Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 20 – Negotiating with the Communists

Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger. Book cover detail.

In 1994, Henry Kissinger published the book Diplomacy. He was a renowned scholar and diplomat who served as the United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His book provides an extensive sweep of the history of foreign affairs and the art of diplomacy, with a particular focus on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, known for his alignment with the realist school of international relations, inquires into the concepts of the balance of power, raison d’État, and Realpolitik across different eras.

His work has been widely praised for its scope and intricate detail. Yet, it has also faced criticism for its focus on individuals over structural forces, and for presenting a reductive view of history. Also, critics have also pointed out that the book focuses excessively on Kissinger’s individual role in events, potentially overstating his impact. In any case, his ideas are worthy of consideration.

This article presents a summary of Kissinger’s ideas in the twentieth chapter of his book, called “Negotiating with the Communists: Adenauer, Churchill, and Eisenhower”.

You can find all available summaries of this book, or you can read the summary from the previous chapter of the book, by clicking these links.

In March 1952, during the ongoing Korean War, Stalin made a diplomatic move to potentially end the Cold War. Contrary to Western predictions that the Soviet system would transform under pressure, Stalin aimed to safeguard communism from an arms race he believed the Soviets could not sustain. His proposal, rather than envisioning a peaceful world order, suggested recognizing two spheres of influence—America’s in Western Europe and the Soviets’ in Eastern Europe—with a neutral, armed Germany between them.

Historians and political figures have since debated whether Stalin’s proposal was a genuine opportunity to end the Cold War or merely a strategic maneuver to prevent German rearmament and disrupt Western cohesion. Stalin’s true intentions remain unclear, as his actions in the years leading up to the offer had already undermined any trust in his sincerity. Even testing his proposal risked weakening the Atlantic Alliance, which might have been his ultimate aim.

The discussion of Stalin’s intentions became moot when he died a year after the proposal, in 1953. His successors lacked both the determination to push for comprehensive negotiations and the authority to make significant concessions. Stalin’s peace initiative thus remained an intriguing historical episode, showcasing the profound misalignments in motivation between the Soviet Union and the West during the Cold War.

The narrative of Stalin’s strategy reveals a complex interplay of ideological and practical considerations. America, adhering strictly to legal commitments from the Yalta and Potsdam agreements, contrasted sharply with Stalin, who valued agreements only insofar as they reflected a balance of power. This fundamental difference in approach underscored their interactions, with each side collecting bargaining chips and waiting for the other to make a decisive move.

The early 1950s marked a period where the U.S. solidified its influence through the Marshall Plan, NATO, and supporting the establishment of West Germany, while Stalin responded with aggressive moves like the Berlin Blockade and supporting the North Korean invasion. However, these actions ultimately enhanced Western unity and highlighted the strategic vulnerabilities of the Soviet position, as the NATO alliance and Japan began to represent a formidable industrial and military counterbalance to the Soviet sphere.

Stalin’s reluctance to engage directly with the U.S. military was evident in several instances, including his withdrawal from Iranian Azerbaijan under American pressure and his decision to end the Berlin Blockade. His strategies were often cautious, aimed at avoiding outright military conflict while maintaining a posture of strength. This cautious approach was underscored by his response to an economic theory suggesting that capitalist stability was increasing, which could unite capitalist powers against the USSR. Stalin countered this with a reassertion of his long-held view that inherent capitalist conflicts would prevent such unity and delay any direct confrontation with the Soviet Union.

In essence, Stalin’s diplomatic and ideological maneuvers were aimed at managing Soviet power without triggering a war that could threaten the communist system. He sought to navigate the complex international landscape by reinforcing Soviet ideology and preparing for strategic engagements with the capitalist bloc, all while avoiding actions that could lead to direct military conflict.

On March 10, 1952, Stalin extended a diplomatic gesture towards the West with his “Peace Note on Germany”, signaling a possible shift in Soviet foreign policy. The note proposed discussions for a peace treaty with Germany, suggesting a unified, neutral Germany that could maintain its own armed forces, but with all foreign troops withdrawing within a year. However, the note included vague clauses potentially blocking any progress, like banning organizations harmful to peace and democracy—a term which could broadly encompass Western political parties as seen in Eastern Europe.

The timing and content of the note suggested Stalin was serious about negotiation, as it even showed an unusual openness to alternative proposals from the West. If this offer had been made before significant Cold War tensions, such as the Berlin Blockade or the Korean War, it might have effectively prevented Germany’s membership in NATO and reshaped European post-war alignment as per earlier suggestions by Churchill.

However, by 1952, with NATO established and German rearmament underway, Western leaders were skeptical. Engaging with Stalin’s proposal risked stalling Western military and political initiatives, potentially irreversible due to strong communist influences in countries like France and Italy. Additionally, lengthy negotiations, like those ongoing for Austria and Korea, hinted that Stalin’s offer might aim to disrupt Western cohesion rather than forge genuine peace.

Stalin seemed open to an overarching settlement, as indicated by his prompt and conciliatory responses to Western feedback, which progressively aligned closer to Western demands. Yet, his engagement in the proposal seemed to wane as he focused on the upcoming Nineteenth Party Congress and the U.S. presidential election, signaling a potential shift in Soviet policy pending these events.

Stalin’s offer to meet with President-elect Eisenhower marked a significant departure from his previous interactions with Western leaders, proposing a direct dialogue he had never extended to Roosevelt, Truman, or Churchill. This initiative coincided with a resumption of purges within the Soviet Union, suggesting Stalin’s discomfort with the existing Soviet bureaucracy when pivoting to new diplomatic strategies. This period of change also implied a readiness on Stalin’s part to possibly sacrifice the East German regime in favor of broader geopolitical gains, using it as a lever in negotiations on German unification.

Despite Stalin’s strategic maneuvers, his assumptions about Western realpolitik proved incorrect. The U.S. response to Soviet overtures was not merely strategic but also principled, viewing legal and moral commitments as tangible guides to foreign policy, contrary to Stalin’s more cynical and tactical approach. This fundamental misreading by Stalin of the Western perspective, especially the American stance on principles and legality, led to a significant miscalculation of the potential for compromise, casting his diplomatic efforts in 1952 as ultimately futile.

Stalin’s “Peace Note” proposal in March 1952 was poorly timed, emerging just months before a U.S. presidential election in which the incumbent, President Truman, was not participating. Even if Truman and Secretary of State Acheson had been inclined to negotiate, the limited timeframe would have been insufficient to finalize any agreement. Beyond the timing, the substance of the proposal raised significant concerns about its viability and the type of geopolitical landscape it envisioned. The proposal suggested a neutral, yet armed, Germany with all foreign troops withdrawn within a year. However, the terms raised unresolved issues such as the definition of “neutrality”, the oversight of this status, and the potential for Soviet influence or veto power in German affairs. Furthermore, the proposal suggested a withdrawal of foreign troops to unspecified locations, likely leaving Soviet forces merely a short distance away at the Polish border, while American forces would return across the Atlantic, potentially destabilizing the recently formed NATO.

The deeper implications of the Peace Note involved the future of Germany and its position in Europe. Truman and Acheson were particularly wary of a scenario where a neutral Germany might revert to aggressive national policies that historically disrupted European peace. The fear was that a strong, unified Germany might pursue revisionist objectives, especially given the inflow of refugees from Eastern Europe who viewed lost territories as rightfully German. This potential destabilization was a significant risk, coming so soon after World War II.

Konrad Adenauer, the Chancellor of West Germany, played a pivotal role during this period. Born in the Rhineland and having served as the Mayor of Cologne before and after the Nazi era, Adenauer was a figure of resilience and serenity, attributes that helped him guide West Germany through its post-war recovery and reintegration into the international community. His leadership style and philosophy were rooted in his Catholic faith and a deep understanding of German history and society. Unlike his contemporaries Churchill or de Gaulle, Adenauer was not primarily influenced by historical or literary study but by his reflective experiences during Germany’s turbulent recent history.

Adenauer’s policy orientation was decisively pro-Western, influenced by his disdain for Realpolitik and the imperial ambitions of past German leaderships like the Kaiser and Bismarck. His approach was fundamentally against the idea of a neutral Germany, which he believed would leave the country vulnerable to external influences and internal nationalist resurgence. Instead, Adenauer favored integration with Western powers, seeking security, equality, and a respectable standing for Germany on the international stage. His domestic political rivals, the Social Democrats, prioritized German unification and might have considered neutrality as a viable path toward this goal, reflecting a fundamental political divide within Germany.

Stalin’s death in March 1953 abruptly halted any potential for these diplomatic negotiations to advance. His passing occurred under mysterious circumstances, with his collapse at his dacha followed by several hours of delay before discovery due to the fear and protocol that governed his security staff’s actions. The vigil kept by his successors and the hesitant involvement of doctors, who were themselves potential targets of a looming purge, marked the end of an era. The speculative nature of what might have been achieved if Stalin had lived, or if he could have persuaded Western leaders to accept his proposals, remains a poignant historical what-if.

After Stalin’s death, his successors felt an even greater urgency to alleviate tensions with the West, but they lacked the authority, subtlety, and unity Stalin possessed, which were crucial for managing such complex diplomatic maneuvers. The power struggles within the Soviet leadership prevented any of them from making concessions to the West, as seen in the purge of Beria, accused of plotting to give up East Germany, aligning ironically with Stalin’s earlier diplomatic direction.

Khrushchev’s memoirs reveal a paranoia among Stalin’s successors that the West might seize the opportunity of Stalin’s death to initiate a confrontation. Stalin had instilled a deep-seated fear in his colleagues of Western retribution once he was gone. Amidst their internal power struggles, they desired a reduction in Cold War tensions but were unwilling to make the necessary concessions, fearing it would jeopardize their individual quests for power.

In this uncertain period, Soviet Prime Minister Malenkov suggested negotiations with the West but failed to provide specific proposals, reflecting the new leadership’s lack of authority and clear policy direction. Both the new Eisenhower administration and the Soviet leaders were cautious, each side wary of the potential consequences of altering the status quo, particularly concerning the fate of East Germany and the stability of NATO.

The questions that dominated Western analysis at the time included whether meaningful negotiations with the Soviets could occur without fracturing the Atlantic Alliance, whether the Soviets would offer substantial concessions, and whether they would use the negotiations merely as a tactic to halt Western military initiatives without actually loosening their grip on Eastern Europe. The potential risks of negotiating a neutral Germany were deemed too great, as it might have invited geopolitical instability or coercion from the Soviet side.

Churchill, re-elected as Prime Minister in 1951, was perhaps the most vocal advocate for re-engagement with the Soviet Union, proposing a summit that might lead to a significant conference, akin to the Potsdam Conference. His approach envisioned a series of far-reaching settlements that included a neutral, unified Germany, a retreat of Soviet forces, and the establishment of neutral democracies in Eastern Europe akin to Finland’s status. However, the feasibility of such ambitious negotiations had diminished drastically since the immediate post-war years. The Western allies, particularly the United States, viewed Churchill’s push for negotiations as out of touch, attributing it to his advanced age rather than to a strategic foresight.

In retrospect, Churchill’s ideas, which were revolutionary during the war and immediate post-war period, seemed increasingly untenable by the early 1950s. The geopolitical landscape had transformed significantly, with the integration of West Germany into the Western alliance marking a departure from the neutrality and standalone status Churchill might have envisioned. The notion of reintroducing a pre-1949 status in Germany and establishing neutral governments in Eastern Europe akin to Finland would have required a dramatic shift in Soviet policy or a significant escalation in Cold War tensions, risks that no Western European nation was prepared to take so soon after the devastation of World War II.

In 1952, the Atlantic Alliance was not cohesive enough to pursue a grand diplomatic settlement along the lines Churchill had proposed. The United States, under both major political parties, felt compelled to maintain a strong stance until the Soviet Union showed signs of internal change. This approach was in contrast to the British tradition of negotiating with ideological adversaries out of necessity and pragmatism, stemming from Britain’s historical lack of geopolitical safety compared to the U.S.

Churchill, adhering to this tradition, advocated for continuous negotiations with the Soviet Union, aiming for a more bearable coexistence. This stance led to a divergence with American leaders who preferred to wait for a fundamental change in the Soviet regime rather than engage in talks. Churchill, during his 1950 campaign and after his re-election as Prime Minister in 1951, pushed for a Four-Power summit to ease Cold War tensions. However, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson was skeptical, believing that strength needed to be established before any productive dialogue could occur.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Churchill saw an opportunity to reengage with the Soviets under new leadership. He encouraged the newly inaugurated President Eisenhower to explore negotiations with Malenkov, the new Soviet leader. However, Eisenhower was hesitant, preferring to see actions rather than words from the Soviets, especially on pressing issues like the Korean armistice and stability in Indochina and Malaya.

Churchill, undeterred by Eisenhower’s reluctance, suggested a meeting of the Potsdam powers and even a preliminary session with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov to ease into substantive discussions. Yet, Eisenhower remained cautious, emphasizing preconditions that the Soviets needed to meet before any high-level talks could proceed.

Churchill, recognizing his limited leverage due to Britain’s dependence on the U.S., chose to voice his views publicly in the House of Commons rather than in direct negotiations with Malenkov. He expressed concern that Western foreign policy might overshadow positive developments within the Soviet Union that could lead to a more favorable international climate.

Churchill continued to advocate for a high-level conference, hoping it would not be burdened by a rigid agenda or overly technical discussions. Instead, he envisioned a gathering that, while perhaps not achieving firm agreements, could foster a collective desire to avoid global destruction. The only specific proposal Churchill offered was akin to the 1925 Locarno Pact, which had established mutual recognition of borders between Germany and France, with Britain acting as a guarantor. However, the effectiveness and relevance of such an agreement in the context of the Cold War were questionable, given the ideological divides and the specific security concerns of the superpowers involved.

Churchill, in July 1953, challenged the notion that Soviet policies were unchangeable and advocated for a “reconnaissance in force” to test the new Soviet reality, suggesting a strategy that later came to be known as détente. He believed that a period of easing tensions, combined with scientific progress, could significantly alter the global landscape. This approach aimed to find a middle ground between the relentless endurance required by containment and the risks associated with a comprehensive settlement that could potentially weaken the Atlantic Alliance and Germany’s integration into the West.

George F. Kennan, reflecting on the rigidity of his original containment strategy, proposed a disengagement scheme that included withdrawing Soviet troops from Central Europe in exchange for a similar withdrawal of American forces from Germany. He also supported the creation of a nuclear-free zone in Central Europe. However, these proposals raised concerns about compromising German integration into the West and the stability of Eastern European communist regimes without assurances against Soviet intervention.

Churchill’s insight recognized the democratic societies’ need for a meaningful engagement strategy beyond mere endurance. He argued that without exploring all alternatives to conflict, democratic publics and governments might be swayed by superficial Soviet peace initiatives that promised changes without substantive evidence. This delicate diplomacy required balancing the need to maintain a strong defense posture with efforts to ease tensions along the European divide.

John Foster Dulles, while recognizing the strategic necessity of Western cohesion, was cautious about engaging in fluid negotiations that could destabilize the hard-earned unity among Western allies. He preferred maintaining established positions in diplomatic talks to consolidate the Atlantic Alliance and the rearmament of Germany, avoiding the complexities of more adventurous diplomacy that might force the Allies or the Soviets into uncomfortable compromises.

As the Soviet leadership under Malenkov sought to demonstrate goodwill through engagements on issues like Korea, Indochina, and the Austrian State Treaty, these actions served more as substitutes for broader European negotiations rather than stepping stones toward them. A 1954 meeting on Germany between foreign ministers quickly reached a stalemate, with neither side willing to venture into the uncertain terrain of substantive negotiations.

This diplomatic deadlock, though tactically useful for the Soviet Union in the short term, ultimately played into the strategic advantages of the United States and its allies, whose economic and military potential outmatched the Soviet sphere. Molotov’s reluctance to make painful concessions and Dulles’s resistance to flexibility shaped a Cold War posture that, while fraught with domestic controversies and susceptible to Soviet peace offensives, ultimately contributed to the strategic upper hand of the Western bloc.

The integration of Germany into NATO, a complex and contentious issue, was resolved through negotiations that required significant concessions from France, with Britain agreeing to station troops permanently in Germany. This arrangement solidified the military alliance within Western Europe, reinforcing the division of the continent into distinct spheres of influence—a stark contrast to the early post-war visions of a more integrated or neutral Europe. Ironically, Churchill, who historically advocated for a balance of power through spheres of influence, sought to mitigate their rigidity, while Dulles, from a nation opposed to such spheres, ended up cementing them.

By 1955, as the Geneva Summit convened, America felt secure enough in the consolidation of its sphere of influence to engage in discussions with the Soviet Union. However, the true substance of these talks was minimal, as both the American and Soviet blocs had solidified their positions in Europe, leaving little room for genuine negotiation. The summit was characterized not by its resolution of Cold War tensions but by its avoidance of critical issues, instead focusing on softer diplomatic interactions and superficial proposals like Eisenhower’s “open-skies” initiative, which neither side expected to be accepted.

The primary outcome of the summit was to illustrate a psychological easing on the part of the democracies, signaling a fatigue with the prolonged confrontational stance that had been the norm. This was a shift from the previous approach of Eisenhower and Dulles, who had insisted on concrete solutions to specific problems. Now, they seemed to acknowledge that waiting for internal changes within the Soviet Union was too demanding a strategy and that proposing alternative negotiation strategies could be divisive. The mere occurrence of a non-hostile summit was perceived as a hopeful sign of potential Soviet reform, reflecting a dramatic shift in public and political sentiment in the West, fueled by optimistic media portrayals and public statements praising the improved diplomatic atmosphere.

Eisenhower, setting a tone of psychological rather than substantive negotiation goals, reflected a broader shift towards valuing the atmosphere of talks over their concrete outcomes. This sentiment was echoed by reactions in the media and by statements from figures like Dulles, who post-summit spoke of a new Soviet policy of tolerance. Harold Macmillan also emphasized the personal relationships formed at the summit, suggesting that these interactions themselves were a significant achievement, despite the lack of substantive agreements.

This softening approach, however, did not address the underlying causes of Cold War tensions, which continued to fester. The symbolic nature of the summit, while momentarily uplifting, offered no real incentives for the Soviet Union to make substantial concessions. As a result, the geopolitical realities remained largely unchanged for the next decade and a half, with the spheres of influence solidified and only sporadic political negotiations occurring, often triggered by crises like the Berlin ultimatums.

Diplomacy shifted focus towards arms control, which became a new domain of negotiation. This was seen as a way to manage the Cold War’s dangers through limitations on armaments, an approach that aimed to maintain a balance of power at levels sufficient for deterrence but not for genuine conflict resolution. Yet, this strategy, too, did not fundamentally ease tensions, as it often served more as a management tool rather than a solution to the deeper political divisions between the East and the West.

While the West celebrated the Geneva Summit of 1955 as a thaw in the Cold War, Soviet leaders interpreted the outcome quite differently, seeing it as a validation of their strength and ideological stance. By the time of the summit, they had effectively quashed dissent within the Eastern Bloc and perceived the West’s lack of intervention as an endorsement of their actions. This perspective was emboldened by their growing nuclear capabilities, leading them to view the summit as a demonstration of their resilience against Western pressures.

Soviet leaders, primarily shaped by their harsh experiences under Stalin, approached leadership and international relations with a deep-rooted paranoia and opportunism. Their careers, marked by survival through absolute loyalty to Stalin and often brutal suppression of peers, influenced their cold, ambitious approach in the post-Stalin era. This background made them view the diplomatic overtures at the summit not as genuine efforts at peace but as strategic maneuvers to be exploited.

Post-summit, Nikita Khrushchev, who emerged as a key figure after navigating the treacherous waters of Soviet power struggles, sought to redefine Soviet interactions with the West. His public denunciation of Stalin and subsequent actions suggested a possible softening of Soviet policy, but these moves were primarily tactical, aimed at consolidating his control and discrediting rivals. Khrushchev’s leadership marked the beginning of significant changes within the Soviet Union, though his intentions were not to dismantle the system but to strengthen it.

Khrushchev’s foreign policy was characterized by its boldness, as he tested the limits of Soviet influence by instigating crises in the Middle East, Berlin, and eventually Cuba. His actions often brought the Soviet Union into direct confrontation with the West, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which ended in a strategic and public relations defeat for the USSR.

The summit ultimately set the stage for Khrushchev to affirm East Germany’s sovereignty, effectively removing the possibility of German reunification from serious consideration and entrenching the division of Europe. This act solidified the Cold War’s structure, leading to decades of tension where Europe remained divided into two hostile camps, mirroring the very spheres of influence both sides had sought to avoid.

Khrushchev’s aggressive foreign policy extended Soviet influence into new regions, moving the Cold War beyond Europe and setting the stage for further conflicts, like the Suez Crisis. This shift demonstrated the Soviet willingness to challenge Western interests worldwide, ensuring that the Cold War remained a global contest.

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