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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.1 (2002) 88-89

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Book Review

Cold War Respite: The Geneva Summit of 1955

Gunter Bischof and Saki Dockrill, eds., Cold War Respite: The Geneva Summit of 1955. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. 319 pp. $60.00.

Now that the Cold War is over, a critical question for historians is whether it had to last so long. Were there moments when things might have gone differently, when the leaders of the great powers might have broken the grip of suspicion and fear that for forty years made an armed camp of Europe, a ruin of large parts of the rest of the world, and nervous wrecks of billions of people who wondered when Armageddon would begin?

Of the candidates for such an alternative history, the summer of 1955 has always been one of the most intriguing. The conclusion of the Austrian State Treaty in May 1955 made that country a potential model for a larger demilitarization of Europe. A summit conference in Geneva in July--the first face-to-face meeting since 1945 of those responsible for the Cold War--raised hopes all around the world that the Cold War might end and a genuine peace ensue.

Those hopes were dashed; and the authors and editors of this fine collection explain why. The editors, Gunter Bischof and Saki Dockrill, and the keynote speaker at the 1995 conference for which these papers were originally prepared, Ernest May, ably establish the background for the Geneva conference. Richard Immerman assesses American expectations in the leadup to the summit, especially the tension between the very reluctant John Foster Dulles and the mildly more forthcoming Dwight Eisenhower. (Dulles gets a second chapter all to himself, by Ronald Pruessen.) Vladislav Zubok shows the new Soviet leadership striving to break with the Stalinist past but failing to escape the shadow of Joseph the Terrible. Equal space is given to the minor participants at Geneva--Britain and France, by Antonio Varsori and Colette Barbier respectively--in what one presumes is the interest of even-handedness. The chapter on West Germany by Eckart Conze is most valuable for demonstrating how fiercely Konrad Adenauer resisted what many other people hoped for: the application of the Austrian model to Germany (a "deadly danger," Adenauer called it, p. 197). John Prados provides new details regarding what has been known for some time about the ace up Eisenhower's sleeve in proposing an overflight program--"Open Skies"--that he knew the Soviet Union would reject, namely the U-2 spy plane.

The sum of the stories of the several authors is that the Geneva summit was a failure only by the standards of the naive public. The conference came and went, leaving little but propaganda in its wake, precisely because propaganda was all that the major [End Page 88] players wanted. (That the British did not get what they wanted--a serious attempt at détente, with London acting as mediator between Washington and Moscow--simply underscored that Britain was not a major player.) Eisenhower wanted to get credit for talking peace without giving any ground in the arms race or anything else, and he succeeded. The new men in the Kremlin achieved their goal of being treated seriously, as equals to their American counterparts. Germany dodged the bullet of neutralization. For those in a position to make a difference in the Cold War in 1955, the status quo was more comfortable than any feasible alternative, and they clung to it.

This volume is a model of international history. Some of the individual researchers have tried to master the archival records, secondary literature, and political and cultural perspectives of several countries in explaining important world events; but the results are mixed. The trouble is that almost any topic big enough to be interesting is too big for one person. The collaborative approach is far more satisfactory. The authors here provide entrée to the relevant primary and secondary sources; on this account alone the book is worth the cover price. More important...