In The Cold War after Stalin's Death: A Missed Opportunity for Peace? (The Harvard Cold War Studies Book Series) historians discussing policies pursued by Dwight Eisenhower before the First Détente between Western superpowers and the Soviet Bloc often presume with the benefit of hindsight that he could have done more to bring about détente earlier, and criticize various “missed opportunities” which may or may not have resulted in an amelioration of East-West relations in the first place:
first it was a blue-eyed urge of the newly elected American president against the warnings of the veteran politician Churchill to simply resolve things with Stalin; then he disregarded his advisors’ opinions on the consequences of the arms race and instilled an unconscionable growth of the U.S. nuclear arsenal at the expense of conventional forces, compelling the Soviet Union to follow the trend, especially after the West withdrew and refused to pursue existing reasonable proposals of disarmament any further. Eisenhower could also be blamed for exacerbating East-West relations by continuing to threaten the Soviet Union with sharing nuclear weapons with the Western European allies and by not sufficiently supporting the reunification of Germany. The list continues, but most of the accusations are based on pure speculation and the assumption that diplomatic maneuvers by the Soviet Union were honest expressions of good will and contained sincere proposals, a conjecture that could never be confirmed with any degree of certainty.
A paradoxical observation goes to the heart of the German question: the German leaders of the day were themselves seemingly the greatest impediment to reunification of Germany during the early years of the Cold War. To be sure, Adenauer had misgivings about how trustworthy the Soviets could be in respecting the proposed neutrality of Germany. But the fervent opposition of both Konrad Adenauer and Walter Ulbricht to any attempts at reunification and the consequent neutralization of Germany made it transparent that the tension was not as much about the interests of the German people, but rather about a power struggle between East and West German political circles. Both German leaders so obviously feared all-German free elections bearing the risk of dethroning their own cabinets that they refused to consider any of the progressively more far-reaching accommodations signaled by the Soviet side. The patriotic rhetoric used by both Germanys conveniently sidestepped the fact that a neutral unified Germany could cast a decisive vote in the balance of power in divided Europe. Economically, being able to benefit from relations with both East and West would also have improved existential conditions of a reunified country. And yet Adenauer did all in his power to build up the position and wealth of “his” Germany, raising himself to significant importance as a Western partner, while Ulbricht on his side tried to maintain himself and his comrades in power in the impoverished and undemocratic East Germany, which necessitated its political isolation and continued Soviet support. Such attitudes were a significant deterrent to any practical implementation of a détente. In fact, it was in the interest of both German leaders not to let détente happen in reality, since the German question would cease to be a crucial point in the balance of power, and German unification, or lack thereof, might have drifted into irrelevance at peacetime.
Another question that arises in this context is why it is that France became one of the three Western superpowers of the post-war period. One can understand the privileged position of the US as the tipping point in the struggle against Hitler’s conquest of Europe. One can also see how Britain withstood enduring German attack and contributed unconditionally to the Allied forces; but France neither repelled not even significantly opposed Nazi Germany’s territorial advances, but rather quickly and swiftly capitulated before incurring considerable wartime damage. The position of France, then, as one of the four victorious allies not only occupying a part of Germany, but also controlling one of the most strategic German regions, the Saarland, bordering on the heavily industrialized Ruhr region, and thereafter blocking diplomatic efforts of the EDC, NATO, and those aimed at the solution of the German problem, becomes comprehensible only if one assumes that such a grant of negotiating power to France was somehow necessary to its American and British allies to avoid the impression that it was, in fact, an English-centered alliance, first with and then against the Soviet Union. This elevation of France’s status has served also as a counter-balance to the power vacuum created in Central Europe after stripping Germany of its traditional position of significance.
The veritable “alphabet soup” of proposals to resolve East-West problems during the Cold War – the Rapacki Plan, the Eden Plan, the Heusinger Plan, etc. etc. seemingly served only to obfuscate the fact that none of the parties realistically wanted a compromise without obtaining comparatively greater concessions of its opponents or competitors. Just like the Soviet disarmament plan tried to ensure a Soviet advantage in the resulting balance of power, the US “cut-off” proposal and “fissile materials depot” under the authority of the UN (part of America’s “Atoms for Peace” propaganda) was meant to undercut the Soviet nuclear potential without affecting American nuclear supremacy significantly. All sides thus made ostensible gestures of goodwill for the benefit of public consumption, knowing well that the terms they proposed could only be accepted by a weakened opponent and would amount to its effective surrender. Even Soviet preliminary openness toward negotiating the Western disarmament proposal was met with confusion, since the West neither actually indented to follow through, nor did they view the Soviet gesture as a sign of goodwill, but rather as an indication of weakness that required prompt exploitation. Consequently, early efforts at de-escalating the Cold War did not go very far.
Thankfully, both the American and British governments (as expressed in the Ward memorandum) on one side and the Soviets on the other side realized that hoping for a miracle in Europe would lead nowhere. Efforts were made to establish cautious political, and hopefully also economic ties with the opposing regimes that until now had been considered “illegitimate” by either side (this phenomenon applied to both German states and the Eastern Bloc countries). Self-imposed political, but most importantly economic isolation could be expected to serve nobody in the long term, and the artificial division of Europe along its post-war East-West line distorted traditional economic relations in a way that benefitted no one, either – thus, economic reasons may have served as one important early catalyst for genuine détente.
It is striking, however, that actual détente only took place when both sides started to feel more secure in their military and political power. Technological advances on both sides, especially the development of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union, clarified at last what would happen in the case of any direct conflict. In spite of propaganda and kowtowing opinions of advisors on both sides downplaying the consequences of a nuclear conflict (interestingly, both Eisenhower and the Soviet leadership had advisors who would strictly follow the ideological party line, as exemplified by the reversal of Malenkov), it eventually became clear that a nuclear war would have no winners. At this point, both sides could safely return to their respective drawing boards looking for viable alternatives to this disastrous final outcome. In the process, both sides also had to give up some of their demands – the Soviet Union’s claims to the control of Austria and to reunification and neutralization of Germany, while the Western powers needed to abandon their ambitions to westernize all of Germany and to ostensibly ignore the existing status quo in Eastern Europe. Finally, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 clarified that, in spite of propaganda, the electoral platitudes of the US administration about “liberating the enslaved peoples” of Eastern Europe were not to be implemented, after all, and thus the Soviet Union could become more relaxed about managing its sphere of influence without a credible threat of Western Allies meddling in the internal affairs of the Warsaw Pact. With a better grasp of the military potential and strategic attitudes of either side, a virtually pro-forma 1955 summit in Geneva that solved precious little was a good enough goodwill gesture to start a slow and arduous move towards détente in earnest.