Background to the crises, 1958-1970


By 1958, Nikita Khrushchev was in power in the USSR and Dwight D Eisenhower was President of the USA. There was a begrudging respect between Khrushchev and Eisenhower, due partly to Eisenhower’s reputation as a military leader during World War Two. The personal relationships between the various Soviet and American leaders affected events and the success of every summit that was held during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In the late 1950s, issues around Berlin sparked off one of the biggest of the Cold War crises.

Speech in Moscow - November 1958

Khrushchev and the East German authorities were concerned about the 'brain drain' from East Germany towards West Germany.

Between 1949 and 1961 an estimated 2.7 million East Germans left for West Germany, and Berlin was the centre of this process as defectors had easy access to its Western sectors.

This created a bad impression of life in East Germany under its hard-line communist leader, Walter Ulbricht.

Khrushchev became so troubled with this situation that in November 1958 he gave a speech in Moscow in which he gave the West an ultimatum. He demanded that, as Berlin lay in East Germany, the Western powers should withdraw their troops from Berlin within six months.

Eisenhower did not want to give in to Khrushchev’s demands, and believed a military presence was necessary to protect West Berlin’s freedom. It was agreed to hold a summit meeting to resolve the ultimatum.

Geneva Conference - May 1959

The two leaders were seeking a new agreement on Berlin. Although no solution to the ultimatum was found, relations between Khrushchev and Eisenhower improved and Khrushchev agreed to consider a trip to the USA for another summit meeting the following year.

Camp David Summit - September 1959

The fact that Eisenhower had invited Khrushchev to the official US presidential residence at Camp David, and that Khrushchev had agreed to set foot on US soil, demonstrated the respect the two leaders had for each other.

At this summit Eisenhower said: Because of our importance in the world, it is vital that we understand each other better.

Although no agreement on the long-term fate of Berlin was reached, the ultimatum on Berlin was withdrawn by Khrushchev, and it was agreed that further negotiations would take place in Paris the following year.