• U.S.

Cold War: Soft Wave

5 minute read

Silhouetted against the Soviet embassy’s big picture window overlooking the Rhine, Ambassador Andrei Smirnov wore a thoughtful look as he toyed with his vodka glass. Before him sat his West German guests—editors, members of the Bundestag, an official from the government press office. Moscow’s new policy, pleaded Smirnov, is not meant as “bait,” or as “mere propaganda.” The “highest personality in the Soviet Union” (Nikita Khrushchev) is behind this idea: the Soviet Union and West Germany must “normalize” their relations. Russia is no longer disposed to deal only with the U.S., Britain and France as a group in search of a German settlement; Bonn must talk to Moscow.

All over Europe last week, Russians were pushing this line. They had begun late last year when a Foreign Ministry official in Moscow called in West German Ambassador Hans Kroll and handed him a sheaf of papers. “You can do what you want with this,” remarked the Russian with a shrug. It was a long and rambling document without address or signature, but it was obviously important. For one thing, it referred to the “gifted” German people and used other flattering words that contrasted with the insults of the past. Pointedly ignoring Moscow’s East German satellite, the memorandum declared: “The Soviet Union and West Germany are the greatest states of Europe.”

Echo from the Past? Coupled with the compliments for West Germany were dazzling hints of trade treasures ahead; an “ocean-size market is waiting . . . but only a tiny part of existing possibilities is being used.” Getting to the point last week. Radio Moscow spoke of “the spirit of Rapallo,”* and in a major switch, Pravda assured Bonn that none of this meant West Germany must become a “neutral” and leave NATO; relations could be “normalized” without breaking up existing blocs. In fact, it was hinted that Russia might drop the idea of a separate peace treaty with East Germany if the West Germans would open negotiations with Moscow.

Bonn officials pooh-poohed the whole affair as an obvious effort to divide the West, and Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss declared that West Germany would “under no circumstances” change its policy. But the West German press and public clearly got a big charge out of all the unexpected attention. MOSCOW WOOING BONN AGAIN, boasted the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung; headlined another paper: MOSCOW CONTINUES SOFT WAVE.

It all was especially appealing to the Free Democrats, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s coalition partners, whose backers —a cloudy mixture of old-line nationalists and big industrial interests—had always urged experimental bargaining with the Russians to test the chances of future German reunification. Their party boss, Dr. Erich Mende, suggested that Bonn take over part of the negotiations with Russia from the U.S.’s Moscow Ambassador Llewellyn E. Thompson, who under present Allied agreement speaks for the West as a whole.

Back Chat. Amid such talk, the most nervous man in Europe was East Germany’s Soviet Puppet Boss Walter Ulbricht, who was appalled by all the promises Moscow was making to Bonn. On Jan. 3, Ulbricht protested vigorously to Moscow in writing; a few days later, the Kremlin urged him, also in writing, to shut up and stop interfering with Moscow’s greater plans for Europe. Ulbricht felt bold enough to talk back; he published in full Moscow’s memorandum to the hated Bonn regime, then put a spokesman on television to comment on it. The audience ratings should have been huge; for the first time in anyone’s memory, East Germany declared publicly that it did not agree with Moscow: “We must distinguish between the policy of the Soviet Union and the policy of the German Democratic Republic. This must be said very clearly . . .” Ulbricht’s spokesman also snarled at Moscow’s suggestion that West Germany might remain a member of NATO in a future European settlement. Shortly afterward, Ulbricht found it necessary to hedge, declared that he (gulp) approved “wholeheartedly” of a rapprochement between Moscow and Bonn.

Whatever hope Moscow might have of splitting the Allies and dealing with them one at a time, hard facts weighed heavily against it. Thinking out loud last week, a shrewd West German official said: “The Soviets are living in another age. They cannot admit to themselves that the capitalist world is growing closer together instead of splitting as they have always predicted. They do not realize that the only power today with enough mass and energy to deal with them bilaterally is the U.S. And considering the structure of the Western world today, even the U.S. would not and could not negotiate on a purely bilateral basis. The Russians simply will not be able to isolate anyone for completely separate talks.”

* The Italian resort where, in 1922, Bolshevik Russia and defeated Germany secretly negotiated an economic and diplomatic treaty.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com