When Joseph Stalin died in March, 1953, an outstanding era of history has come to an end, the world realized. The reaction varied from country to country but there were two geopolitical units, whose inhabitants felt that this fact would influence their life and the future – these were the countries -protagonists of the Cold War – the USSR (The Soviet Union) and the United States.
No doubt, Stalin’s death was a critical moment in the history of the Soviet Union and of the Cold War, which happened only to begin developing by that time (although many though it was over).
The historians of the Cold War call the period after Stalin’s death “Escalation and Crisis”. It is notable that for both superpowers this period started with the change in leadership in 1953. And it would last through the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Anna Louise Strong in her book “The Stalin Era” wrote that after Stalin’s death was announced, “In Wall Street, the stock market dropped a billion dollars; it recovered in two days”. Harry Truman, the thirty-third President of the United States, “photographed himself for history by saying: “I am always sorry to hear of the passing of an acquaintance”. She also claims much American comment was less courteous, for example the Los Angeles Times’ statement was: “Stalin’s ticket to hell is validated… The best we can hope is an internal war for the succession”.
President Eisenhover, Truman’s successor, faced a moment of uncertainty and challenge: it was questionable whether after Stalin’s death the politics and the tension would have remained. According to Donna Urschel, when Joseph Stalin died, “President Dwight Eisenhower was not interested in a showdown with the Soviet Union that would force an end to the Cold War, nor did he find in Stalin’s death a good opportunity for significant détente”.
In the United States, Eisenhower was only two weeks into his presidency when Stalin died. He is said to have been furious to discover that there were no contingency plans for dealing with the death of Stalin. The new secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, stressing a “new era of liberty, not enslavement” proclaimed that “the Eisenhower era begins as the Stalin era ends…. For ten years the world has been dominated by the malignant power of Stalin. Now Stalin is dead. He cannot bequeath to anyone his prestige” This, among others, is a perfect illustration of the way American officials treated Stalin’s death – the event that greatly influenced the Cold War and the USSR-USA relationships.
Anna L. Strong claims that “after official condolences which headlines stressed as “only official”, the administration was announced to be “preparing an aggressive effort to exploit the Soviet’s situation – to use all the tools of propaganda and more, to encourage strife within Russia and split off its satellites (here she sites an article in the Wall Street Journal of March 5, 1953 – the date of Stalin’s death).
At approximately the same time, Pravda and Izvestia published official announcements on Stalin’s illness and death, the new authorities and possible future leaders tried to shift the attention, though imperceptibly, to the new powers of the Communist Party.
On March 4, 1953, Pravda (p. 1) stated that: “The Central Committee and the Council of Ministers express confidence that our party and the whole Soviet people in these difficult days will display the greatest unity and cohesion”. The announcement is signed by the Central Committee, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, and the Council of Ministers. It is notable that “the formation of a new government was announced in Pravda and Izvestia (the News), the official government newspaper, the following day and only then could the public begin to recognize the new leadership”.
According to Jeff Brooks, Stalin’s successors had an intention to impress both Soviet citizens and foreign leaders.
Georgi Malenkov, who was appointed first secretary of the Communist Party (which was Stalin’s old position, launched a “peace offensive” straight after Stalin’s death. The Soviet foreign policy proclaimed “a policy of international cooperation and development of business relations with all countries.” The “peace offensive” might have intended to show a willingness to slow the arms race and affirmed the “policy of international cooperation and development of business relations with all countries, a policy based on the Lenin-Stalin premise of the possibility of prolonged coexistence and peaceful competition of two different systems, capitalist and socialist.”
It took only nine days for the situation to change significantly for Malenkov: he was forced to surrender the post of the first secretary of the Communist Party soon after Stalin’s death. In August 1953, Nikita Khrushchev gained leadership. Still according to historians, to the West, it seemed that the progressive Malenkov, then just fifty-one years old, was emerging as Stalin’s heir.
Langill claims the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, wrote to Eisenhower suggesting a meeting with Malenkov in case “both of us together or separately be called to account if no attempt were made to turn over a new leaf” – a significant evidence of the Western “stake”.
In is commonly believed that after Stalin’s death in March 1953, the Cold War changed significantly. The Soviet Union embarked on a course of greater openness and reconciliation. To describe Moscow’s activities, Strong writes that “in less than a month [after the event]…, “peace offensives” increased until more than one American newspaper called them “peace blitz”.
In early 1956, Krushchev called for “peaceful coexistence” between East and West just like Molotov right after Stalin’s death. Nevertheless, on August 8, 1953, Moscow announced that the USSR had an H-bomb. The Pentagon is said to have talked “preventive war”. But Moscow did not take any actions, which was even more frightening. The further problems and complications of the USA – USSR relationships, and the erection of the Berlin Wall, less than a decade after Stalin’s death, and the Cuban Missile Crisis a bit later, lead to the fact that the Western world never really trusted policies and claims of the Soviet Union leaders.
The Soviet people are claimed to have reacted differently to Joseph Stalin’s death. No doubt, many of them were the victims of the “cult of personality” and socialist propaganda. Many people cried and treated the fact as a personal loss (one should not forget that Stalin was a war hero, who led the battle for Moscow near the front). There were still others, who suffered the purges and repressions of the Stalin era, and thought that life would be “freer than under the “old man”.
Contemporaries of the times recall that the grief of the people was accompanied by the feeling that this was the end of the epoch and new, ‘different’ times were approaching. They certainly did not miss the point: Stalin’s death signified both the new era for the Soviet Union and for the Cold War tensions.
The United States backed by the alliances, and well as Moscow did, building the “neutral belt” around them. The tension would remain, though the intensity would change from time to time, and this was in fact a result of activities of both protagonists of the Cold War.
It is of no use judging what Stalin did, such personalities are only judged by long history, as their deeds grow clearer from a distant view. What Stalin said and did was erased and rewritten for several times, when he was a hero and when he was dethroned long after the death.
What is important, Stalin’s influence remained long after he ruled the country, and he indeed was the cult personality, even if a malignant one, who determined the relationships in the world for over 70 years of the XX century.
Bibliography: Announcement of Stalin’s Illness and Death. 1953. The Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Volume V, No. 6 ( March 21, 1953), 4-5, 24 Cold War. CNN Episode Script. Episode 7. After Stalin. CNN interactive. http://edition.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/episodes/07/script.html (accessed November 22, 2006) Donna Urschel. 2003. The Death of Stalin. Contemporaries Take Stock of a Dictator 50 Years Later. Library of Congress Information Bulletin April 2003 - Vol. 62, No. 4 Brooks, Jeff. Stalin’s Death in the Soviet Press. The Johns Hopkins University. http://chnm.gmu.edu/worldhistorysources/d/300/whm.html (accessed November 22, 2006) Langill, Richard L. “After Stalin, 1953-1956”. http://homepages.stmartin.edu/Fac_Staff/rlangill/PLS%20310/After%20Stalin,%201953-1956.htm (accessed November 22, 2006). Strong, Anna Louise. 1957. The Stalin Era. Mainstream publishers: New York. Wikipedia contributors, “Cold War,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cold_War&oldid=89119043 (accessed November 21, 2006). Wikipedia contributors, “Joseph Stalin,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Joseph_Stalin&oldid=89114049 (accessed November 21, 2006).
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