CHAPTER 15: Coexistence and Crises, 1953-1961

“The Cold War remained the dominant fact of international life in the 1950s.  It was still primarily a bipolar affair between the United States and the Soviet Union, with blocs massed around each of the central combatants.  It resembled traditional power struggles between nation-states, but it was also a fierce ideological contest between two nations with diametrically opposed worldviews.  The two sides saw each other as unremittingly hostile.  They used every imaginable weapon: alliances, economic and military aid; espionage; covert operations including targeted assassinations; proxy wars; and an increasingly menacing arms race.” (Herring, 651)


John Foster Dulles (1888-1959)

“John Foster Dulles became the nation’s chief diplomat almost as a matter of inheritance.  The grandson and namesake of late nineteenth-century secretary of state John W. Foster and nephew of Wilson’s chief diplomat, Robert Lansing, he carried out his first diplomatic assignment at the age of thirty when he drafted the notorious reparations settlement at the Paris peace conference.  As a partner in the powerful New York law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, he joined the world of corporate wealth and international finance.  Like Woodrow Wilson the son of a Presbyterian minister, Dulles applied his intense religiosity to analyzing the tumultuous international politics of the 1930s and ’40s.  A great bear of a man, stern and unsmiling, he could appear brusque, even rude –‘the only bull who carried his own China closet with him,’ Winston Churchill once snarled (and indeed Dulles was a collector of rare china).  An indefatigable worker, as secretary of state he set a record by traveling more than a half million miles.  Once viewed as the dominant force in policymaking in the Eisenhower years, he and the president in fact formed an extraordinarily close partnership based on mutual respect in which the latter was plainly preeminent.  Dulles’s strident anti-Communist rhetoric and penchant for ‘brinkmanship’ stamped him as an ideologue and crusader.  He often served as a lightning rod for his boss.  He was also a cool pragmatist with a sophisticated view of the world and ample tactical skills.” (Herring, chap. 15, p. 657)

KEY TERMS:  Suez Crisis (1956) // U2 Affair (1960)

“The Suez affair was one of the most complex and dangerous of Cold War crises.  Walking a tightrope over numerous conflicting forces, Eisenhower and Dulles did manage to avert war with the Soviet Union and limit the damage to relations with the Arab states.  On the other hand, America’s relations with its major allies plunged to their lowest point in years.  Washington and London each believed they had been double-crossed.  The British and French resented their humiliation at the hands of their ally.  Eden and Dulles’s mutual hatred deepened –as ‘tortuous as a wounded snake, with much less excuse,’ an Eden still angry years later said of his by then deceased U.S. counterpart.  An already volatile Middle East was further destabilized.  Nasser remained in power –a fact Dulles later privately lamented to the British.  His noisy neutralism veered further eastward.  Soviet premier Khrushchev mistakenly concluded that his rocket-rattling had carried the day –those ‘with the strongest nerves will be the winner,’ he boasted –thus emboldening him to further and even more reckless nuclear gambits.”  –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 676-77

Discussion Questions

  • Why was the Suez crisis so “complex,” as Herring put it?  What were the key geopolitical factors that drove the confrontation?
  • How does the Suez episode illustrate the alternative approach that US policymakers might have pursued during the 1950s –away from anti-communism and toward anti-colonialism?

U2 Affair (1960)

“On May 1 [1960], two weeks before the summit was to begin and just as May Day celebrations were starting up in Moscow, a Soviet surface-to-air missile shot down a U-2 spy plane over the village of Povarnia in the Ural Mountains.  Both sides handled the incident badly.  Eisenhower had long been uneasy about the U-2 flights, recognizing that they constituted an act of war.  He consented to this particular flight only at the insistence of the military and the CIA and with assurances there would be no problems for the summit.  For Khrushchev, the overflights had been especially humiliating.  Still clinging to the hopes for a productive summit, he blamed hard-liners around Eisenhower. He hoped to capitalize on the triumph of shooting down the plane without destroying the summit, but he could not resist the temptation to overreach.  He initially concealed that the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, had been taken alive and parts of the aircraft recovered, catching Washington in a lie when the usual explanations were issued of a weather plane straying off course.  Eisenhower then compounded the problem by admitting to the spy flights without acknowledging he had approved Powers’s mission….What is certain is that the ‘U-2 mess,’ as Eisenhower referred to it, destroyed the summit, cost the president and the United States heavily in prestige, ended any chance of substantive negotiations before the November elections, and left Berlin more dangerous than ever.” –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, pp. 698-99

Discussion Questions

  • One critical context for the U-2 spy plane incident was the proliferation of espionage and clandestine operations during the Cold War.  How had US covert activity been escalating in the 1950s, prior to the collapse of the Paris summit.
  • How would you characterize President Eisenhower as a Cold Warrior?  Was he engaged in inveterate brinksmanship during the 1950s, or do you see in his evolution the makings of a more prudent statesman?