The Cold War at Ditchley

Thomas Cryer (Archives Intern, 2021) has recently completed an MPhil in American History at the University of Cambridge, having received a BA(Hons) in History there in 2020. He starts a Postgraduate Research PhD at UCL’s Institute of the Americas in September 2021 via the London Arts and Humanities Partnership.

In 1962, the year that the Ditchley Foundation launched, the world recoiled from the brink of nuclear catastrophe as Soviet ships retreated from Cuba. Coming only a year after a wall was erected dividing Berlin, the Cuban Missile Crisis marked the high watermark of a half-century gripped with ideological tension between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. As recalled by the American diplomat Thomas Pickering in his 1994 Ditchley Annual Lecture, ‘The Russia in Europe’s Future’, ‘most past gatherings of this body [Ditchley] were dominated by the reality of a Europe sharply divided between a group of democratic countries closely allied with the United States and a vast imperial system based on an authoritarian Soviet state.’ Far too frequently, this divide threatened to deteriorate into what was contemporaneously called ‘Mutually Assured Destruction,’ precisely that risk of global warfare that Sir David Wills founded the Ditchley Foundation in 1958 to help prevent.

Nevertheless, the permanent risk of bipolar confrontation also masked several more complex geopolitical undercurrents: decolonisation; China’s ascent to great power status; accelerating environmental degradation; the rise of civil and human rights movements and many stark domestic effects (culturally, economically, intellectually, and politically) in both the Eastern and Western blocs. To examine the Cold War’s impact, as seen from Ditchley, this essay emphasises a Cold War ‘lens,’ a way of understanding geopolitical events and tying them into a narrative of ideological confrontation that participants at Ditchley channelled, challenged and, following the conclusion of the Cold War, ultimately hoped to replace with a more pragmatic substitute. This piece examines around seventy Ditchley Annual Lectures and Directors’ Notes which focused on Cold War topics to ask both how this Cold War lens informed discussions at Ditchley and whether we have arrived at a new way of understanding global geopolitics that recognises the diversity of the world left behind in the Cold War’s wake.

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