Notes on Peaceful Coexistence, Khrushchev, the Secret Speech and 1956

I have two versions of a paper by Professor Thomas Hammond.  One is "Why Russia Preaches Coexistence, or What's behind Soviet Foreign Policy."  The other is "Peaceful Coexistence--Past and Present."  (*.pdf files)  Both versions are from 1955. So, why do you think that was such a "hot topic" back in 1955?

Actually, the whole idea of the concept of peaceful coexistence, the idea that communism and capitalism could coexist, was being debated already in the Soviet Union after the Second World War in a controversy that involved the idea of the "inevitability of war" between the capitalist and socialist camps.  You can read my old article on the "Varga Controversy" (*.pdf file) which appeared some time ago in a volume of Essays in History published by the history department of the University of Virginia.  The article was a condensed version of my Master's thesis.

See also my remarks on Khrushchev in HIS 242 and HIS 135.


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Detached Lenin

You can be sure that Lenin never thought that there could be peaceful coexistence between socialism and capitalism.  So where exactly did the idea of "peaceful coexistence" come from?  Well, that is a pretty complicated theoretical question, but what is very interesting is that it did not originate with the United States or any other non-communist country.  As far as I know, it originated in the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s after the death of Stalin, and the idea received its real boost with K's speeches at the 20th congress of the CPSU.  The real impetus for the change from "capitalism and socialism are bound to go to war" to "capitalism and socialism can peacefully get along" is really quite simple, nuclear weapons.  Now, why would Soviet leaders come up with this idea of living in peace and harmony with the non-communist world?

First of all there, there was The Thaw in the Soviet Union with the death of Stalin.  When the great dictator finally died, one of the key ideas to emerge among the communist leadership was the idea that there should be "collective leadership." This was to allay the fear that any single man could again amass unlimited, dictatorial power. Another main point was to reduce the police terror rampant in the USSR, and finally another issue was to try and increase the production of consumer goods for the people. These internal issues would play themselves out in the internal power struggle between Georgii Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev, which would have an impact on Soviet diplomacy.

After Stalin's death, at first it appeared that Georgii Malenkov would assume the positions of premier (head of state) and general secretary (head of the party) with Malenkov, Molotov and Beria (all closely connected to Stalin) as the key leaders, but Malenkov was quickly forced to give up his position as head of the party.  He was succeeded by Khrushchev (although Khrushchev was not formally named first secretary until September 1953).  Shortly thereafter, Beria was arrested and executed later in 1953--that was a very brave move!  To combat Khrushchev, Malenkov advocated the production of more consumer goods, but he remained tagged by his former close connection to Stalin. In the meantime Khrushchev's power rose as he had orchestrated the removal of Beria, and he had achieved a modicum of success with his "Virgin Lands" scheme which resulted in a great 1956 harvest.  Malenkov resigned as Premier In February 1955--but he was not killed--and Khrushchev's ally, Nikolai Bulganin, became premier.  Khrushchev had won the struggle for power.

Sometimes the years between 1953 and 1956 with regard to Soviet diplomacy are called the "New Course" referring to the Soviet--and at first Malenkov and then Khrushchev--attempt to reduce Cold War tensions. Some of the key indicators of the changing nature of Soviet diplomacy are listed below, although I am not sure that the western world caught them all at the time:

  • At the nineteenth party congress in 1953, Malenkov delivered the main report on the international situation: "The bellicose circles in the U. S. A. and Britain are constantly reiterating that the armaments race alone can keep the industries in capitalist countries running. Actually, however, there is another prospect, the prospect of developing and expanding commercial relations between all countries, irrespective of the difference in social system. This can keep the industries in the industrially-developed countries running for many years to come, can ensure the sale of products of which one country has an abundance to other countries, can help to raise the economy of the underdeveloped countries, and thereby bring about lasting economic cooperation. 'The export of revolution is nonsense.' Peaceful Coexistence will win."  (Report to the Nineteenth Party Congress," p. 14.)
  • Quickly, in July 1953, the Korean Conflict came to an end with the signing of the Korean Armistice.
  • In October 1954 Khrushchev visited Mao in China to patch up strained relations there.
  • During much of 1954, Khrushchev toured throughout the Soviet Union.  The year 1954 indicated that Khrushchev was clearly a different kind of communist leader with his willingness to go abroad and also to appear in public.
  • Then in July 1955, there occurred the Geneva Summit when Khrushchev and President Eisenhower met in Geneva (along with Anthony Eden from Great Britain and Edgar Faure from France).
  • In 1955, the Americans and Soviets agreed on an Austrian Peace Treaty which provided for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Austria.  Austria, like Germany had been occupied after the war, and Vienna, like Berlin, had been divided.  The treaty showed that Americans and Soviets could negotiate specific issues.
  • In June 1955, Khrushchev traveled to Belgrade to meet with Tito and patch up relations that had been pretty much non-existent since 1948--Stalin had wagged his little finger at Tito, but Tito had not disappeared.  One of the key pronouncements made in connection with the visit to Belgrade was Khrushchev's recognition that there could be "different roads to socialism" (or different paths to communism).  In other words, countries, like Yugoslavia, did not have to follow the Soviet model.  In public, Tito thought this was great.
  • The year 1955 certainly was a busy one.  In May 1955 the Warsaw Pact was signed as a military alliance of the Soviet Union and the East European satellites.  Remember that NATO had been in 1949.  Also that year, the Russians pulled their troops out of neutral Finland.
  • Twentieth party congress (20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union)
    • The Congress approved the ideological shift to a policy of "peaceful coexistence " and reversed the idea that war was inevitable.  The Congress also approved the idea of "different paths to socialism."  The "Report of the Central Committee," delivered by Khrushchev, ("Report of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to the 20th Party Congress, Delivered by Comrade N. S. Khrushchev," Pravda, 15 February 1956, pp. 1-11, in Current Soviet Policies: (II) The Documentary Record of the 20th Communist Party Congress and its Aftermath, ed. Leo Gruliow (New York:  Praeger, 1956), pp. 29-62) upheld the "deepening general crisis" of capitalism but interjected that "it should be said that the idea that the general crisis of capitalism means complete stagnation, a halt in production and technical progress, has always been alien to Marxist-Leninists." (p. 30)  Then Khrushchev maintained that "countries with differing social systems can do more than exist side by side." (p. 37) They can cooperate to the mutual advantage of both. Second, Khrushchev asserted that the proletarian revolution "need not be associated with civil war" but can be accomplished through parliamentary means. (p. 38)  I believe that Khrushchev also stated, "either peaceful coexistence or the most destructive war in history," he declared, "there is no third way." (source)
    • In the Secret Speech at the end of the Congress, Khrushchev, in addition to denouncing Stalin's "cult of personality," also repeated his call for an easing of Cold War tensions and a policy of peaceful coexistence.

Western critics of the idea of peaceful coexistence pointed to the ensuing events of 1956 in Eastern Europe as proof that there was, in reality, no such thing as "peaceful coexistence" (the tiger cannot change his stripes).  By criticizing Stalin, Khrushchev had opened both the Russian party and the communist parties in Eastern Europe to further criticism.

The popular uprising in Poland began in June 1956.

  • Factory workers in Poznan demonstrated.
  • Władysław Gomułka (1905-1982), who had been repressed by Stalin, was re-elected head of the Polish Communist Party.
  • Gomulka said that he would work for a more democratic Poland.
  • Khrushchev did not think that a Soviet military intervention would achieve anything, and when Gomulka pledged to maintain communist control (and stay in the Warsaw Pact), Khrushchev said ok. That sure looked like a good sign of peaceful coexistence, if Western experts interpreted matters correctly.

Then there was the Hungarian Revolt in October-November 1956.

  • The Hungarians began to demonstrate in support of the Poles.
  • Imre Nagy (1896-1958), who had been forced out of the party in 1955 because of his moderate politics, formed a new government and tried to negotiate with Khrushchev.
  • Hungarians began to attack the Russian troops stationed in Hungary, and the Russians initially pulled back.
  • For Khrushchev, this was a major problem, especially when Nagy announced that Hungary was going to leave the Warsaw Pact.  Could Khrushchev allow that?  When further attacks occurred in Hungary on pro-Russian Hungarian communists, the Soviet army re-entered the country and crushed the rebellion. About 5000 Hungarians were killed, and hundreds of thousands fled the country.  Nagy was arrested in very duplicitous circumstances and later executed.
  • For many experts, the Soviet repression confirmed the idea that Khrushchev's idea of "peaceful coexistence" was just a smoke screen and that the Soviets just could not be trusted.

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