The Cold War in the 1950s

With her brother on her back a war weary Korean girl tiredly trudges by a stalled M-26 tank, at Haengju, Korea. June 9, 1951. Maj. R.V. Spencer, UAF. (Navy) NARA FILE #: 080-G-429691 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1485

Key learning aims:

  • To be able to explain:
    • the key developments in the Cold War in the 1950s especially the Korean War and the causes, events and results of the Hungarian Uprising.
    • the changes in Soviet policy under Khrushchev.
Key developments
    • January: in a speech to the National Press Club, US secretary of state Donald Acheson omits Korea from US strategic perimeter
    • February: Sino-Soviet Treaty signed
    • April: NSC 68 makes containment official policy; and recommends a vast increase in American military spending.
    • June 25th: Kim Il Sung, leader of North Korea, leads invasion of the South
    • Syngman Rhee, leader of South Korea asks the United Nations for help
    • September 15th: Douglas MacArthur orchestrates amphibious landings at Inchon
    • October 14th: 200,000 Chinese volunteers cross the Yalu river
  • 1951
    • April: General MacArthur dismissed and replaced by General Ridgeway
  • 1952
    • US Air Strikes in North Korea
    • Kim il Sung accuses US of war crimes
    • November: US tests first Hydrogen bomb
  • 1953
    • January: Eisenhower inaugurated as President
    • January 21st: US launches first Nuclear Submarine – SLBMs will follow in late 1950s
    • March: Stalin dies
    • Uprising in East Berlin
    • July 27th: Armistice in Korea
    • August: Soviets test first Hydrogen bomb
  • 1954
    • March: Soviets request to join NATO
    • December 17th: NATO adopts first strike policy
  • 1955
    • May 9th: West Germany joins NATO
    • May 14th: The Warsaw Pact.
    • May 15th: Treaty of Austria
    • July 18th: Geneva Summit
  • 1956
    • January Nikita Khrushchev makes Secret Speech at the 20th Party Congress
    • Anti-Soviet movements in Poland and Hungary
    • The Hungarian revolution
    • Matyas Rakosi, Communist leader
    • Imre Nagy, anti-Soviet revolutionary
    • Janos Kadar, Communist puppet leader after Nagy
    • July: US develops U2 Spy plane
  • 1957
    • May: USSR develops 1st ICBM
    • October: USSR launches Sputnik
  • 1958
  1. The Korean War Readings:

    Causes of the Korean War (DUCKS – thanks to John D.Clare)
    • Domino theory – after the fall of China in 1949, Truman was desperate to avoid the accusation that he was ‘soft on Communism’ but also to avoid the ‘domino’ effect his opponents said could now happen in the far East, spreading Communism from China to other Asian countries, particularly Japan.
    • Undermine Communism – In April 1950, the American National Security Council issued a report (NSC 68) recommending that America adopted ‘containment’ as official policy. Truman signed NSC 68 because he did not want to be seen as soft on communism.
    • Kim Il Sung – In 1949, he persuaded Stalin that he could conquer South Korea. He got Stalin’s tacit approval after Donald Acheson omitted South Korea from a list of strategic priorities in a speech to the National Press Club in January 1950. Stalin did not think that America would dare to get involved, so he gave his agreement. Stalin saw a chance to continue the cold war and discomfort America, but ‘at arm’s length’ – without directly confronting the Americans. Kim Il Sung also went to see Mao Zedong, the leader of China, to get his agreement. He launched an invasion of the south on 25th June 1950.
    • Syngman Rhea – appealed to the United Nations for help. The US were able to get UN approval for armed intervention in part because the Russians were boycotting the Security Council at the time. This allowed the US to fight the war under the guise of a multi-national force that was mainly made up of American forces. This enabled America to fight for influence in the area without a direct attack on either China or Russia. Korea was the first proxy war of the Cold War.


    1. Create mind map of the Mnemonic for five causes of the Korean War: DUCKS (Domino theory; undermine communism; Cold War; Kim Il Sung; Syngman Rhee and explain how each of these caused the Korean war
    2. Read pages 39-41 of the textbook and complete the B style question at the bottom of page 41: Explain two effects of the Korean War on Superpower Relations
    3. Study sources B and C in Kelly, p. 41. : what do they tell us about the war?
    4. General McArthur was saying what many were thinking about the war in Korea. Why do you think Truman dismissed him?
    5. Explain two effects of the Korean War on superpower relations (8 marks) – remember the question is not asking you to write about the war, about how it affected relations.
    6. Eisenhower’s farewell speech – what might we learn about the consequences of Korean War from this?


  • Create categories for the following consequences and rank the consequences in order of importance.
  • Korea saw a massive increase in US defence spending and a seven-fold increase in production of war materials between 1950 an 1953 – largely in expectation that Stalin would prompt other Communist leaders to go on the offensive elsewhere. The Korean War put NSC68 into a new light and caused America to act on the commitment to greater defence spending.
  • This policy led to a permanent expansion of America’s military readiness, including an attempt to achieve parity in conventional forces with the Soviet Union in addition to nuclear superiority. In response, the Soviet union built up its conventional forces from 2.8 million to 5.6 million soldiers between 1950 and 1955.
  • Truman did not run for re-election: the loss of China and failure to break the stalemate in Korea with the loss of roughly 36,000 American lives, tarnished his reputation
  • In theory Eisenhower was critical of ‘containment’ and launched a ‘New Look’ foreign policy in which the possibility of a first nuclear strike would always be on the table
  • In practice, Eisenhower limited American foreign policy to containment and resisted calls for the use of nuclear weapons
  • NATO was immediately strengthened – with Greece and Turkey added in 1951 – and the latter giving the US the ability to launch air strikes on the Soviet Union;
  • Effectively, spending on Marshall Aid was replaced by spending on NATO forces – of $25 billion – on condition that NATO partners increase their own expenditure
  • West German rearmament became a central aspect of this policy. In 1952 West Germany was recognised as a full sovereign state by the USA and became a member of NATO in 1955
  • America began sending aid to Taiwan to help it resist China’s encroachments
  • Japan was given its independence – this was formally recognised in the Treaty of San Francisco (1951). In return The USA was granted bases on the island of Okinawa and in Japan itself. The Japanese islands then became defensive perimeter against further communist expansion. The Yoshida letter from the Prime Minister of Japan agreed a trade embargo with communist China.
  • The Korean War had helped rebuild the Japanese economy
  • The US sent its Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Straits to defend the island against possible Communist invasion. America recognised Taiwan as the only official Chinese State until 1971, when recognition was accorded to mainland China in advance of Nixon’s visit
  • The inability of Japan to trade with China increased the importance of other markets in South East Asia, including Indochina; and without those markets – it was felt – Japan could be absorbed by China.
  • More aid was sent to France both to in its war in Indochina and to secure its acceptance of West German remilitarisation.
  • Truman and Eisenhower believed that Indochina would have to fill the economic vacuum created by China’s fall to communism
  • America’s defense spending increased from $13.1 billion/year in 1950 to at least $40 billion/year for the rest of the 1950s after 1953.
  • The South East Asian Treaty Organisation – SEATO – was created in 1955.

2. Khrushchev, the Secret Speech and Peaceful Coexistence

  • Readings:

    • N. Kelly, Edexcel International GCSE (9-1) History A World Divided: Superpower Relations, 1943-72, pp. 44-45.

    Key points

    • Even before Khrushchev’s 1956 speech there were signs of ‘peaceful coexistence’ beginning to emerge:
      • Austrian independence agreed: in May 1955, the USA, France, Britain and USSR signed the Austrian State Treaty on May 15th 1955. In return for pledging neutrality, the occupying powers left Austria which received diplomatic recognition as an independent nation
      • Geneva Summit: Eisenhower met with Soviet Premier Nicolai Bulganin, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, and French Premier Edgar Faure at a summit in Geneva in July 1955. Eisenhower offered an “Open Skies” proposal, calling for a U.S.-Soviet exchange of military blueprints and mutual aerial inspection of one another’s military installations. The participants also discussed disarmament, German reunification through free elections, European security, and the need for East-West cultural and scientific exchange.
      • A good summary of the causes, content and consequences of Khrushchev’s 1956 ‘secret speech’ delivered to a closed session of the Soviet leadership at the close of the 20th Party Congress on 25th February 1956 can be found here
      • John D. Clare’s pages on Kruschev and Peaceful co-existence and How peaceful was co-existence?


      • Write out and learn the Mnemonic De-Stalinisation:
        • Destroyed the cult of Stalin and the perception that he was a legend starting with the secret speech of 25 February 1956
        • Stalin’s statues and portraits were removed from public places
        • The secret police were given less power
        • Abolition of the death penalty
        • Laws of censorship were relaxed so there was more freedom in the media and the arts
        • Increased freedom was given to writers and artists
        • No elimination of his rivals, as Stalin had done, they were just given unimportant jobs instead
        • Indication of a less brutal control of the party
        • Stalingrad was renamed to Volvograd
        • Also erased Stalin from history by taking his body from the Red Square mausoleum where it was displayed alongside Lenin and burying it in a grave alongside other Soviet leaders.
        • Thousands of political prisoners were released from Gulags which were closed.
        • Improved Khrushchev’s image – portraying him as good and Stalin as bad and disassociated himself from Stalin’s crimes even though he had been responsible for thousands of deaths himself
        • Other places and buildings named after Stalin were renamed
        • Nevertheless, the basic elements of the Soviet system, including the dominance of the Communist Party, remained intact.
      • Why did ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ cause more tensions?

3.  The Hungarian uprising


  • N. Kelly, Edexcel International GCSE (9-1) History A World Divided: Superpower Relations, 1943-72, pp. 46-49
  • John D. Clare’s page on the the anti-Soviet movements of 1956

Since the Soviet occupation, Hungary had suffered economically under the restrictions of Comecon which forced the country to send its best agricultural and industrial products to Russia, to over-specialise and to depend upon other satellite states for necessities. Culturally, the Soviet Union had cracked down hard on the Catholic Church, placing Archbishop Mindsentzy in prison, took control of education and restricted free speech.

  • Matyas Rakosi was dictator from 1949-1953 and then again from 1955-6. He described himself as ‘Stalin’s best pupil’ but Hungarians nicknamed him ‘the bald butcher’.
    • He was famous for what he called ‘salami tactics’. He dealt with his opposition ‘slice by slice’, i.e. dividing his opposition bit by bit.
    • Rigged elections – only 20% voted communist in 1945.
    • Secret Police terrorised and tortured opponents; every aspect of culture controlled (art, music, theatre etc.).
    • Hungarian history was not taught in schools;
    • No freedom of speech.
    • Hungarians had to pay for the presence of Soviet troops on the streets.
      Street signs, schools etc. were all put into Russian.
    • Having had their own empire before WWI the Hungarians felt humiliated.
    • Low standard of living.
    • His regime imprisoned over 380,000 and was responsible for more than 2,000 deaths. He effectively introduced a Stalinist police state.

Life for Hungary under USSR

What made Hungarians hungry for change
What made Hungarians hungry for change?


What was it that made hungrians even hungrier
What made Hungarians even hungrier for change?

Matyas Rakosi was replaced by the reformer Imre Nagy, but after two years in which he promoted his ‘New Course’ in Socialism, Nagy fell out of favour with the Soviet Politburo. Matyas Rakosi returned to power, but not for long.

Khrushchev sought a more liberal approach to government and sought to distance himself from Stalinism. He gave a ‘secret speech’ in 1956 promising ‘peaceful co-existence’ with the West and an end to Stalinism.

  • Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ was interpreted by many in Eastern Europe as an end to Soviet Rule. People believed that Khrushchev would let them rule themselves.
  • Khrushchev even called the execution of Lazlo Rajk a ‘miscarriage of justice.’
  • In Hungary, students rioted and attacked Soviet troops with petrol bombs and grenades. It was illegal to demonstrate by law but huge demonstrations took place in Budapest.
  • The protests became violent and police lost control. Protests began to spread to other cities in Hungary.

In June 1956, prompted by de-Stalinisation and by events in Poland where the Soviets had permitted Gromulka to remain in power despite leading a revolt against the Soviet Union, the Hungarian people began to protest against Matyas Rákosi’s regime. As a result Moscow replaced him as prime minister with Andras Hegadus (Ernő Gerő became First Secretary of the Communist Party of Hungary in place of Rakosi). But Hegadus more popular than Rákosi had been.

On October 23rd 1956, students took the streets and were supported by workers and the Hungarian army. Although Soviet tanks were brought in to quell the unrest, the Soviets agreed on the 24th to the formation of a new government under the leadership of Imre Nagy once again – and five days later, on October 28th, Soviet tanks began to withdraw upon his request. Confident of American support, Imre Nagy passed a number of reforms between the 29th October and the 3rd November:

  • free elections for a democratically chosen government;
  • free speech and religious freedom
  • an independent legal system to ensure fair trials;
  • the total withdrawal of Soviet troops;
  • the resumption of private ownership of land for farmers;
  • A proposal to leave the Warsaw Pact and declare neutrality in the Cold War.

On 1 November, Imre Nagy announced the decision to introduce free elections and to leave the Warsaw Pact – an act which threatened to destroy the unity of the Soviet block and weaken the defences of the USSR. At this point, facing pressure from within Moscow politburo, and from Mao Zedong who criticised Khrushchev’s ‘de-Stalinisation’ policies as a ‘revisionist’ betrayal of the Revolution, the Soviet Union mounted an invasion.



  • On 4 November 1956, 6,000 Soviet tanks crossed the Hungarian border. Fighting resulted in approximately 30,000 Hungarian deaths. 200,000 refugees fled across the Austrian border.
  • Imre Nagy sought refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy, but was captured and executed in 1958. He was replaced by János Kádár who created a compliant regime and stamped out remaining resistance.
  • During the uprising, the US government-funded Radio Free Europe (RFE) Hungarian-language programs broadcast news of the political and military situation, as well as appealing to Hungarians to fight the Soviet forces, including tactical advice on resistance methods. After the Soviet suppression of the revolution, RFE was criticised for having misled the Hungarian people that NATO or United Nations would intervene if citizens continued to resist.
  • Secretary of State John F. Dulles had told the people of Europe ‘to those suffering under Communist slavery, let us say, you can count on us’. But America did nothing and its credibility was damaged.
  • In Britain and France, membership of the Communist Parties went into sharp decline and the Soviet Union was heavily criticised.

More videos about the Hungarian uprising can be found here.

There were FIVE reasons why Khrushchev acted harshly in Hungary:

  1. Nagy’s decision to leave the Warsaw Pact – Russia was determined to keep its ‘buffer’ of states.
  2. China asked Russia to act to stop Communism being damaged.
  3. Nagy had obviously lost control; Hungary was not destalinising – it was turning capitalist.
  4. Hard-liners in Russia forced Khrushchev to act.
  5. Khrushchev thought, correctly, that the West would not help Hungary.

TWO reasons why the West did not help Hungary:

  1. Britain and France were involved in the Suez crisis in Egypt.
  2. Eisenhower did not think Hungary worth a world war and beyond supporting resolutions condemning the Soviet Union’s actions, did nothing.


  • Summarise the key causes of the Hungarian uprising (J.D.Clare above).
  • Create a story board or cartoon of the key developments of the Hungarian uprising – in its causes, main events and consequences in this period
  • Summarise the key consequences of the Hungarian uprising and its destruction by Khrushchev
  • Complete the three tasks in the activity box on p. 49 of Kelly
  • Complete the exam-style question (worth 16 marks) on p. 49 of Kelly
  • Why was the Hungarian uprising so much more bloody than the uprising in Poland?
  • Class Debate: THBT The West, rather than the Russians, responsible for the deaths in Hungary?
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