn't important to us." Kempe describes Beria as wanting to negotiate financial compensation from the West for the Soviet Union agreeing to a neutral and unified Germany (Kempe, p 23). Stalin himself, in March 1952, had offered West Germany's Konrad Adenauer a reunified, neutralized, demilitarized, de-Nazified Germany without occupation forces. Adenauer had suspected Stalin's motives and had rejected the offer (Kempe, p 23).

Kempe writes that others in the collective leadership ignored Beria's call to abandon East Germany but did demand that their man in East Germany, the German communist Walter Ulbricht, stop trying to collective agriculture and stop large-scale public arrests.

The new collective leadership in Moscow included conservatives: Malenkov and Molotov. Beria was the liberal, but his soft policy regarding East Berlin was discredited by an uprising in Communist-controlled East Berlin. In June, 1953, construction workers in East Berlin rebelled against what had been an increased work load. Their strike spread, an estimated 400,000 workers taking to the streets in the four days that followed the work stoppage. The unrest spread from Berlin to more than 400 cities, towns and villages across East Germany. The collective leadership in Moscow was stunned and didn't want the Berliners to set an example for people in other lands they controlled. There was a limit to their boldness or the speed with which they instituted a new policy toward what some in the United States in 1953 called "captive nations." Communist Party leadership chose crackdown, and Beria went along. He sent Soviet tank units stationed in Germany to confront the strikers. The rebellion was crushed and obedience returned to the work force. Officially, 21 had died. Another account put the dead at 187. There were also anti-government riots in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and a prisoners' strike in Siberia. The Kremlin saw the danger of a weakened Soviet Union against the US trying to "rollback" communism.

In Moscow, conflict worsened among Presidium leaders. Most of them feared Beria – who had the nation's police apparatus behind him, and Khrushchev was convinced that Beria was making a grab for power. Khrushchev, writes Kempe, "argued that Beria had been willing to abandon socialism altogether in a Germany that had been conquered at such great Soviet human cost during World War II." (Kempe, p 23). Khrushchev won help from the World War II hero, General Zhukov, now Deputy Defense Minister. Beria and six of his associates were arrested on June 28, to the relief of many. Beria was charged with having attempted to seize power. He had a reputation as an aggressive womanizer, and his political opponents were now charging him with having raped girls and other crimes. Khrushchev succeeded in putting the MVD under Party control. In response to Party members having been purged in Stalin's time, the Party ruled that its officials could no longer be arrested without permission from a Party committee. Beria, meanwhile, was shot. In the years to come, Beria's wife and son and some others would try to defend what they believed to be his good name.

Malenkov lost in the power struggle but remained as the Soviet Union's Premier (head of the government) with some influence until 1955. He favored a new communist leader for Hungary, Imre Nagy (pronounced Imreh Nahj) who had been persecuted under Hungary's Stalinist regime. Nagy took power on July 4, 1953, and put Hungary on a "New Course." This included slowing the pace of industrialization and promising an increased production of consumer goods, allowing people to leave collective farms, easing police pressures and releasing political prisoners.

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