Europe, Cold War and Coexistence, 1953-1965

By Wilfried Loth | Go to book overview

1

Britain as a Bridge between East and West

Antonio Varsori

In late July of 1955, in the aftermath of the Geneva summit conference, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden had a talk with Evelyn Shuckburgh, at that time a senior Foreign Office official. The Conservative leader spoke about his experience at Geneva, saying that in his opinion, 'the Russians were looking ahead, and saw in ten or twenty years a very strong China to the east of them and perhaps a very strong Germany to the West, and were looking for someone to hold their hands a little. They could not expect anything from the USA, and they saw that the French were no use, so they were looking for us.” 1 This statement is representative of the attitudes, feelings, hopes, and misperceptions which characterized Britain's policy toward the Eastern bloc and especially the Soviet Union during the early détente period. Furthermore, it may be argued that Britain played a leading part in favouring the end of the Cold War in Europe, although it would be difficult to claim that British decision makers gained much for their efforts. 2

It would in fact be partially misleading to focus our attention only on the period from 1953 to 1956, that is, the two-and-a-half years from the death of Stalin to the crises over the Suez and Budapest. In order to understand the UK's policy during those crucial years, it would be of some help to go back to an earlier period. In the immediate postwar years, the Labour Cabinet did its best to create a new world order which could be based on some form of agreement not only with the USA and France but also with the Soviet Union. 3 It was especially on the European continent that the UK was confronted with a frightening power vacuum which could easily be filled only by the Soviet Union, British decision makers could not be sure of the USA's intentions, and a return to the isolationist tradition could not be excluded. In spite of Churchill's efforts in the late stages of the war, France was perceived as a defeated nation whose restoration as a great power would be an almost impossible task. Only the UK could counter Soviet ambitions to achieve hegemony over the whole European continent. At the same time, British decision makers were well aware of their nation's plight, which weakened their power despite the fact that the UK was still the centre of a great empire. 4 The Attlee government could not oppose both Soviet military strength and Stalin's political prestige, a consequence of the 'great patriotic war' and of the

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