The Sino-Soviet Split: History, Causes & Effects

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

In this lesson we will outline and explain the Sino-Soviet Split, including the events that led to it, as well as the effects afterward. In particular, Soviet support for nuclear disarmament played an especially important role in the split. Updated: 05/15/2020

Personality Conflicts

Because the Soviet Union and China were both communist states, they had reason to try to get along. The Chinese communists did not control China until 1949, by which time Joseph Stalin had run the Soviet Union for over two decades. Stalin viewed China as a country he could provide guidance to, and Mao Zedong, the Chinese communist leader, was willing to accept assistance from the Soviet Union, who had sent many advisors to China to try to get them to follow the Soviet model of development.

Even though Mao disagreed with Stalin on many things, he respected Stalin as a leader. After Stalin's death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev eventually became leader of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev began the process of de-Stalinization in 1956, criticizing many aspects of Stalin's reign, especially the political repression and brutality. Mao was angry about this denouncement of Stalin, a man he had admired. Moreover, some of the aspects of de-Stalinization, such as denouncing Stalin's cult of personality, also applied to Mao, who was, at the time, trying to build his own cult of personality. De-Stalinization thus contributed to the split between the two countries. Mao also resented that the Soviets did not treat him as a superior leader. Mao viewed himself, not Khrushchev, as world communism's main leader.

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  • 0:05 Personality Conflicts
  • 1:33 Peaceful Coexistence
  • 2:54 The Cuban Missile Crisis
  • 4:49 Results of the Split
  • 5:51 Lesson Summary
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Peaceful Coexistence

Their differences were more than just personality-based, they were political. Khrushchev wanted to reduce the risk of nuclear war with the United States. He initially refused to help China develop nuclear weapons and emphasized the policy of ''peaceful coexistence'' between communist states and capitalist states. Mao saw this as a retreat from the worldwide struggle for communism.

In the late 1950s, relations reached their breaking point. In 1958, China invaded the Kinmen and Matsu Islands, which were then occupied by Chinese nationalists. Khrushchev was furious that Mao invaded without consulting him first, as the Americans viewed Khrushchev as partially responsible for the invasion.

The split revealed itself in other areas of international relations too. For example, China had tense relations with India. This came to a head in 1959, when India supported Tibetans who were rebelling against Chinese occupation. While the Soviet Union didn't outwardly support Tibet, they implicitly criticized China by printing articles that were critical of the Chinese in these regards.

At a meeting of communists in Romania the following year, these disagreements all came out in the open, with Khrushchev trading insults with Chinese communist leaders close to Mao.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

Things didn't get any better in the 1960s. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis took place, in which the United States and the Soviet Union were led to the brink of nuclear war. After the crisis, Mao was critical of Khrushchev for backing down. However, for Soviet and American leaders, the crisis made nuclear disarmament (which were attempts to reduce the number of nuclear arms, and thus decrease the risk of nuclear war) a very important issue. Less than a year after the crisis, the Soviet Union, America, and the United Kingdom signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited nuclear weapons tests ''or any other nuclear explosion'' in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water. Khrushchev, for his part, thought Mao was a ''lunatic'' whose response to the possibility of losing hundreds of millions of lives in nuclear war, was ''So what? War is war.''

Their relationship wasn't helped by the Sino-Indian War, which began in 1962. In this war between India and China, the Soviet Union ultimately decided to support India. By 1963, the two countries barely communicated.

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