Timeline – Thaw, Summits & Treaties (A Levels Cold War)

Written by Aaron

This guide will break down the chronology of the Thaw in the 1950s and segment it into easily digestible bits.

The CIE A-Level History syllabus gives us this key question to tackle:

How did relations between the USA and the USSR change and develop in the 1950s and 1960s?

One of the sub-sections in this key question is to discuss the achievements and limitations of the Post-Stalin Thaw. Before we can do that, we must stock up on ammunition for our discussion. Here’s the timeline:

The Timeline of the Thaw

*Note, we usually think of the Thaw as starting after Stalin dies. I’ve included some pre-Stalin developments in this Timeline for context.

1950 April – NSC-68 calls for US containment policy
1950 June – Korean War starts
1953 January – Eisenhower becomes US President
1953 March – Stalin dies

START OF THE THAW

1953 July – Korean War Ceasefire is negotiated
1953 September – Nikita Khrushchev becomes USSR leader

1955 – West Germany joins NATO; begins rearmament
1955 – Warsaw Pact is formed
1955 – Austrian State Treaty signed
1955 – USSR lifts veto on 16 members entry to UN
1955 – Geneva Summit
1955 – Open Skies Treaty (rejected)

1956 – USSR pulls military out of Finland
1956 – Khrushchev delivers speech condemning Stalin
1956 – Suez Crisis – US & USSR condemn it together
1956 – Hungarian Uprising

1959 – Kitchen Debates – between Nixon & Khrushchev
1959 – USSR leader visits USA for first time
1959 – Khrushchev denied entry into Disney Land
1959 – Camp David Talks

1960 – American U-2 spy plane shot down by USSR
1960 – Paris Summit (failure)

1961 January – JFK becomes US President
1961 June – Vienna Summit (tense)
1961 August – Berlin Wall is built
1961 October – Checkpoint Charlie incident (Berlin Crisis)

1962 October – Cuban Missile Crisis

That’s the whole story. Now it’s time to make it a bit more digestible.

Evidence The Thaw Was Successful

1953 July – Korean War Ceasefire is negotiated
1955 – Austrian State Treaty signed
1955 – USSR lifts veto on 16 members entry to UN
1955 – Geneva Summit
1956 – USSR pulls military out of Finland
1956 – Khrushchev delivers speech condemning Stalin
1956 – Suez Crisis – US & USSR condemn it together
1959 – Kitchen Debates – between Nixon & Khrushchev
1959 – USSR leader visits USA for first time
1959 – Camp David Talks

You can use these examples to show the achievements of the Thaw. Some of these events require further explanation. Here are the extra details you actually need to know:

Austrian State Treaty 1955 was a treaty signed between Allied powers (France, UK, US), the USSR and Austria granting it independence. Like Germany, Austria was split into 4 zones for each power. After years of failed negotiations, this treaty finally passed on condition that Austria remains neutral.

Geneva Summit 1955 showed the USSR and USA finally meeting with each other on the world stage to seek cooperation. This is a big achievement.

Kitchen Debates 1959 shows Nixon and Khrushchev openly having an impromptu debate in Moscow. Both sides debated the technological progress of each nation (rather than their military/influence) and agreed to broadcast their debate in the USA and USSR.

Khrushchev visits the USA 1959. This is the first time a USSR premier had visited the USA — major achievement. Eisenhower and Khrushchev hold talks at Camp David. Both signaled their desire for peace, but no formal treaties came of this. (As a downside to this trip, Khrushchev was barred from Disneyland. This made him sad and angry).

Evidence The Thaw Was Shaky

1950 April – NSC-68 calls for US containment policy
1955 – West Germany joins NATO; begins rearmament
1955 – Warsaw Pact is formed
1955 – Open Skies Treaty (rejected)
1956 – Hungarian Uprising
1959 – Khrushchev denied entry into Disney Land
1960 – American U-2 spy plane shot down by USSR
1960 – Paris Summit (failure)
1961 June – Vienna Summit (tense)
1961 August – Berlin Wall is built
1961 October – Checkpoint Charlie incident (Berlin Crisis)
1962 October – Cuban Missile Crisis (Ultimate failure)

NSC-68 was a policy designed before the Thaw, but guided US foreign policy. You can use this to show that despite some warming of relations, this kind of policy was still running in the background. Read more about NSC-68 here.

West Germany Joins NATO 1955 greatly increased tensions with the USSR, leading them to create the Warsaw Pact 1955 to rival NATO’s influence.

Open Skies Treaty (rejected) 1955. This was discussed during the Geneva Summit, but was shot down by Khrushchev. The treaty would allow both nations to fly their (unarmed) surveillance planes across each other’s countries. This would allow both nations to see the military buildups in the other country. It failed, showing distrust still remained in the USA-USSR relationship.

Hungarian Uprising 1956 can be seen either as a success for the Thaw or a failure. On one hand, the USA did not intervene in the USSR’s affairs — so that was maybe a good thing. On the other hand, this caused much consternation among USA officials.

American U-2 spy plane is shot down 1960. This happened while flying over the USSR, and US pilot Gary Powers was held hostage. This led to major distrust and derailed Paris Summit 1960 which ended in complete failure when Khrushchev stormed out of the summit when Eisenhower refused to apologise for the incident.

The Vienna Summit 1961 was very tense. Afterwards, Kennedy managed to get approval from Congress for $3.25 billion in military spending and a tripling of conscription (draft calls). Similarly, East Germany/USSR built the Berlin Wall shortly after — a source of major tension.

The Checkpoint Charlie Incident 1961 was the pinnacle of tensions — US and USSR tanks face-off at Checkpoint Charlie, the gateway from West to East Berlin. No shots are fired, but it shows both nations at the brink.

The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 was the pinnacle of the pinnacle of tensions, where both nations had a nuclear stand-off. So much for the Thaw… By now, the Thaw was effectively dead.

Creating Complex Arguments: The Thaw

1. One angle to approach Thaw arguments is to compare relations in the 1950s to the period before. Yes, achievements were limited (a bunch of summits? Who cares.) but compared to the 1940s, both parties were actually meeting at Geneva to seek cooperation.

2. Another angle is note the early successes of the Thaw, which reached its climax in 1959 with Khrushchev’s visit to the USA. From then on, it went downhill, perhaps due to a combination of the Bay of Pigs Invasion + U-2 spy plane incident + Khrushchev trying to push the limits of new President JFK.

3. An even more complex angle requires you to take note of the arms race developments and globalisation developments. This requires you to juggle three different, concurrent timelines. But if you manage to do it, you can pull insights from the other timelines to show how despite a ‘formal’ Thaw, the Cold War raged in the background elsewhere (Globalisation) and in a buildup of arms (Arms Race).

4. When arguing success/failure, don’t feel obliged to be simplistic and conclude ‘it was good’ or ‘it was bad’. You can reach for a more nuanced conclusion e.g. It was certainly an improvement from the era before, but was an illusion that covered up tensions broiling underneath…’

5. You can also mention the policies of leaders e.g. Khrushchev’s Peaceful Coexistence.

For other timelines see:

Timeline/Factsheet for Globalisation of the Cold War
Timeline of the Arms Race
Timeline of Treaties on the Arms Race