May -- a season of crisis mixed with opportunity -- now as in 1955. Twenty-five years ago the "impossible" took place. Soviet forces withdrew from Austria; Moscow returned its Porkkala base to Finland; Soviet diplomats accepted British and French disarmament proposals as the basis for further negotiations; Moscow reduced its own army unilaterally by 650,000 men.
Then, as in 1980, some Western foreign policy experts threw cold water on Soviet overtures, arguing that they were a kind of Trojan horse or that, if sincere, they demonstrated weaknesses which the West should exploit. Having called on Moscow to match its peace proposals with deeds, however, President Eisenhower agreed to meet at the summit with Soviet, British, and French leaders to discuss a wide range of East-West issues.
The Western Big Three met the Kremlin leadership in Geneva in July, 1955, but shrank from exploring the Soviet offer to negotiate arms control on the basis of principles proposed by the West. Relying instead on the advice of a panel of experts in psychological warfare, Ike proposed a plan of open skies -- legitimization of espionage as the Soviets saw it. When Moscow continued its conciliatory approach the White House placed a "reservation" -- reneged -- on all its pre-summit arms control positions in September, 1955. When Eisenhower lay in a Colorado hospital that November, John Foster Dulles flouted his instructions and failed to offer Moscow the quid pro quo that Ike intended if the Kremlin accepted his open skies proposal.
As the months dragged on the West failed to investigate what French diplomat Jules Moch called the moment of hope -- May, 1955.
An even more important opportunity was lost as the West refused to negotiate on Soviet offers to head off West Germany's rearmament and participation in NATO. The Kremlin offered unification of East and West Germany on the basis of free elections if a united Germany remained outside the Western and Soviet alliance systems. But Washington and Bonn feared a Soviet trick to derail the momentum of Western alliance-building.
In 1955, as in 1980, Moscow was particularly concerned about impending threats which it perceived in Europe. Then, as now, the Kremlin dangled carrots and warned of dire consequences if its reasonable proposals were ignored. In 1955 Moscow's bark was worse than its bite, for its main response was to organize the Warsaw Pact, merely a formalization of bilateral ties already linking the East European states and Moscow. But we will never know what opportunity was missed for creating a zone of peace and prosperity in central Europe, one whose liberating influences would doubtless have radiated eastward.
In 1955, as in 1980, Moscow wanted to penetrate the third world. The first shipments of Czechoslovak and Soviet arms were being readied for Egypt even as Khrushchev and Bulganin pursued East-West detente. Then, as now, peaceful coexistence was seen as a way to continue and regulate competition in many domains.
In 1980, as in 1955, the USSR is confronted with severe problems at home and abroad. Dulles was right that Soviet conciliatory moves derived in part from Soviet weaknesses. He was also correct that Soviet proposals were meant to advance Kremlin objectives.
But Western statesmen could never expect that the USSR would put forward proposals meant to harm Soviet interests. The question is whether there exist bases for agreement that may be advantageous to both sides.
We should be on guard lest our self-righteousness in the face of perceived Soviet aggression and duplicity blind us to moments of hope in 1980. Now, as in 1955, Washington is concerned to build and maintain Western unity. Now, as then , Soviet intentions are not clear. Soviet negotiating overtures may or may not be in good faith. But we will not know unless we explore them. If they are hypocritical, this fact will become manifest. But if there is room for a compromise agreement, we may purchase more opportunities in which to move from cold and hot war toward policies premised on our mutual vulnerability in a world of escalating interdependencies.
As another president, John F. Kennedy, once counseled, "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."