By 1955, the Cold War had persisted for the better part of a decade. The attitudes initially formed among the policy-making elite in Harry Truman’s time had congealed into an American theology that purported to explain the dynamics of Communism worldwide. The consensus among the few at the top had become the consensus of the nation. The beliefs were taken for granted and were shared by virtually all Americans, from President Eisenhower down to a worker on an automotive assembly line in Flint, Michigan. One can hear these beliefs repeated mantralike in Eisenhower’s memoir of his first four years in the White House, Mandate for Change. Such phrases as “the dangers of international Communism,” “the international Communist conspiracy,” “Communist subversion,” “the Marxist theory of world revolution and Communist domination,” and “the never-ending struggle to stem the tide of Communist expansionism” are replete throughout the text. No one yet understood the extent to which this theology got in the way of perceiving reality and would thus lead to the disastrous consequence of the war in Vietnam.
It was a tribute to Eisenhower that where his Soviet opponents were concerned he managed to get past enough of this truth-obscuring dogma to deal with them on a human basis. His secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had been opposed to a summit meeting in Geneva with the Soviet Union’s post-Stalin leadership. He was afraid that the inevitable news photos of Eisenhower shaking hands with Nikita Khrushchev, who had risen to general secretary, that is, chief, of the Soviet Communist Party, since Stalin’s death, might destroy the image of America’s moral integrity, resonate badly with the public, and “lull” America’s allies into a dangerous complacency. Eisenhower had appointed Dulles to head the State Department because he and Senator Arthur Vandenberg had been the recognized foreign policy spokesmen of the Republican Party. A prominent figure in the New York legal establishment, Dulles was a rigid ideologue. “The Soviets have a world plan to overthrow capitalism wherever it may be and to substitute police states,” he said in a speech to the influential Council on Foreign Relations in New York in April 1947, and never changed his lyrics. But when, in the spring of 1955, the Soviets suddenly announced that they would join the United States, Britain, and France in signing a peace treaty with Austria, ending military occupation of that country and restoring its independence and territorial integrity in exchange for some reparations to Russia and other nonpunitive conditions, Eisenhower overruled Dulles. He decided there might be some hope for compromise agreements or at least an easing of tensions. He instructed Dulles to inform the Russians that he was interested in a summit and in mid-June 1955 they agreed. Prime Minister Anthony Eden of Britain and Edgar Faure, serving his second term as one of the revolving prime ministers in the chronically unstable French Fourth Republic, would also attend, making the meeting a “Big Four” conference in the newspaper parlance of the day.
Looking across the negotiating table in the Council Chamber of Geneva’s Palais des Nations, a vast classical structure erected between 1929 and 1938 to house the ill-starred League of Nations that had emerged from the First World War, Eisenhower wondered which of the five members of the Soviet delegation facing him was the boss. Ostensibly, the delegation was being led by the portly Nikolai Bulganin, the equivalent of prime minister in the Soviet hierarchy as chairman of the Council of Ministers. He might, however, be performing to a score composed by one or a combination of the other three big men: Eisenhower’s acquaintance from the Second World War Marshal Georgi Zhukov, currently the Soviet Union’s minister of defense; Vyacheslav Molotov, the minister of foreign affairs; or Khrushchev. Only the fifth member, Andrei Gromyko, deputy foreign minister, was junior enough to actually rank as advertised. Before the conference had concluded, Eisenhower would find out.
On the afternoon of the fourth day, July 21, 1955, Eisenhower opened the box on his surprise arms-control proposal—Open Skies. The plan amounted to legalized aerial arms inspection. The United States, the Soviet Union, and any other participating nations would provide one another with blueprints locating and fully describing all of their military installations at home and abroad. The participants would then be allowed to station aircraft at fields within reach of these facilities and to conduct photoreconnaissance and inspection flights to verify the information they had been given. The stationing of the aircraft and the frequency and nature of the flights would be subject to reasonable conditions, which Eisenhower spelled out, but otherwise Soviet and American fliers would have open skies before them to detect any cheating.
The heavens did not react auspiciously to Eisenhower’s proposition. As soon as he had finished speaking, there was a deafening clap of thunder from an electrical storm outside the palais and the Council Chamber was flung into darkness. Eisenhower broke the amazed silence of his audience by remarking that he had never dreamt he would be “so eloquent as to put the lights out.” Everyone laughed and the Swiss engineers managed to restore the lights and air-conditioning in a few minutes. Then, after Anthony Eden of Britain and Edgar Faure of France had endorsed the plan warmly, the delegates hung on the Soviet response. The day before, the Soviets had proposed their arms control monitoring scheme. It consisted of fixed ground inspection posts on main highways, and at railway junctions, airfields, and the like. Eisenhower had rejected it, pointing out that a similar scheme had been tried in Korea under the armistice there and the Chinese and North Koreans had taken advantage of it to cheat blatantly because the inspectors could not move about. There was thus considerable suspense as to what Bulganin would say. His reply, as Eisenhower wrote, was unexpected. He said that “the proposal… seemed to have real merit, and the Soviets would give it complete and sympathetic study at once.” And the Soviet who mattered did give it immediate if unsympathetic study.
At the end of each day’s formal session, there was a cocktail hour. Eisenhower favored it because he thought it would help the leaders to relax and do business informally. He always mingled with the Soviet delegation. On this particular afternoon, he found Khrushchev walking beside him to the lounge. Referring to Bulganin by his title, Khrushchev suddenly said through an interpreter, “I don’t agree with the chairman.” He smiled as he spoke, but “there was no smile in his voice,” Eisenhower recalled. “I saw clearly then, for the first time, the identity of the real boss of the Soviet delegation.” It was the first encounter between a president of the United States and the man who was to rule the Soviet Union for the next nine years: Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, short, pudgy, balding, with ears that stuck out too far and little eyes that fixed one with their gaze, maddeningly complicated, of boundless energy, Stalinist henchman turned reformer, seeking to put a human face on Soviet Communism and then having to ruthlessly quell the turmoil his liberalizing unleashed, truth teller and yet addict of the dangerous gamble and the perilous bluff. With Bohlen interpreting in the cocktail lounge, Eisenhower pressed on, attempting to persuade Khrushchev of the merits of the scheme. It was mutually beneficial and entirely trustworthy. Everything would be out in the open, he argued. Khrushchev kept claiming that the NATO countries were planning aggression against the Soviet Union, Eisenhower said. Now he could satisfy himself by tracking all of NATO’s movements.
Khrushchev wanted none of it. He told Eisenhower, as Bohlen remembered, that he did not question the president’s motives, “but in effect whom are you trying to fool? In our eyes this is a very transparent espionage device, and those advisers of yours who suggested it know exactly what they were doing. You could hardly expect us to take this seriously.” Bohlen had predicted that the Soviets would reject the proposal. They would see it as exposing their weaknesses, that they did not have the fleet of long-range bombers the Americans thought they had and they had reduced the size of the Red Army for economic reasons. Like Stalin, they would also fear the possible introduction of Western influences into their closed society and they shared his fetish for internal secrecy. Years later Khrushchev told his son Sergei that he thought the United States would have used the proposal to refine its nuclear targeting plan for the Soviet Union.
Eisenhower was sincere in proffering his Open Skies idea. He was not simply seeking the public relations benefit he reaped from its announcement. He was convinced that eliminating the possibility of surprise attack for both sides would dramatically lessen the possibility of nuclear war. In contrast to LeMay and others who thought like him, Eisenhower was also conscious of the lethal aftereffects of nuclear weapons. He said at the Geneva meeting that fallout alone from a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union would destroy the entire Northern Hemisphere. He kept strengthening the Strategic Air Command and building more and more powerful nuclear weapons because that seemed to be the only possible military edge over the Soviets, given the estimates at the time of their ground strength facing Western Europe.
What Khrushchev did not know was that if he said no, Eisenhower was going to open the Soviet Union’s skies anyway. As the delegates met in Geneva in July 1955, the first U-2 was, in conditions of utmost secrecy, being completed and readied for flight testing from a dry lake bed amidst the desolate mountains and wild, arid country northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. Within a year, this odd-looking aircraft, in reality a long-winged glider propelled by a jet engine and carrying a special high-altitude, high-resolution camera, would make its first spy flight over Russia. And Khrushchev was to rage at each subsequent flight the U-2 was to make over the following four years, until the Soviets finally fielded an antiaircraft missile capable of shooting it down, because he would know that Eisenhower would know when he was bluffing. “I’ll give it [Open Skies] one shot,” Eisenhower said just before the Geneva summit to the minuscule circle of aides who knew of the plane’s existence. “Then, if they don’t accept, we’ll fly the U-2.”
Except for Eisenhower’s Open Skies surprise, little of moment occurred at the July 1955 Geneva summit. Major issues, such as the status of postwar Germany, that might once have been susceptible of negotiation, were by now glacialized into the same frozen forms as the theology of the Cold War. The United States was not about to agree to demilitarize what Stalin’s strategic disasters, the Berlin Blockade and the Korean War, had helped bring to birth in the increasingly prosperous and rearmed West German state, which was a member of the new West European Union and in the front line of NATO. Nor were the Soviets about to march out of their former occupation zone, the East German state their troops were now propping up, and accept a reunified and remilitarized Germany. Eisenhower and Dulles were determined to bring up the position of the Baltic and East European nations, even though they knew the Soviets would refuse to negotiate on the subject. In fact, the Soviets now had no space to maneuver there either because they soon faced revolt, not conditions for relaxation, in what they regarded as their sensitive security zone, the invasion route in 1914 and again in 1941.
Stalin’s tyranny had stoked ferocious anger and resentment among the populations of the East European nations. Khrushchev’s liberalizing actions within the Soviet Union, his release of thousands of victims from the labor camps of Siberia, his moves to posthumously rehabilitate innocent Party members who had been purged and shot, and, most seismic of all, the secret speech he was to give on February 25, 1956, at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party denouncing Stalin’s crimes—soon not so secret as copies were distributed within Russia and Eastern Europe—were like gasoline thrown on the glowing coals of this pent-up fury.
The first eruption was to be a dramatic strike by workers in the Polish city of Poznan in June 1956 crying for “Bread and Freedom.” Poland’s Communist leaders put down the strike with their own army and Interior Ministry troops, killing at least fifty-three of the workers and wounding hundreds. That October, however, desperate to hold on, they moved to make Wladyslaw Gomulka the new prime minister. Gomulka was the national Communist who had wanted to take Poland into the Marshall Plan in 1947. He had escaped an NKVD bullet but only recently emerged from the prison in which Stalin’s agents had put him. This and the ouster of Konstantin Rokossovsky, a Polish-born Red Army marshal and hero of the Second World War whom the Russians had imposed on the Poles as their minister of defense, led Khrushchev and others in Moscow to conclude that Poland was about to divorce the Soviet Union. He ordered Soviet troops based there to begin moving on Warsaw. The Poles started mobilizing their own forces. A madcap confrontation occurred at Warsaw airport and continued into the city after Khrushchev landed on October 19 with a delegation that included a dozen ranking Soviet military men in dress uniform and began shouting about Polish traitors. An equally tense Gomulka convinced him that the Polish Party could rule in its own house and would remain a Soviet ally, but that if Russian troops entered Warsaw “it will become virtually impossible to control events.” In other words, the Poles would fight. Khrushchev decided to trust him and called off the troops, and Gomulka proved as good as his word.
But that same month, events did become impossible to control in Hungary. Despite juggling Hungarian Communist politicians and dispatching thousands of Soviet troops and tanks to Budapest to try to intimidate the rebels, a full-scale revolution broke out across the country. Hungarian secret policemen were lynched from lampposts, Hungarian army units defected, and Russian tanks were assailed with Molotov cocktails—bottles filled with gasoline and set alight to engulf the armored vehicles in flames. Khrushchev vacillated and then smashed the rising at the beginning of November 1956 because, given the Soviet Union’s sense of its own security, he had no choice. Approximately 20,000 Hungarians and 1,500 Red Army troops were killed or injured.
The Geneva summit did result in the first cultural, educational, and scientific exchanges between the United States and the USSR and brought, for a time, a lessening of tensions in what was called “the Spirit of Geneva.” The summit also gave Eisenhower an opportunity for a private and, it was hoped, productive luncheon chat with his old military associate from the victory days in Germany Marshal Zhukov. They met alone at the villa where Eisenhower was staying, their interpreters, Bohlen for Eisenhower and Oleg Troyanovsky for Zhukov, the only other participants in the lunch. Georgi Zhukov had been the greatest of the Soviet military leaders of the Second World War—physically and morally courageous and a bold and imaginative strategist. Zhukov was the man to whom Stalin had always turned when the situation was most despairing. It was he who had held Moscow in the stand-and-die, there-is-no-room-to-retreat battles in the fall and early winter of 1941, when the Wehrmacht’s panzers had penetrated the suburbs of the capital and German officers could see the towers of the Kremlin in the distance. And once more in August 1942, when Stalin’s military blundering had brought the Germans to the verge of capturing Stalingrad, crossing the Volga, and driving south to sever the link to the precious oil fields of Azerbaijan, without which Russia could not survive, Stalin had taken the extraordinary step of appointing Zhukov deputy supreme commander to rescue the situation. In the summer of 1945, at Stalin’s invitation, Eisenhower had stood with Zhukov and Stalin on the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square to witness one of the victory parades. To Zhukov had been given the honor of leading the first and grandest of these parades earlier that summer astride a prancing white horse. Eisenhower remembered him from their time together in Germany as a self-reliant, confident, and cheerful man, so certain of his position in the Soviet hierarchy that on one occasion he had dismissed from the room Andrei Vyshinsky, the infamous prosecutor at the 1930s purge trials, who was serving as Zhukov’s political adviser and coincidentally as Stalin’s spy, so that the two men could discuss a problem alone with their interpreters.
In his memoir, Eisenhower’s comments about Zhukov reveal how difficult it was for the leaders on both sides of the Cold War to comprehend conditions in each other’s societies. He wrote of Zhukov as having been in their Germany days “a great personal friend of Stalin’s,” a figure “perhaps second only to Stalin himself.” Friendship, of course, was as foreign to Stalin as Greek, and it was precisely Zhukov’s prominence and popularity as a war hero that put him in grave peril from Stalin’s paranoia once Hitler had been defeated and Zhukov’s talents were no longer needed. As soon as he could, later in the 1940s, Stalin, with Beria’s assistance, had concocted the usual treason charges. Several officers who had served under Zhukov were arrested and false confessions beaten out of them in the cellars of Lubyanka Prison. Zhukov had been saved because the other ranking Red Army marshals and generals who sat on the Military Council had said emphatically that they did not believe the accusations. (Perhaps recalling the fate of their predecessors, who had mistakenly thought to save themselves by acquiescing in the condemnation of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky in 1937, they had reasoned that if the foremost among them again went down, they would all go down one by one.) Stalin had contented himself by demoting Zhukov to command of the Odessa military district. The marshal had recovered his career with Stalin’s heirs by joining the plot, cunningly guided by Khrushchev, to accomplish the arrest and execution of Beria in 1953. The chief of the secret police was the one heir of Stalin whom the other heirs could not allow to live. They had feared, probably correctly, that if he gained paramountcy he would liquidate them all.
Not knowing the decade-long interregnum through which his acquaintance had passed, Eisenhower observed at the lunch in Geneva that “Zhukov was no longer the same man he had been in 1945.” The Soviet marshal now seemed “subdued and worried.” When the president shifted the talk from wartime reminiscences at the outset of the lunch to serious discussion of the issues of the summit, Zhukov simply reiterated, “in a low monotone,” what Eisenhower had been hearing from the other Soviet participants. “He spoke as if he was repeating a lesson that had been drilled into him until he was letter perfect… devoid of animation, and he never smiled or joked, as he used to do,” Eisenhower wrote. “My old friend was carrying out orders of his superiors. I obtained nothing from this private chat other than a feeling of sadness.” And so Eisenhower abandoned serious subjects and asked Zhukov near the end of the lunch what he planned to do for a vacation. Zhukov replied that he was going to fish for trout in European Russia. It turned out that he did not favor fly-fishing, to which Eisenhower was addicted, but preferred a spinning reel and rod to cast a lure. The president promised to send him a set of American spinning equipment through Bohlen’s embassy in Moscow. He was true to his word and accompanied the fishing gear with a note saying that he hoped Zhukov would catch “a lot of big ones.” The West German intelligence service learned of the existence of the note, but not its harmless contents, and informed the elderly and prickly chancellor of the Federal Republic, Konrad Adenauer. He, for some bizarre reason, suspected that Eisenhower might be attempting to sabotage his efforts to make West Germany robust and independent. He complained privately that his American ally was conducting secret talks with the Soviets, using Zhukov as a channel. But by this time Eisenhower was long back at the White House, in a mood to listen to a briefing on how to build an ICBM.