A constructed Peace The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963

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A Constructed Peace

The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963

Marc Trachtenberg

Department of History
University of Pennsylvania
January 14, 1998













This book has a simple goal. The basic aim here is to tell the story of how peace came to the world of the great powers during the Cold War period--or, more precisely, during the period from 1945 to 1963. The basic argument here is also quite simple. The claim is that the problem of German power lay at the heart of the Cold War; a resolution of that problem was thus the key to the establishment of a stable international system in Europe, and ultimately in the world as a whole.

Why was the German question so important? After World War II, Europe was divided between east and west, and the division of Europe, broadly speaking, provided an answer to the fundamental political question of how the two sides, the Soviet Union and the western powers, could get along with each other: each would have a free hand on its side of the line of demarcation. But there was one great exception to that general rule, and this had to do with western Germany. The Soviets would not stand idly by if their former allies allowed West Germany to become too strong or too independent. A strong Germany would not be dependent on the western allies for protection, and would thus not be locked into a purely defensive policy; a resurgent West German state might intervene in the event of an uprising in the east; as the Soviets saw it, a powerful Germany meant a greatly increased risk of war. To head off these dangers, decisive action might well be warranted; matters might have to be brought to a head before it was too late.

The problem of German power was thus fundamental, and it was for this reason that the arrangements the western countries worked out among themselves were of such enormous political importance. It was not as though there were NATO questions and questions of east-west relations, with the two sets of issues only marginally related to each other; these problems were all tightly intertwined. If the western countries were able to create a political system of their own in which German power was limited, this was something the USSR would probably be willing to live with; if they were unable to do so, there might be very serious trouble indeed.

And it was not as though the problem of how the West was to organize itself had a simple and obvious solution that was worked out relatively early on. No one thought it would be easy to construct a system in which West Germany would not be free to act independently and would thus have no choice but to accept the status quo in Europe. After all, the western powers were determined to make West Germany an integral part of the western world. Didn't that mean that sooner or later Germany would have to be made a full partner, with the same rights as the other western countries? Wouldn't Germany therefore have to be allowed to build a nuclear force under her own control? Wouldn't the Federal Republic, exposed to Soviet power as she was, more or less have to build such a force if she could not count on America to defend her? And with the growth of Soviet nuclear capabilities, how could anyone think that the United States would forever remain willing to go to war for the sake of western Europe--a war that might well mean the total destruction of American society? On the other hand, to remove the constraints on German power entirely, and above all to permit Germany to acquire a nuclear force of her own, might lead directly to a clash with Russia, and then what would the western powers do? And quite apart from the Soviet reaction, could Germany be trusted to respect the status quo once she had become a strong nuclear power? These were all very difficult issues; no one could tell for sure how they would be worked out; and, indeed, things ran their course in a way few would have predicted in 1945, or 1949, or even 1954.

People still think of the Cold War as a simple two-sided conflict, a kind of gigantic arm wrestle on a global scale. But this view, I believe, is profoundly mistaken. A purely bipolar system would have been quite stable: Soviet power and American power would have balanced each other so completely that neither side would have had the desire or the ability to challenge the status quo. But we know the Cold War was a serious conflict. We know that the risk of war was at times very real indeed. The problem, therefore, is to understand where the clash was coming from. To do that, the story has to be reconstructed in a way that brings out in some detail what was actually going on.

And there is a real story here. All kinds of issues were involved. There was the central problem of German power; this was bound up with a whole cluster of questions having to do with America's role in Europe--with the question of the American military presence in Europe, with the meaning of NATO and the nature of the relationship between the United States and the major European allies, especially in the key nuclear area. These questions were in turn closely related to a number of very basic military issues--problems having to do with role of nuclear weapons in the defense of western Europe, with the control of nuclear forces, and with the course that a military confrontation with the USSR would, or, in some sense, should, take. And these intra-alliance questions were all linked to the most fundamental problems of international politics: could a basic political understanding with the Russians ever be worked out? If so, on what terms? If, on the other hand, it turned out that no understanding was possible, should the western side, in the final analysis, be prepared to accept a military showdown with the Soviets in central Europe?

All this makes for a rather complex story. To understand why things took the course they did--why the central problems were resolved the way they were, and thus how it was that a stable peace took shape--a whole series of issues has to be explored in some depth. This is a long book, much longer than I would have liked, but this is not because I had done a lot of work and wanted to include everything I had found. This book lays out an argument; that argument has to be fleshed out. It involves elements which are not well understood; those elements have to be explained and their importance made clear. Thus MC 48, the strategy for the defense of western Europe adopted in December 1954, is a very important part of the story here: it was one of the three great taproots of the Eisenhower nuclear sharing policy, something which in turn was of basic importance because of its bearing on the question of Germany's nuclear status. But how many people have even heard of MC 48, let alone understand its importance? So this is the sort of thing that needs to be discussed in some detail.

Many readers, moreover, are going to find some of the central claims advanced here hard to accept; this again means that the evidence has to be massive. The argument, for example, that Eisenhower wanted the United States to withdraw from Europe in the not-too-distant future, and that he therefore wanted the major NATO allies, including the Germans, to have nuclear forces under their own control, is often rejected out of hand: it is taken practically as an article of faith, both in America and in Europe, that no U.S. government could possibly have had such a policy. I remember McGeorge Bundy's reaction, a few years ago, when I made that argument about Eisenhower: "Do you really believe that Ike would ever have let the Germans get their hands on nuclear weapons?" The only way to overcome this kind of resistance is to present a mass of evidence, organized into a structured argument; isolated quotations are never taken as compelling.

So some issues are treated at great length, but other subjects are more or less ignored. The Suez affair is treated as a kind of sideshow; Sputnik is scarcely mentioned; events in East Asia, even the Korean War, do not play a major role here, at least not until the final chapter. The focus of the book is unrelentingly Eurocentric, but even major European events--the East German uprising of 1953, the Hungarian revolt of 1956--are passed over in silence. How can a book which purports to be about the Cold War ignore events which received so much attention at the time and which most people still think are of fundamental importance?

But there are reasons why I took this kind of approach. Maybe the reader will not find them compelling, but I should at least explain what they are. First of all, it seemed to me that the argument was complex enough, and the text massive enough, as it is. It was important, I thought, not to add to the burden placed on the reader by straying from the central thrust of the argument; it was important to keep the text as lean, as sharp, and as easy to follow as possible--or at least not to make it harder to follow than it already is. This book, moreover, was not meant to be an encyclopedia. The aim was not to cover every issue, but rather to get at the heart of the story. If the goal, however, was to bring out what was driving things, the text had to make it clear what was important, and, implicitly, what was not. To dwell on an issue was a way of saying that it was important; to ignore it was a way of saying that no matter how much attention it got at the time or in standard historical accounts, it did not play an important role in the central story. The wheat had to be separated from the chaff in this way if the book was to develop an interpretation with real analytical bite. Theories that purport to explain everything--not just everything that happens, but everything that can conceivably happen--are never of much value. For an historian, genuine explanatory power comes from making claims about what was crucial, and not from trying to discuss every episode that made it onto the front pages of the New York Times.

This sort of approach creates its own problems. Things emerge which are not accounted for--indeed, sometimes run counter to--the basic thrust of the interpretation. This may bother some readers, but once again there are reasons for doing things this way--that is, for allowing the loose ends to remain visible. Partly this has to do with the absence of documentation: if I myself do not understand something because the evidence is lacking, why should I pretend to have the answer? But a more basic reason is methodological. Interpretations that purport to explain the heart of what happened by focusing on fundamentals--on deep structure, on the central dynamic, on the logic that lay at the core of the historical process--necessarily simplify reality; the gap that emerges is a test of the power of the interpretation; and that test should not be subverted by pretending that no gap exists. The fact that an interpretation will have its limits, in other words, is the price paid for having an argument with real explanatory power; where those limits are is the measure of its cogency. It is wrong to try to conceal the existence of such limits by explaining away evidence that runs counter to the basic interpretation with ad hoc arguments. It is important to lay out the story even when it is somewhat perplexing, even when people behave in a way that makes little sense in terms of the general argument of the book.

All this is rather abstract, so let me give one major example of what I mean. One of the basic arguments in this book is that the USSR was deeply concerned, in the late 1950s and early 1960s especially, with the question of a German nuclear capability. The claim here is that this concern was a key factor shaping Soviet policy during the whole Berlin Crisis period--that is, that it was a major factor behind the USSR's policy of keeping the crisis alive. There is one basic problem with this argument: if the German nuclear issue was as important as I say, why didn't the Soviets settle the crisis in late 1961 and early 1962 when the Americans offered a non-nuclear Germany as part of a deal for a settlement? This, of course, was not fatal for my purposes. The fact that the American terms were not accepted only shows that by the early 1960s additional factors must have come into play, not that the German nuclear issue had faded away. But there is no getting around the fact that it would have been nicer, from the point of view of the argument in this book, if the Soviets had closed the deal with the Americans as soon as the new terms were put on the table in late 1961. Should I have tried to deal with this issue by speculating about what those additional factors might have been? The problem was that I had no really adequate evidence from Soviet sources to work with, so it seemed that the best thing was to just let it be. Soviet policy at this point had to be accepted as lying somewhat beyond the reach of the basic interpretation in the book. What this meant was not that the argument as a whole was worthless, but simply that it had its limits--indeed, limits that had to be accepted philosophically.

Finally, let me say a word about some technical matters. The sort of argument developed here needed to be supported, as I say, by a massive amount of evidence. To keep the baggage of source citation as light as possible, abbreviations have been used extensively. Those abbreviations are given in brackets the first time a source is cited in the footnotes, and again in the bibliography, which is where the citation system is explained. In order to keep the argument in the text on track, various ancillary issues are dealt with in the footnotes. Sometimes those footnotes became so long and unwieldy that they were made into appendices, which appear not in this book, but in an internet supplement: http:// .

The internet supplement also includes reproductions of most of the unpublished documents cited in the text, and various other things as well. All this is described in greater detail in a note at the beginning of the bibliography.

A book of this sort is not something I could have done entirely on my own. There are a number of political scientists--above all Robert Jervis, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Van Evera--who had an enormous impact on the way I have come to think about these issues; what I owe them is difficult to put into words, but the debt is very real. I also feel deeply indebted to a number of historians--and to four in particular who played a key role in shaping my understanding of the issues discussed here, not just through their written work, but through extensive personal contact as well. David Rosenberg, whose own work revolutionized the study of nuclear issues, not just in terms of its substantive findings but even more in terms of the method he developed for thinking about these questions, had a profound impact on the way I deal with the nuclear side of the story. Robert Wampler opened my eyes to what was going on in NATO in the 1950s--to the meaning of MC 48, for example, and to the course of American policy for the defense of Europe in the latter part of the decade--and was also extremely generous in sharing documents with me. I also owe a great deal to two French scholars: to Cyril Buffet, whose work on the German question in the late 1940s, especially his doctoral thesis, played a key role in shaping my understanding of the subject, and to Georges-Henri Soutou, who was the first one to explain to me the importance of the Paris accords, and whose work in general has had a profound influence on practically every chapter in this book. There were a number of people--Aaron Friedberg, Bob Jervis, John Mearsheimer, Bill Stueck, Walter McDougall and Bruce Kuklick--who read through and commented on an earlier draft of the manuscript; it is hard to exaggerate how valuable that sort of feedback is, and I very much want to thank all of them. I also owe a very special debt of gratitude to Carl Kaysen for all the help he has given me over the years. And, finally, I want to express my appreciation to the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the German Marshall Fund for making it possible for me to do the work which led to this book.





The United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain were allies in 1945. Together they had defeated Nazi Germany so thoroughly that by May the Germans had been forced to capitulate. Japan, the other major enemy power, surrendered a few months later. But victory did not mean peace. Even before the war ended, the USSR and the western allies had begun to quarrel with each other, and by early 1946 many people had begun to think that a third world war might well be unavoidable.

The Soviet Union and the western powers of course never did go to war with each other, but the great conflict they engaged in, what came to be called the Cold War, dominated international politics for almost half a century. In the 1950s and early 1960s especially, a global war was not just a theoretical possibility. The threat of armed conflict was real. At times it seemed that a new war might be months, or perhaps just days, away. And war at this time meant general nuclear war. The feeling was that the survival of civilization, perhaps even of the human race itself, might well be hanging in the balance.

How is the Cold War to be understood? It is often taken for granted that the conflict was ideological at its core--that the Soviets wanted to dominate Europe and impose Communist regimes on the continent as a whole, while the U.S. government was incapable of thinking in "spheres of influence" terms and of accepting the division of Europe, at any rate after President Franklin Roosevelt's death in April 1945. The Americans, the argument runs, could not abandon their principles and had to support the independence of Poland and other countries in eastern Europe, and this was what led to the first great clash between the United States and the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Truman period, the quarrel over Poland. And this dispute, it is commonly assumed, played a key role in getting the Cold War started: once the ball had started to roll, there was just no way to stop it.1

It was certainly natural that Stalinist Russia and democratic America were not able to work together intimately in the postwar period, but does this mean that they were bound to clash with each other and get involved in a dispute that could conceivably have led to war? Maybe the Americans would have liked to see their kind of political system spread throughout Europe, and perhaps the Soviets would have liked to communize the entire continent. But given power realities and both sides' aversion to war, what bearing did those wishes have on effective policy? The United States was not going to use force to try to expel the Russians from eastern Europe, nor was the USSR going to provoke a third world war in order to push the Americans out of western Europe. Didn't both sides, therefore, regardless of what they said, more or less have to accept things as they were in Europe? Didn't American power and Soviet power balance each other so completely that neither side was really able to challenge the status quo there? If so, where was the problem?

Indeed, looking back, it is hard to understand why there was a serious risk of armed conflict during that period. American policy makers, and Soviet leaders as well, were not prisoners of their own ideologies, and were perfectly capable of recognizing power realities and constructing their policies accordingly. American policy in fact became more "realistic"--that is, more attuned to power realities and thus more willing to accept the Soviet domination of eastern Europe--under President Harry Truman in the second half of 1945 than it had been under Roosevelt at the beginning of the year. The United States, under the guidance of Secretary of State James Byrnes, the real maker of American foreign policy during the early Truman period, took the lead, especially at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, in pressing for what amounted to a spheres of influence settlement in Europe: the western powers would accept, in fact if not in words, the Soviet sphere in the east; in exchange, the Russians would respect western domination of the areas Britain and America controlled. There were strong indications that the Soviets would go along with an arrangement of this sort. And so, by late 1945, it might have seemed that a more or less permanent settlement was taking shape: each side would have a free hand in the area it dominated, and on that basis the two sides would be able to get along with each other in the future.

But a settlement of this sort did not come into being, not until 1963 at any rate. Why was it so long in coming? Why did the division of Europe not lead directly to a stable international order? To answer these questions is to understand what the Cold War was about.

The Conflict over Eastern Europe

As the war in Europe drew to a close in early 1945, the Soviet Union and the western powers quarreled over eastern Europe. The Red Army occupied most of the region, and there were many signs the USSR wanted to dominate that area on a more permanent basis. Britain and America, on the other hand, favored arrangements that would allow the east Europeans to play a much greater role in shaping their own destinies.

The most important issue here was the fate of Poland, and indeed the Polish question dominated relations between the Soviet Union and the western powers at the beginning of 1945. This was no accident: Poland was for both sides far more important than any other east European country. One glance at the map and one can see why the Soviets wanted a "friendly" Poland. The country lay astride the great invasion path between Germany and Russia. Control of Poland was therefore important not just as a buffer zone in the event Germany recovered her power and threatened to invade Russia again. For the time being, it was even more important that the Red Army be able to march through Poland so that Soviet power could be brought to bear on Germany and the Germans could be kept in line. The USSR needed both the right of free passage and secure lines of communication. The problem was that if Poland were truly independent, these rights might not be secure. The Poles had long feared and distrusted their great neighbor to the east. The war, which had begun with the USSR carving up Poland with Nazi Germany, had led to a number of episodes which had intensified Polish hatred, especially the murder in the Katyn Forest of Polish officers who had fallen into Soviet hands in 1939, and the crushing of the Warsaw Uprising by the Germans in August and September 1944 while the Red Army stood by and did nothing. Could a truly independent Poland accept the presence of Soviet troops on her territory? The USSR wanted a Poland she could depend on, which meant in the circumstances of 1945 a Poland she could control--a country ruled by Communists and run as a police state.2

By the start of 1945, the thrust of Soviet policy was clear. The USSR, over the objections of her western allies, had just recognized the Communist-dominated Lublin Committee as the provisional government of Poland. How were Britain and America to react? Neither government insisted that the principle of self-determination was the only acceptable basis for ordering international affairs, nor was either government dogmatically opposed to arrangements based on spheres of influence. President Roosevelt was willing, for example, to recognize Soviet predominance in Manchuria as part of the deal for getting the Russians to come into the war against Japan.3 In October 1944, he endorsed the famous "percentage agreement" in which Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, the British and Soviet leaders, had divided southeastern Europe into spheres of influence: British predominance was recognized in Greece, and Soviet predominance in Bulgaria and Rumania.4 It is clear, more generally, that Roosevelt was willing to accept Soviet control over certain areas--the Baltic republics and Poland east of the Curzon line--no matter how the populations in question felt about rule by the USSR.5 And he also accepted, as a simple fact of political life, that Soviet power would cast a deep shadow over all of eastern Europe.

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