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The Eisenhower Years

Following Stalin's death in March 1953 there was a power struggle. It was a struggle between groups. The group led by Nikita Khrushchev prevailed, and what followed was to be known as the Khrushchev thaw.

Krushchev denounced what he depicted as the cult and crimes of the Stalin era, despite his having been a loyal servant of Stalin's. Khrushchev presentation shocked the Soviet people. In Stalin's homeland, Georgia (a Soviet Republic) many, especially the younger generation, who grew up being told about Stalin the genius and great leader, saw it as a national insult. In March 1956, rallies to mark the third anniversary of Stalin's death evolved into an uncontrollable mass demonstration that included calls for governmental change in Moscow. The Soviet Army responded and there was bloodshed in the streets of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.

Meanwhile, repression and censorship were being eased. Political prisoners remained, but millions were released. President Eisenhower and First Secretary Khrushchev met in late 1955 in Geneva, and in 1959 Khrushchev and his wife NIna toured the United States. Some in the US greeted the Khrushchevs with hostile placards calling Nikita the "Butcher of Budapest," referring to the Soviet Union putting down a failed uprising in Hungary in late 1956. But the Cold War had not changed the basic character of the American people. Many put ideology and fears aside and greeted the Khrushchev's with hope, happiness and hospitality.

About the Hungarian uprising, it began with Communists in Hungary, in addition to university students, seeking changes. Imre Nagy was prime minister – a Hungarian Communist put in power by the Soviet Union. Communists pretended to believe in democracy, but Nagy went too far: he wanted a multi-party democracy. The Soviet Union replaced Nagy with Janos Kader – who had been in prison for his hostility to Stalinism. The uprising was crushed by tanks. Nagy disappeared into the Soviet Union and was secretly executed in 1958. All of this leaving many in the US unimpressed concerning the Soviet Union's liberalization. The senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, believed that the US should have intervened militarily. He criticized President Eisenhower for his willingness to talk to Khrushchev.

Already, in 1954, the US had participated in the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran. Mosaddegh had disliked communist doctrine and had excluded communists from his government. But as a believer in democracy he was allowing Iran's Communist Party, the Tudeh, to function politically. And, as one would expect of them, the Tudeh favored Mosaddegh's desire to nationalize their country's oil. But for Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Duller, Mosaddegh had been too friendly with Communists, and our British allies were driving the overthrow and upset with Mosaddegh's desire to nationalize the oil industry in Iran. (In the long run, the overthrow of Mosaddegh would contribute to what would be the 1977 Iranian Revolution.)

Also in 1954, a coup created by the Eisenhower administration overthrew the Árbenz regime in Guatemala. Jacobo Árbenz had been a leftist former army colonel who sought land reform and was thought by the Eisenhower administration as too friendly with Communists.

Meanwhile, in 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik, taking the lead in a race into space. People in the US were shocked. Soviet rocket capabilities were seen as a threat. In the US. The question which economic system was superior intensified.

The Soviet Union was moving up from having had much destroyed during the war. Something like 40 million Soviet citizens are said to have been killed during the war, around 9 million of those combatants. (The US lost about a half million.) Thirty thousand industrial enterprises, thousands of bridges and crossings, hundreds of thousands of railways and highways had been destroyed. The economic growth rate was highest of course in territories devastated by the war. To help rebuild the country, the Soviet government had obtained credits from Britain and Sweden (but it refused economic assistance proposed by the United States under the Marshall Plan). The growth was concentrated on heavy industry, with people working long hours, moved by the spirit of victory in war, and pushed in anticipation of another war. During the period from 1951 to 1960 the average annual growth rate was 5.81 percent.

Khrushchev was interested in shifting from the emphasis on heavy industry to at least a little more importance given to the production of consumer goods and housing. A Seven-Year Plan was launched in 1958 with the promise of building 12 million city apartments and 7 million rural houses. A "Kitchen Debate" at the 1959 Moscow Exhibition, between Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon, is said to have fueled Khrushchev's desire to catch up with Western consumerism.

The Eisenhower administration was concerned more with the Soviet Union's production and distribution of rockets. Photographs were useful for the US defense establishment. The US sent U2 flights across the Soviet Union, and President Eisenhower denied it. Photographs from the flights revealed that Soviet nuclear capabilities were significantly less advanced than had been claimed by Khrushchev. On 14 May 1959, Eisenhower journeyed to Paris for a summit meeting with world leaders. An angry Khrushchev canceled his plan to attend the summit meeting. There had also been the plan for Eisenhower's visit to the Soviet Union, and it was canceled. Someone wrote that the thaw in the Cold War appeared to have been canceled.

In January 1959, Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries came to power in Cuba. In April, Castro accepted an invitation to visit the US by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Eisenhower snubbed Castro, leaving town to play golf. Instead, Vice President Nixon invited Castro to his office where they chatted. Castro laid a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial. He was invited to meet the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he told them that he would not expropriate the property of Americans and that he was against dictatorships and for a free press.

Back home, Castro was riding a tiger. Bombs exploded in Havana, believed to be the work of counter-revolutionaries, Members of Castro's movement included Communists, but there were those who were against tolerating Communists. Red-baiting was denounced, and Castro took the side of those supporting unity. In increasing numbers anti-Communists abandoned Castro. Castro was working on agrarian reform. After the harvest of 1960 sugar plantations were to be owned by Cubans. Sugar company stocks fell on the New York Stock Exchange. US executives protested to the US government. More talk erupted in the US about Communism in Cuba. The Eisenhower administration was in its final year, and it disliked the increase in ties between Cuba and the Soviet Union and decided to work with anti-Castro groups inside Cuba in hope of overthrowing Castro. In March, 1960, a French ship carrying a shipment of Belgian small arms exploded in Havana harbor, killing dozens of workers and soldiers. Castro publicly accused the CIA of sabotage, and the US protested against the accusation. Also in March, Eisenhower ordered the CIA to train Cuban exiles for an invasion of Cuba – with Batistianos forbidden to join the force. Eisenhower approved $13 million for the project.

In the US, hardline anti-Communists were led by a senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater. His aid, Brent Bozwell, wrote a book for Goldwater called Conscience of a Conservative, published in 1960. With this book and another book drawn from the writings of Bozwell, Why Not Victory?, to be published in 1963, Goldwater would carry the torch for those supporting an uncompromising policy regarding communism. In Conscience of a Conservative, communism was described as "growing day by day." Goldwater favored withdrawing diplomatic recognition from all Communist governments including that of the Soviet Union. In Conscience of a Conservative it was written that "Our goal must be victory." And point ten under that subheading declared: "We must – ourselves – be prepared to undertake military operations against vulnerable Communist regimes."

CONTINUE READING: Mao's Leaps and the Cultural Revolution

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.