By DONNA URSCHEL
When Joseph Stalin died 50 years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower was not interested in a showdown with the Soviet Union that would force an end to the Cold War, nor did he find in Stalin's death a good opportunity for significant détente, according to scholars in a roundtable discussion at the Library.
Klaus Larres, the Henry Alfred Kissinger Scholar in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library's John W. Kluge Center, assembled 13 historians and "historical witnesses" to discuss "The Death of Stalin (March 5, 1953): A Missed Opportunity to Overcome the Cold War?" He moderated the discussion.
Participants engaged in a lively discussion of Eisenhower's actions in the days and months after Stalin's death, the cause of Stalin's death (was it murder?), the impact of his death on the Soviet Union, and the future need to study and decry Stalin's slaughter of 25 million Soviets.
About 100 people attended the March 5 event in Room LJ 119 of the Jefferson Building. This was one of several programs hosted by the Kluge Center, which brings distinguished scholars from around the world to the Library for varying periods of time to pursue their research in the Library's vast collections.
The panel included eight "historical witnesses," who were involved in the events of the 1950s or close to those who were involved. Retired Army Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, Abbott Washburn and Robert Bowie served as advisers to Eisenhower. Sergei Khrushchev, professor at Brown University, is the son of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Susan Eisenhower, president of the Eisenhower Institute, is the granddaughter of the president, and Avis T. Bohlen, herself a former ambassador to Bulgaria, is the daughter of Charles Bohlen, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union (1953-57). Raymond Garthoff worked at the CIA and Helmut Sonnenfeldt in the State Department.
The panel's five historians were Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, a noted Russia scholar himself; Hope Harrison, George Washington University; Mark Kramer, Harvard University; Kenneth Osgood, Florida Atlantic University, and Vojtech Mastny, of the Woodrow Wilson Center.
When Stalin died in March 1953, Eisenhower had been in office for only two months. Andrew Goodpaster said Eisenhower asked his advisers to evaluate three lines of policy toward the Soviet Union: containment, massive retaliation, and "roll back," which was the use of force to recover the countries of Eastern Europe from Soviet domination. Goodpaster said Eisenhower settled on containment, "supplemented by a vigorous information program that would keep the hope of freedom alive."
Goodpaster said Eisenhower's policy was one of "strength and civility," and his approach was to remain militarily strong but civil. "You would never find Dwight Eisenhower speaking disparagingly or in a threatening way to the Soviet people. He had a deep feeling for what they had endured during the war and for their tremendously important role in bringing the war to a successful conclusion."
Susan Eisenhower said there was considerable debate in her grandfather's administration on how he should respond to Stalin's death. He stated the administration's commitment to peaceful policy in his first speech to the American people, titled "Chance for Peace."
"It very clearly laid out the basic principles of the free world … and it told the Soviets what they could do to indicate that a new era had begun," she said. "The speech made it clear the United States would not attack the Soviet Union during its period of high vulnerability."
Moderator Larres asked the panel if the Soviet leaders had indicated any conciliatory tone. Eisenhower adviser Auburn Washburn said, "Not that I could find. I wasn't aware of any."
Vojtech Mastny said there was no opportunity for thawing the Cold War after Stalin's death. "détente remained elusive. It never got off the ground in the aftermath of Stalin's death, because neither his successors (Georgi Malenkov or Nikita Khrushchev) really dared to want it. They were never secure enough to risk détente nor insecure enough to need it."
Hope Harrison said the Soviet leaders succeeding Stalin were mindful of the West and tried to initiate moderate policies in East Germany, but ran into problems. Wishing to stem the loss of citizens to the West (447,000 people fled from 1951 to 1953), the East Germans asked shortly after Stalin died if the border could be closed in Berlin. "But Stalin's successors said ‘No, absolutely not. That would make us look terrible. Grossly simplistic, unacceptable approach,'" Harrison said.
Three months later, she said, the new Soviet leaders completed a review of Stalin's policies and handed the East Germans a document known as "New Course," which called for liberalization and reaching out to the West. "They told the East Germans they had to change their policies so people would stop fleeing. They told them to stop being so aggressive, to reach out their hand in friendship.
"But it didn't work," Harrison said. "Every time the Soviets tried to change harsh policies, Soviet citizens would push for more leniency through protest and uprisings. In 1961, the Berlin Wall went up, and the Soviets gave up on moderation."
The roundtable participants also spent time debating the cause of Stalin's death. The conclusion? He succumbed to natural causes. Sergei Khrushchev said, emphatically, "No, he was not poisoned." He argued that Stalin did not taste any food unless his closest advisers, including Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev, tried the food first. Also, Stalin was tightly guarded. "I don't see any technical possibility for murder," Khrushchev said.
Stalin collapsed on March 1, 1953, and remained unconscious until he died on March 5. Khrushchev said he didn't receive immediate medical care because Stalin's advisers at first thought he was drunk and would regain consciousness. "He was on the floor and they brought him [up] on the sofa," said Khrushchev.
A member of the audience, Vladimir Shamberg, described himself as a close friend of Svetlana, Stalin's daughter. "I believe I was the first person she saw after her father's death, and she never spoke about something fishy," he said. Shamberg said he believes Stalin's advisers failed to get him immediate medical care because they were afraid of the consequences, not because they wanted him dead. "They thought if he regained consciousness and saw the doctors, he would suspect a plot and have them all executed," said Shamberg, adding that Stalin eventually received treatment from a major in his guard who happened to be a veterinarian.
Panel participants agreed Stalin probably was not murdered, but they did speculate over the lack of medical care. "There was a motivation to letting him die,"Garthoff said. "Stalin was planning a major purge in which most of them [his advisers] would be swept aside." Larres pointed out that in February 1953, Stalin ordered construction of four new giant prison camps.
Stalin's death brought change to the Soviet Union. "After Stalin was gone, these people were able to break out of that awful system; that's one of the thankful things," said Kramer. "The Soviet Union remained a repugnant dictatorship, but it was a very different place after Stalin was gone."
Mastny said, "The death of Stalin was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union." Stalin, he explained, left an unmanageable legacy, economically and in terms of security.
Billington spoke of the need of Russia and the world to face up to the horrors of the Stalin regime. "The tragedy of Stalinism was not simply a tragedy of Stalinism, but a failure of the civilized world–a moral failure of the Western world," he said.
"There is no definitive document or any work on the gulag. People still don't want to think about it. They still haven't fully understood this. There is no memorial for the gulag anywhere in the world," Billington said. There are small efforts to address the topic, some researchers doing work, but they're having a hard time getting support, he said.
Kramer said, "Russia would be a lot better off if there was a systematic effort to recount, recall and memorialize the horrors of the Stalin period."
Some on the panel expressed concern that Stalin rates highly in Russian opinion polls today. Harrison attributes the popularity to the older citizens who are thankful to Stalin for getting them through World War II.
Panelists expect that the atrocities of Stalin will be researched over the next 25 years. They pointed out that although Germany is a stronger country today for facing up to its crimes during the Nazi regime, it took many years for the Germans to deal with their history. Eisenhower said, "It wasn't until recently that the Holocaust was thoroughly digested, and it's been 50 years since the end of the war. The Soviet Union is only 10 years gone."
Larres concluded the discussion by briefly drawing a line to the problems of the present regime change in Iraq. He said, "While history never offers any precise lessons, the events in the Soviet Union 50 years ago may be able to give us some useful food for thought. After Stalin's death, it took democracy 40 years to put down tentative roots in Russia and Eastern Europe. It probably can't be assumed that a similar process in Iraq and the Arab world will happen within a short period of time."
Donna Urschel is a freelance writer.