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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.3 (2002) 144-146

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Book Review

Cold War Respite:
The Geneva Summit of 1955

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

In July 1945, midway through the Potsdam Conference, British prime minister Winston Churchill was swept from office by a war-weary British electorate. Six years of postwar Labour Party rule began when Clement Attlee replaced Churchill at Potsdam. Upon returning to power in the fall of 1951, Churchill called for a meeting that in a sense would take up where Potsdam had left off. He believed that a summit with Josif Stalin and Harry Truman would recapture some of Britain's faded wartime prestige and help to resolve the outstanding issues between East and West, most of which had roots in the failed peacemaking efforts of 1945.

But Churchill was not to have his summit. The first postwar meeting of Soviet and Western leaders did not take place until July 1955, more than two years after Truman had left office and Stalin had died. The meeting came some three months after Churchill himself had relinquished his post to Anthony Eden. Cold War Respite chronicles the tortuous diplomatic path that the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and the United States took from Churchill's initial proposal to the Geneva meeting. It dissects the key issues covered at the summit and examines the importance of Geneva as a [End Page 144] respite marking, as Ernest R. May puts it in his chapter, "the midpoint of the high cold war."

The book consists of papers presented at a conference sponsored by the Eisenhower Center of the University of New Orleans in 1995. Its great strength is its detailed treatment, in chapters by historians working with newly available archival materials, of the approaches adopted by the four participating states as well as West Germany and Austria. Other chapters cover the issues on the Geneva agenda—European security and German reunification, disarmament, and East-West trade and contacts—as well as the special role of John Foster Dulles and the follow-up to the summit in the October-November 1955 Geneva conference of foreign ministers.

The years from 1953 to 1955 witnessed great fluidity in the domestic politics of all of the protagonists. As Vladislav Zubok convincingly demonstrates in his chapter, the Soviet road to Geneva was connected with the post-Stalin struggle for power in the Kremlin. Limited détente with the West was both a result and an instrument of Nikita Khrushchev's struggle with Vyacheslav Molotov for control over Soviet foreign policy. In the United States the political situation was less volatile, but Dwight Eisenhower had to steer a careful path between, on the one hand, the lingering effects of McCarthyism and the fears within his own party about another Yalta and, on the other hand, his own sense that the public was weary of the Cold War stalemate, fearful of nuclear war, and eager for an East-West thaw that would offer hope for the future. In Britain and France governments struggling with economic challenges and diminished postwar status were seeking to bolster their positions through international diplomacy. Nowhere was domestic fluidity more pronounced—at least potentially—than in West Germany, where Chancellor Konrad Adenauer remained wary of Soviet and East German reunification offers that would have been premised on the sacrifice of West Germany's integration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Taken together, the chapters demonstrate the complex interplay of politics at three levels during the preparations for and conduct of the summit: (1) domestically; (2) within the emerging Western and Communist-bloc structures; and (3) in East-West relations. The overriding goal in the West, articulated most clearly by Adenauer and U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles, was to consolidate West Germany's place in NATO and only on that basis to engage with Moscow. Western leaders were unwilling to meet with their Soviet counterparts until all...