Engaging with the Self-Captive Nation: Albania in the US Official Documents from 1945 to 1980

Bekim Sejdiu & Lulzim Peci. Journal of Southeast European & Black Sea Studies. Volume 18, Issue 1. March 2018.

This paper aims to analyse US policy towards Albania during the cold war, as a case that illustrates Washington’s approach towards individual Communist countries in Eastern Europe in the light of the grand contest between the antagonist superpowers. This analysis is based almost exclusively on published US archival documents related to Albania from 1945 to 1980. This analysis underlines that in the American perception, the geopolitical importance of each Communist country was intrinsically linked with its position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Albania was no exception, despite the rigid Communist dogma it vigorously pursued.


An ideological divide between two antagonistic camps, followed by rigid geopolitical rivalry and the quest for military supremacy were the essential features of the cold war. Yet, beyond its nominal ideological alignment, the Communist bloc was far from homogenous, and Albania was one of the major ‘deviant’ countries of the Eastern camp.

This paper elaborates official US policy towards Albania during the years 1945-1980. The release of previously confidential documents by the US Department of State for this period provides an excellent opportunity to delineate the official American paradigm towards Eastern Europe during the Communist era. Albania followed a peculiar course during the cold war, navigating firstly within the Soviet orbit, and then embracing Communist China. Finally, it retreated for about a decade into a rigid, self-imposed, isolationism.

The Albanian case shows that, in the US geopolitical calculations, the importance of individual Communist countries was evaluated primarily based on their place in the Soviet orbit. Hence, American policy towards Albania was in accordance with the general objective of inducing the European Communist countries to exert more independence from the Soviet Union.

The paper consists of two parts. In the first one, after analysing the major developments during the period 1945-1946, we discuss the American approach towards Albania until the early 1960s – the ‘Soviet era’ of Albania. The second part encapsulates the period from the early 1960s up to the late 1970s, during which the Albanian Communist boat was anchored in Chinese ideological waters.

The analysis is almost exclusively based on the primary sources, i.e., on the official documents of the Department of State and other US agencies. Consequently, it is mainly limited to the issues covered in these documents.

Yugoslav-Soviet Era: From 1945 to the Early 1960s

As the last Nazi German soldiers were leaving the Balkans in the spring of 1945, there was no dilemma in the minds of the allied powers, namely the USA, Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, that Albania would be reconfirmed as an independent country. Every other question associated with the confirmation of Albania’s place on the geopolitical map floated in the background. Albanian Communists, grouped around the National Liberation Front, struggled with the delayed international recognition. Moreover, border disputes with neighbours survived the Second World War (WWII) to resurface in its aftermath.

The complexity of these issues is reflected in the official correspondence between the Department of State and the adhoc mission that the US dispatched to Albania in 1945. Hence, this mission deserves particular attention for tracing the genesis of divergences between Washington and Communist Albania.

American Diplomatic Mission in Albania: 1945-1946

In January 1945, the Albanian Communist leader, Enver Hoxha, sent a note to Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt, requesting the formal recognition of ‘the Democratic Government of Albania’ by the three allied powers. Hoxha emphasized that his government was the only one which represented the Albanian people, and as such it was committed to uphold ‘democratic principles and to guarantee the human rights’ (Hoxha, Enver).

To his disappointment, Hoxha did not receive any formal reply from Washington. Instead, the acting Secretary of State, Joseph Grew, instructed the Political Advisor in the Staff of the Supreme Allied Commander, Mediterranean Theater, Mr. Alexander Kirk, to transmit informally to the head of the Albanian Military Mission, Kadri Hoxha, that, before being fully informed on the situation in Albania, the US Government was not able to recognize officially any government in Tirana (US Department of State, 11).

Thus, after several communications and bargaining, on 8 May 1945, the ‘American Civilian Mission’ was deployed in Tirana, but was not accredited formally to the provisional Albanian Government. It should be stressed here that US-Albanian diplomatic relations, established in 1922, were broken off in 1939, following the occupation of the country by Fascist Italy.

As the war was drawing to a close, the cold war rivalries had not yet emerged, and consequently, the need to consult with London and Moscow was an integral component of the American policy towards Albania. On 17 February 1945, the Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew instructed the US Ambassador to Moscow, Averell Harriman, to inform the Soviets that the US cannot recognize officially any Albanian Government before having sufficient knowledge of the situation within Albania – particularly regarding the popular legitimacy of Hoxha’s regime. Further, the Soviets were to be informed that Washington was planning to send an informal mission to Albania with the task of surveying the situation in the country (US Department of State; 13). In another correspondence, Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, instructed the Chargé in the US Embassy in Moscow, George Kennan, to inform the Kremlin that Washington was not in a position to support Hoxha’s request for representation at the San Francisco Conference given that ‘the procedure limiting participation to Governments of the United Nations was decided upon by the sponsoring Governments after due consideration of every aspect of the matter’ (US Department of State, 24). Furthermore, the Soviets were assured that the US would not recognize Albania without consulting with the Allied Governments (Ibid., 25).

The first telegram which Joseph E. Jacobs, the first Head of the US Mission in Tirana, sent to Washington was on his first encounter with ‘General Hoxha.’ He conveyed Hoxha’s obsession with the fact that his government was the only one in Eastern Europe not yet recognized by the allied powers, and also left out of the San Francisco Conference (US Department of State, 25).

In the first comprehensive report on the situation in Albania (26 May 1945), Jacobs makes the following depiction of the Albanian communists:

… I am laboring under no illusions as regards the officials of the FNC (National Liberation Front) regime. They are as I have described in my telegrams, a sincere, patriotic group of individuals who are going to be difficult to deal with. They are ignorant of the science of government, know little of international relations, and are highly sensitive over the fact that, after fighting a common enemy, they have as yet failed to receive any recognition except from Yugoslavia and possibly sympathy from the Soviet Union. (US Department of State, 33, 34)

In another comprehensive report, Jacobs expressed his disagreements with the analysis of the British Military Mission to Albania, which was of the opinion that there was a strong opposition in Albania that was better qualified than Communists to govern the country, and that the Communists were fundamentally unfriendly to the US and Great Britain (US Department of State, 40). It appears that Jacobs was largely devoid of an ideological lens in his reading of the situation. He underscored in his analyses that the Albanian communists were in effective control of Albania, that they enjoyed support of the majority of the population and that, by default, they were capable of ruling the country.

However, Jacobs warned that:

… delay by the US and Gr. Brit in recognizing regime after having given moral and material support while it was fighting Fascist has driven and continues to drive that regime into the arms of Yugos and USSR and affords the pro-Yugo Soviet element in Govt excuse for such action. (Ibid, 40)

Furthermore, Jacobs indicated that without a secret accordance with Moscow, Yugoslavia would, most probably, not have recognized Albania, as it did in 28 April 1945 (Ibid, 39). In the final recommendation of 15 August 1945, Jacobs suggested the conditional recognition of the Communist Government of Albania, by the United States, simultaneously with Great Britain and Soviet Union. The key conditions recommended by Jacobs for recognition were that Albania had to hold general elections, and, pending negotiation of treaties, it had to guarantee to the diplomatic consular representatives of the three powers, diplomatic rights and privileges usually extended under international law (US Department of State, 47, 48).

In the same memorandum, Jacobs touched upon the issue of borders with Greece, as well as with Italy and Yugoslavia. Regarding the border dispute with Greece, Jacobs suggested the Department of State should:

… persuade Great Britain and the Soviet Union to a definite policy that there should be no change in the southern border of Albania in favor of Greece, unless and until at some future time, before some duly constituted international organization, Greek claims can be considered in a calm and peaceful atmosphere and decided upon their merits. (Ibid, 50)

This was in line with the general US position that any claim for changing the pre-1939 boundaries should be made part of the general European settlement (US Department of State 1945h, 58). The US also rejected the Italian claims over the island of Saseno (Sazan), and this is covered by Jacobs’ memorandum as well. Finally, Jacobs made an interesting observation regarding the issue of border between Albania and Yugoslavia in the Kosovo region (US Department of State, 51). After emphasizing that ‘there are approximately one-half million Albanians in the Kosovo area of Yugoslavia,’ Jacobs informs that the Albanian authorities acquiesced to Yugoslav’s position that there should be no change in the boundary between the two countries, and that, in his view, this was due to the influence that Josip Broz Tito exercised over Tirana. Yet, Jacobs concludes that this was not a real solution and as such settled nothing (Ibid, 51). Moreover, Jacobs makes the following interesting suggestion:

Although this problem is not urgent in a view of the present regime’s acceptance of the present status quo, it is highly desirable that the matter be discussed with the British and Soviet Foreign Offices and possibly an agreement reached that a commission, possibly the same commission that would study the Greek frontier problem, should study this problem with a view to making recommendations along the lines of a settlement similar to the settlement proposed for the Albanian-Greek frontier with the exception, of course, that a larger territory of Kosovo region would be ceded to Albania and population transferred accordingly. (Ibid, 51)

However, there are no indications that Washington considered these suggestions.

Eventually, on 10 November 1945, the Americans agreed with Soviets and the British to recognize Hoxha’s government. The US note on conditional recognition delivered to Hoxha two days later requested assurances that ‘the forthcoming elections for a Constituent Assembly shall be held on a genuinely free basis, with secret ballot and without threats or intimidation,’ as well as the confirmation of treaties and agreements that were in force between the United States and Albania on 7 April 1939 (US Department of State, 67).

The common wisdom would suggest that the condition for having free elections should have been the breaking point in the relations between Washington and the Albanian communists. However, the elections which took place in Albania on 2 December 1945 were qualified by Jacobs as meeting the American request for free elections (US Department of State, 77).

Regarding the pre-1939 treaties, Hoxha answered that Albania would evaluate them in the light of the resolution adopted ‘by the Representatives of People in Permet, on 24 May 1944.’ However, this resolution stated that ‘all the agreements with the Foreign States, political and economic, which were made by the government of (King) Zog to the disadvantage of the Albanian people, were to be canceled and new treaties drawn ‘(US Department of State, 73). Since there was a deadlock on this issue, it became the breaking point of the relations between Tirana and Washington. Once these relations worsened, Hoxha accused the Americans, among other things, of supporting Greek claims over southern Albania (Frashëri, 2). This issue was raised by Hoxha in a meeting of October 1946 with Jacobs (who was ending the mission) and Henderson (who was in charge). Hoxha argued that the Albanian Government felt continuously friendly towards the US, but Washington had demonstrated unfriendliness ‘by supporting Greek claims to Albanian territory at the Paris Conference’ (US Department of State, 30). Henderson tried unsuccessfully to convince Hoxha that the US voting to place this border question on Conference agenda in no way implied the US support for Greek claims (Ibid.).

Ultimately, the refusal of the Albanian regime to recognize the validity of the pre-1939 treaties between the two countries triggered the final break between the Communist Albania and the US As the Yugoslavs and Soviets were extending their tutelage over Albania, Hoxha most probably felt comfortable in stubbornly rejecting Washington’s legitimate claims for the confirmation of the validity of the bilateral treaties.

By the end of 1945, the work of the American Mission in Albania had become more difficult as the Communist regime was becoming increasingly hostile (US Department of State). Eventually, on 14 November 1946, the mission withdrew from Albania.

The Marriage and Divorce with Belgrade and Moscow

As can be inferred from the correspondences of the US Mission in Tirana, during the first three years after the Second World War (WWII), Yugoslavia exercised immense influence over Albania. Although Albania was liberated from Nazi occupation without any meaningful military support from outside, the Yugoslav Communists played a crucial role in the creation of the Communist Party of Albania in 1941 (Shala, Halili, and Reka). Unlike their counterparts in the East European countries, Albanian Communist leaders had neither a direct connection with the Soviet Communists, nor did they undergo any training by them.

A comprehensive analysis prepared by the CIA in 1962, regarding Soviet-Albanian relations during the period 1940-1960, emphasized that, up to 1948, direct communication between the Soviet and Albanian leadership was minimal – notwithstanding the establishment of diplomatic relations (Central Intelligence Agency). Stalin was too preoccupied with many pressing international issues, so it was more practical for him to exercise influence over Albania through Belgrade. A clear evidence of the tutelage that Tito’s Yugoslavia exercised over Tirana was the fact that Albania was the only East European Communist country that was not invited to participate in the founding meeting of the COMINFORM in September 1947. Obviously, this could not have been done without the blessing of Stalin. The Yugoslav Communists assumed the task of briefing the Albanian Communists over the founding of COMINFORM (Central Intelligence Agency, 1).

The clash between Tito and Stalin provided a golden opportunity for Hoxha to move closer to the headmaster – Stalin. The aforementioned CIA analysis emphasizes that by 1947, Yugoslav’s financial aid amounted to 57% of Albania’s budget (Central Intelligence Agency, 4). Economic backwardness and state fragility were the major features of Albania at the time. This explains, at least partially, why Albania needed patronage and, consequently, why it got patrons.

Here, it is interesting to mention briefly the chronology of Albania’s break with Yugoslavia, provided by the CIA report. It began in February 1948, when Stalin invited Tito (who sent his principal aid, Kardelj), and his Bulgarian counterpart, Dimitrov, to Moscow. Stalin criticized them severely for the publication of their plans for a Yugoslav-Bulgarian federation. He also condemned the Yugoslav intention to deploy two divisions in southern Albania without informing Moscow. This was done by the Yugoslavs, arguably, to protect Albania against a possible invasion by Greece (Central Intelligence Agency, 5). The CIA report indicates that Albania had increased contacts with Moscow during the previous year, with the aim of attracting Soviet attention, thus garnering its support in opposing the Yugoslav plans. It is also interesting to underline that the US considered as ‘inappropriate any proposal for entry of Albania into a Yugoslav or a wider federation including Bulgaria’ (US Department of State, 20).

Following the break between Tito and Stalin, Albania sided itself wholeheartedly with the Soviets. Almost overnight, the image of Yugoslavia in the eyes of the Albanian Communists changed radically, from that of a mentor, into that of an archenemy. From a true ‘friend in war and peace,’ Tito became an ideological renegade who betrayed the glorious path of Marxism-Leninism and sold his soul to the imperialists.

From 1948 up to the first part of 1960s, Albania was not only within the Soviet sphere, it was, furthermore, staunchly Stalinist, in the political and ideological sense. The firm adherence of Albania in the Soviet orbit exposed it more openly to the cold war radars of the US During this period, the American foreign policy objectives towards Albania were just an integral piece of the larger Eastern Communist chessboard. In an official document of 1958, which was related to Bulgaria and Albania, the American foreign policy objectives were formulated in the following words:

Long-range: Fulfillment of the right of the people in the two countries to enjoy representative governments which rest on the consent of the governed, exercise full national independence and participate as peaceful members of the Free World community. Short-range: The peaceful evolution of these countries, first toward national independence and secondly toward national freedom. (US Department of State, 78)

In the case of Albania, the aforementioned analysis describes the country as a ‘small, backward, ethnically different from Slavic peoples and the Greeks, isolated geographically from Moscow, yet most Stalinist of the Eastern European satellites and a country which was in worst terms with its neighbors.’ In terms of the larger geopolitical picture, the fact that there were no permanent Soviet military units in Albania was particularly emphasized.

From the US perspective, the Albanian Communist Party was strongly attached to the Soviets (in 1948 it changed its name to the ‘the Party of Labor of Albania – PLA,’ which it maintained until 1991). Hence, according to the estimation of the Department of State, Albania was very unlikely to press for independence from Moscow – certainly less so than other satellite nations (US Department of State). This assumption would prove itself totally wrong within just a few years.

On the other hand, judging from the declassified US intelligence documents, Albania had little significance in the Soviet geopolitical chessboard. In an analysis on the ‘probable developments in the European satellites through 1960s,’ the perception was that the Soviet Union might agree to German unification based on negotiations between the East and West German regimes, provided that the solution would not be incompatible with Soviet interests. When it came to Albania, the analysis hinted at a ‘slight chance that the physical isolation of Albania from the Soviet Bloc and its minor strategic value to it, would induce Moscow to use Albania as a pawn in the Balkan intrigue’ (US Department of State).

Against this background, the American strategy towards Albania consisted of three general components. First, almost every official American document on Albania emphasized the absence of diplomatic relations between Washington and Tirana, and this was perceived as a hindrance in pursuing foreign policy objectives towards Albania. In this regard, the aforementioned document underlined that ‘an American legation in Sofia and Tirana could assist the trend towards more independence from Moscow, as well as produce useful information that we currently do not have’ (US Department of State, 78). The willingness to establish diplomatic relations with Albania remained an integral element in American approach throughout the cold war (notwithstanding the failed efforts in this direction during 1945-1946).

This goal was not achieved due to the negative attitude of the PLA. Inspired by conjunction of irrational ideological dogmatism and rational calculation of regime preservation, the attitude of the Albanian Communists remained staunchly anti-Western throughout the cold war. Although the readiness for the re-establishment of diplomatic recognition was expressed routinely by the State Department, at some point, the US had run out of enthusiasm for such a step. Thus, in a Memorandum that the Department of State presented to the White House in 1975, it was underlined that the US had publically called for the establishment of diplomatic relations with Albania, but Tirana remained extremely negative. It was suggested, therefore, that this initiative should ‘be left to the Albanians’ (US Department of State).

The second component of the US strategy towards Albania consisted of encouraging dissidence at two levels: against the Soviet Union, and against the Albanian Communist regime. The State Department documents of this period reveal the attention that Washington paid to the popular discontent against the Communist regime in Albania. It is important to stress that during the late 1940s and 1950s, the intelligence structures of the US did not only observe closely, but were directly involved in the attempts to stir anti-Communist resistance in Albania. An interesting account of the US covert operations in Albania is provided by Sarah-Jane Corke, who exposes the defects that accompanied these operations. Corke underscores that irrespective of many failures, CIA operations continued with the price of between 200 and 1000 dead (Corke, 99).

It is worth recalling an intelligence analysis related to this issue, entitled ‘Probable developments in the European Satellites Through 1960,’ which was prepared in 1956. This document emphasized that ‘dissidence is widely prevalent in the Satellites,’ and predicted that it was very likely that a further five years of Communism would neither diminish the dissidence, nor reduce the nationalistic aspirations of the East European nations. Nevertheless, the analysis makes an interesting claim that, perhaps with the exception of East Germany, the probability for outbreak of open resistance against Communist regimes was remote (US Department of State).

In the American view, shortly after the break between Tirana and Belgrade in 1948, the power struggle within the regime circle in Albania was over, with the First Secretary of the PLA, Enver Hoxha, and the Prime Minister, Mehmet Shehu, taking firm command of the Party. Indeed, more than a power struggle, it was a merciless purge of high-ranking Communist cadres who were perceived as ‘pro-Yugoslav’ elements within the PLA. In the Second Party Congress, in April 1952, Enver Hoxha announced that 6,000 Party members had been purged from 1948 to 1952, and since that time, the PLA had been ‘unusually stable’ (Central Intelligence Agency, i). Yet, another State Department document on the situation in Albania and Bulgaria implies that after losing its paternalist position over the PLA, Yugoslavia initially encouraged opposition against the Communist regime in Tirana. This document concludes, however, that by 1953, the active resistance against the regime disappeared because Yugoslavia ceased to stimulate further resistance against the PLA (US Department of State, 75, 76).

On the other hand, in the eyes of Washington, the nationalist tendencies and liberal impulses among the East European nations could have served as possible sources of friction between them and the Soviets. Given this rationale, the ethnic and religious differences between the Albanians and Slavic-Russians were to be encouraged. (Central Intelligence Agency, 79, 80). However, Washington was careful not to provoke any outburst of anti-Soviet movements in the satellite countries, which, in turn, could have ignited Moscow’s reaction. The developments in Hungary in 1956, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, confirmed the astuteness of this approach.

The third component of the Washington’s strategy towards Tirana was related to Albania’s regional geopolitical context. Washington was keen to see the emergence of an anti-Soviet axis in the Balkans. In fact, for the most part of the cold war, Yugoslavia and Romania (and Poland, to a lesser degree) were perceived to be more independent from Moscow, and positive towards the US Department of State.

The Americans were eager to stimulate a soft anti-Moscow outpost in the Balkans, which would consist of nations that were independent from the Soviet Union. From the US perspective, this group could consist of Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey, possibly including Romania as well (US Department of State, 80). As a result of the US influence, the Balkan Pact was signed in 1953 by Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey (officially known as the ‘Agreement of Friendship and Cooperation’), which intended to counter the Soviet influence in the Balkans, primarily by incorporating Communist Yugoslavia in defence arrangements with the two NATO members.

Nevertheless, the mutual distrust among the Balkan nations, and open hostility between some of them, was an obstacle for giving more muscle to this alliance. In several official documents pertaining to Albania, the Department of State emphasized American interest for decreasing tensions of Tirana with Belgrade and Athens. For meeting this objective, the Americans considered important to exercise pressure on Athens and Tirana for solving their boundary disputes, and working for promotion of a satisfactory modus vivendi between Albania and Yugoslavia, ‘in particular with respect to the relationship of the Albanian Government and the Albanian minority in Yugoslavia.’ The US was also interested in pushing for a rapprochement between Albania and Italy, as well as in promoting closer relations of the former with Turkey, using, among others, religious affinity (US Department of State, 80).

However, it was not just Albania that had troubles with its neighbours. The relations between Greece and Yugoslavia, let alone those with Turkey, were also shaped by mutual distrust and animosity. A top-secret cable from the US Ambassador in Paris in 1952, regarding the visit of the Greek Defense Minister to the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Powers in Europe (SHAPE), reveals some interesting findings on Athens’s neighbourhood paradigm. In discussion with American generals, the Greek Defence Minister, Georgios Mavros, emphasized the improving relations between Greece and Yugoslavia. Regarding Albania, the American Ambassador underlined the following message:

Greeks believe Albania will be first satellite country to be liberated. They think Yugos aim to establish a Tito type of Commie regime in Albania and then to incorporate such an Albanian state with Croatia and Serbia in some form of greater Yugo federation dominated by Yugo. Mavros said he had excellent reasons to believe Tito would even be willing to cede certain Yugo territory to such an Albanian state as a means of achieving this end. Greece was opposed to any such solution to Albanian problem, and thought it essential that Albanian territorial integrity be safeguarded until such time as an appropriate and democratic regime could take over. If Albania were liberated and then occupied by Allied (Greek and Yugo) forces, Greek Govt thought it of utmost importance that these forces be integrated under command of a US officer. In this way its integrity and independence could be best maintained. Otherwise Albania might be divided by Yugo just as Germany had been divided after last war. (US Department of State)

This episode highlights the mistrust and fear that underpinned Greece’s perceptions towards Belgrade’s policies in the Balkans. Thus, the mutual interest in thwarting the Soviet influence was not sufficient to cover this mistrust.

Nevertheless, the essential parameter for evaluating the importance of Albania by the Americans was its ideological alignment with Moscow, and this was particularly demonstrated by the attention that Khrushchev’s visit to Albania in 1959 attracted in Washington.

The background of Khrushchev’s visit to Albania underlined the fact that, in essence, the territory, in conjunction with ideology, was the dominant political currency of the cold war grand contest. Hence, the geographical location of small countries, rather than the ideological zeal of their regimes, was seen by Washington as an indispensable factor in the grand geopolitical rivalry.

Khrushchev’s visit to Albania was seen by Washington as an action intended to thwart the consolidation of nuclear superiority of Americans in the Southern Europe. The Department of State read two messages from this visit: first, in reaction to the prospects for the deployment of missile bases and nuclear stockpiles in the Balkans by the Americans (in Greece and Turkey), Soviets proposed a nuclear and missile free Balkans. Second, if the US would not accept this idea, then the Soviets might deploy nuclear missiles to Albania (US Department of State, 86).

Furthermore, it was not just the visit per se which rang the alarm in Washington, but other elements of it. Khrushchev’s visit lasted from 25 May up to 4 June, exceeding in length any other visit to any other Communist country, with the exception of his visit to China. He was accompanied by nine high-ranking Soviet officials, including the Minister of Defence, and Soviet media paid great importance to this visit. Above all, Khrushchev’s statements were full of military connotations, while particular emphasis was attached to the defence of Albania (US Department of State; 87). In addition to the security of Albania, Khrushchev also raised concerns about its economic (under)development (Central Intelligence Agency, 37).

Khrushchev’s visit instigated serious consideration in Washington about Albania’s geopolitical worth. For Americans, the possible deployment of Soviet nuclear arsenal in Albania meant that Moscow would be ready to protect Albania’s territory from external threats, and Hoxha’s regime from internal subversion. Khrushchev issued a plain threat that if Greece carried through with plans to establish a missile basis, as Italy had done, the Soviets would establish a missile basis in Albania. As an alternative, he proposed a ‘nuclear-missile free zone in the Balkans’ (Central Intelligence Agency, 37).

From the military point of view, the ‘defense’ of Albania by the Soviets, through conventional forces, was considered very improbable due to the geographical isolation of this country from the Soviet bloc (Central Intelligence Agency, 87). The Kremlin’s calculations could be deduced by Khrushchev’s speech in Shkodra, in which he warned that: ‘Anyone who tries to encroach on the frontiers of Albania… will have to encounter the full might of the socialist camp… [and] any imperialist infringement of Albania’s freedom and independence will inevitably suffer complete failure.’ Khrushchev went further to clarify that the Soviets disposed of technical (i.e. military) capability to support Albania with sufficient strength, even without sending troops directly there.

The official documents of the time reveal that Washington analysed carefully and uneasily Khrushchev’s statements. Secretary of State Christian Herter referred to ‘Khrushchev’s threatening noise from Albania,’ in a telegram which he addressed to President Dwight Eisenhower (US Department of State). The US Administration had two options at the table: first, to continue with its policies of deploying its nuclear arsenal in any NATO territory, as deemed appropriate, thus neglecting the Soviet reactions; and, second, to pursue quid pro quo tactics with Moscow, which would have implied trade-offs between NATO and the Soviets. Concretely, NATO would have had to cancel its plans for missile systems and nuclear deployments in the South-East European countries, in return for Soviet abandonment of its plans for deployment of nuclear weapons in Albania and/or Bulgaria (US Department of State, 93). However, shortly afterwards, this equation changed fundamentally, when Albania broke with the Soviets and entered on a new course, embracing a new ‘big patron’ – Mao’s China.

Break with the Soviets: Hoxha vs Khrushchev

Khrushchev’s enthusiastic reception in Albania was not a genuine mirror of relations between Moscow and Tirana. The crack in these relations started to appear in 1955, when Khrushchev visited Yugoslavia, in an apparent attempt to ‘rehabilitate’ and re-engage with Tito’s regime. This was a part of Khrushchev’s efforts to distance Soviet politics from Stalin’s legacy, by embracing more liberal views and methods.

Hoxha and his comrades perceived these moves by Moscow with fear and suspicion. The major source of Tirana’s uneasiness was not only due to ideological zeal, but fear of negative impacts that these new trends in Moscow might have had for Hoxha’s political power. However, Hoxha was initially bewildered and indecisive in the face of Khrushchev’s new course – particularly with regard to Moscow’s pressure on Tirana to tone down its anti-Yugoslav rhetoric. In February 1956, Hoxha and Shehu attended the Soviet Communist Party’s landmark 20th Congress, during which Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s excesses, including his personality cult. Hoxha’s visit to Moscow was followed by a period of relaxation in relations between Albania and Yugoslavia. Moreover, upon his return to Albania, Hoxha wrote an editorial in Zeri i Popullit, admitting that Stalin had committed mistakes, as well as that errors were also made by the Albanian Communist leadership (Central Intelligence Agency, 18).

Nevertheless, Hoxha remained deeply concerned over Khrushchev’s ambivalence towards Tito. The intensive communication between Moscow and Belgrade deepened Hoxha’s suspicions about a possible conspiracy to undermine his position. Consequently, Albania vehemently opposed the idea for rehabilitation of Tito. In his book The Khrushchevites, Hoxha recalls the letter that Khrushchev sent to the Communist leaders of the Eastern Bloc, criticizing the confrontational approach towards Yugoslavia that the Soviets and its ‘allies’ had adopted since 1948-1949, which pushed Tito into the claws of the Western camp. The PLA, in a responding letter sent to Soviet counterparts, on 28 May 1955, tried unsuccessfully to convince Moscow that nothing justifies Tito’s siding with the ‘imperialists’ (Hoxha, 38, 39). It should be underlined, however, that allegations and assertions expressed in Hoxha’s books are not reliable, as they are full of distortions and misinterpretations. Thus, Hoxha hides the fact that three days after his replying letter to Moscow, he sent another latter to the Soviet Ambassador in Tirana, apologizing for his hasty reply. Moreover, on the same day, in a speech in the National Assembly, he praised Khrushchev’s visit to Belgrade (Central Intelligence Agency, 16).

Hoxha was anxious about these developments, but in his efforts to thwart the rapprochement with Yugoslavia, he was alone and marginalized in the Eastern camp. Albania’s obsession with Yugoslavia reflected the complex relations between the two regimes and countries, and this topic requires more space than this analysis can afford. However, it is unavoidable to refer to the rapprochement between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia as a development that marked the beginning of the split between Tirana and Moscow. Hoxha sided wholeheartedly with Stalin against Tito in 1948. It sounds ironic that seven years later, Khrushchev abandoned both, Stalin and Hoxha, and engaged in a rapprochement in relations with Tito.

However, in addition to the Yugoslav factor, ideological dogmatism prompted Hoxha to denounce vigorously the ‘de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union’ pursued by Khrushchev. In 1960, the relations between Tirana and Moscow hit a dead end. At a congress of the Romanian Workers Party (June 1960), in which Hoxha was the only Communist leader absent, the Albanian delegation was alone in refusing to side with Khrushchev in his criticism of China. Four months later, in October 1960, the Albanian Deputy Prime Minister, Abdyl Kellezi, attended the national day celebration in Beijing, where he praised Maoist China for ‘ideological vigor.’ The following month, Hoxha attended the 22nd Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow where he openly attacked Khrushchev. ‘While rats could eat in the Soviet Union, the Albanian people were starving to death, because the leadership of the PLA had not bent to the will of the Soviet leadership,’ lamented Hoxha. The Soviets had already refused Albanian calls for emergency grain supplies. In essence, Hoxha’s grievances with Khrushchev had to do more with Moscow’s unilateral policies than with denied Soviet economic assistance to Albania, or with Soviet deviation from the ‘Marxist-Leninist course.’ In his speech, Hoxha strongly criticized Khrushchev for ‘making decisions and passing judgments unilaterally on questions which were international in character …. not in consultation with other Communist parties as Stalin did’ (Central Intelligence Agency, 58).

Hoxha mentioned Khrushchev’s visit to Belgrade, ‘without consultation,’ as the best illustration of the disregard of Moscow for the countries of the Communist camp. He blamed Khrushchev, not only for not exposing Tito’s revisionism, but also for plotting with him against Albanian leadership. Interestingly, while other Communist leaders reacted to Hoxha’s criticism, Khrushchev’s response came only seven days later. He did not bother to address Hoxha’s accusations, but made a short reply, by stating, among other things that records would disapprove all what Hoxha said. But ‘who wants to argue with Hoxha,’ ridiculed Khrushchev (Central Intelligence Agency, 59).

In an apparent show of contempt, Hoxha did not attend the Warsaw Pact Summit in East Germany in 1961, but sent his aide, Ramiz Alia. In the same year, the Soviet Union and Albania broke their diplomatic relations. Finally, in 1962, Albania was practically expelled from the Warsaw Pact, although Tirana formally withdrew from it only in 1968, in a reaction to the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The first consequence of the divorce with the Soviet Union was the purge of the ‘pro-Soviet elements’ within the ranks of the PLA. A CIA document refers to an abortive coup that Moscow attempted to engineer in Albania in 1960. This document asserts that there was evidence to believe that, as Hoxha claimed, following his refusal to respond positively to the Soviet letter asking Albania to join forces against China, Moscow incited certain PLA leaders and Army commanders to overthrow the Albanian Communist leadership. This plot was detected at an early phase and about 200 people were arrested (Central Intelligence Agency, 54). However, this episode is still covered by a veil of obscurity, and hence there is no further evidence available to support the allegations for the alleged coup.

The Albanian-Soviet split attracted the attention of Washington, as indicated by the volume and content of the official documents of the Department of State and other US agencies. Numerous diplomatic cables and analyses on this issue came from the US Mission to the United Nations, and they dealt with Albania’s drive to attain the UN membership. Interestingly, a cable of the US Mission to the UN, in 1955, highlights the fact that Washington was more opposed to the admission of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria to the UN than that of Albania (US Department of State). Given Albania’s unmatched anti-American rhetoric, this might sound surprising. In the absence of additional evidence, one may only guess that Washington was aware about the ongoing rift between Tirana and Moscow years before the final break.

The CIA analysis touched briefly upon the likely effects of the Soviet-Albanian break on the Moscow control over the satellite regimes. This analysis underscored that ‘the satellites subservience to the Soviet Union rested not so much in any form of the Soviet control mechanism, as upon a common Communist ideology and the allegiance of the satellite leaders to Moscow’ (Central Intelligence Agency, viii). For American intelligence circles, the Albanian episode was an indication that Moscow had deeper divergences with its satellites, than appeared on the surface.

Lilliputian in the Arms of Gulliver: China Gains ‘an Albania’

At the Moscow conference in 1960, following the expression of sharp disagreements of Hoxha with the Soviets, Khrushchev cynically remarked to the head of the Chinese delegation, Deng Xiaoping, that ‘the USSR has lost an Albania, while China has gained an Albania’ (Central Intelligence Agency, 60). The Albanian-Soviet split, in the American view, was associated with the big emerging quarrel between Moscow and Beijing.

The Albanian-Soviet split coincided with the surfacing of an ideological dispute between Moscow and Beijing, and the growing aspiration of Mao Zedong for a more assertive role on the global stage. It is not clear whether Hoxha’s audacious break with Moscow was galvanized by the new alignment with the gigantic China, or he felt compelled to move in that direction out of fear of the Soviets. The available sources indicate that contacts between Tirana and Beijing intensified in the second half of the 1950s. Albania had recognized the People’s Republic of China immediately after its creation, in 1949. Yet, diplomatic relations at the level of resident embassies were established only in 1954. This indicates that up to the mid-1950s, Albania did not attract China’s attention. However, a visit by Hoxha and Shehu to China, in August 1956, created a new momentum for aligning with Beijing. The first outcome was the significant economic and military support that Albania started to receive from China.

The aforementioned CIA analysis noted that the growing rift and rivalry with the Soviet Union motivated China to become more assertive in Eastern Europe (Central Intelligence Agency, 43). Albania assumed an important place in this regard, given the coincidence of views of Beijing and Tirana concerning Khrushchev’s new course. China disagreed with the Soviet abandonment of Stalinism, it stood by Hoxha in his dispute with Khrushchev and did not support Soviet’s course for more relaxed East-West relations. This interpretation prevailed in Washington’s understanding of the dynamics in the triangle Moscow-Tirana-Beijing.

The Chinese aspiration for having an anchor in Eastern Europe started to draw attention in Washington. Thus, on the occasion of the presentation of credentials by the Bulgarian envoy, President Kennedy asked him about the ‘activities of China in Eastern Europe and why the present situation existed in Albania.’ The answer of the Bulgarian envoy, Lyubomir Popov, was interesting and indicative. While trying to avoid speaking about China, Popov portrayed the Communist leadership in Albania as ‘young and immature,’ and pointed out that, ‘theoretically, the country was in a state of war with Greece and Tirana perceives itself surrounded by enemies’ (US Department of State).

Nevertheless, it seems that Albania’s alignment with China was not a matter of great concern for the US Indeed, Washington welcomed Albania’s new course but it did so without particular enthusiasm and with great caution. In this regard, George Kennan, the then-American Ambassador to Yugoslavia, recommended to Washington to adopt a ‘hands off policy in Albania’s bitter quarrel with the Soviet Union’ (Allen, Robert and Paul Scott).

The issue of the Albania-Soviet split was also discussed during the historical visit of President Nixon to China in 1972. In the meeting with Nixon, the Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, made the following remarks:

The Soviet Union itself unilaterally declared that they were going to expel Albania from the Conference (22 Party Congress, in 1961) as not being a socialist country, and they would not let them attend. The ships they sent to Albania were all called back, and all their exports were called back. This was an attempt to bully a small country. (US Department of State)

In Nixon’s comment that it was ironic, ‘because most people say Albania is more socialist than the Soviet Union,’ PM Chou agreed, and added that China could not refrain from ‘sympathizing with a small country, because it was right’ (US Department of State).

However, the US was cautious about the potential risks from China’s growing assertiveness in Eastern Europe, which could have provoked a Soviet intervention. The major American concern was explicitly expressed in a memo by David Aaron, the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs:

Perhaps the greatest danger is that of Communist Chinese influence in Eastern Europe. Should Chinese influence result in breaks between Moscow and certain Eastern European regimes, the Soviets will probably intervene. In this respect, Albania is probably not so important, but Romania and Yugoslavia constitute most serious areas. (US Department of State)

In relation to this, Washington even prepared contingency plans in the case that Moscow would take advantage of any potential chaos in the post-Tito’s Yugoslavia, for bringing it into the Soviet orbit. According to this scenario, in the event of Soviet intervention against Yugoslavia, Albania was likely to call on China for moral and military support (US Department of State).

The fact that Albania was perceived as a pawn with an episodic role in the big power game was illustrated by a memorandum prepared by the then-National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger. He expressed his scepticism about the suggestion made in 1969 by President Nixon’s advisor, Pat Buchanan, who recommended that the US should manipulate the Soviets by recognizing Albania and promoting contacts between the West Germany and Communist China. In Kissinger’s view, this might make the Soviets nervous over a possible US-Chinese deal, leading them to be more rigid in their cooperation with Washington. His hesitation towards this idea was out of apprehension that Albania might react ‘loud and with public vituperation,’ as it did when the US Government allowed American citizens to travel to Albania (US Department of State).

Kissinger’s estimations proved to be correct soon after, as Albania started to pursue an exclusively pro-Chinese orientation. The U.N. became one of the major stages where Albanian diplomacy could perform its Chinese play, which is indicated by numerous official US documents pertaining to Albania, China and Eastern Europe.

In a meeting in Beijing with Kissinger, Zhou referred to Albania as ‘China’s friend’; Albania was also mentioned in the context of its devoted zeal to China within the UN (US Department of State). Most significantly, Albania was the sponsor of the General Assembly Resolution that brought the People’s Republic of China into the UN, in 1971, which resulted in unseating the Republic of China (i.e. Taiwan) from UN membership. In this regard, the US Mission to the UN, labelled Albania in official correspondence with Washington as a ‘first line soldier’ in China’s diplomatic battles at the UN, even when this entailed taking the lead in anti-Soviet actions at the General Assembly (US Department of State).

The period of détente between the two superpowers in the 1970s relaxed the US approach towards the East European countries. This was highlighted in an official document on US policy towards Eastern Europe for the period 1973-1976, which underscores that the ‘relations with the Communist-dominated states of Eastern Europe warmed during this period, building on the progress made during Nixon’s first term, the afterglow of détente with the Soviet Union, and the US withdrawal from Vietnam’ (US Department of State).

While the general objectives of the US policy remained unchanged, the relaxation of relations between Washington and Moscow gave new thrust to the Americans’ penchant for engaging with the countries of the Communist Bloc. The US’s general interests towards Eastern Europe were described as follows:

1) Political and strategic interest in reducing the Soviet potential for action against US interests in Western Europe and, in some cases, other areas; 2) An economic interest in developing normal commercial relationship with states in the area. 3) A military-strategic interest in maintaining the effectiveness of our deterrent strategy; 4) Special interests distinct from our interests elsewhere in the area, which affect our posture towards the GDR. (US Department of State)

Moreover, the US strategy emphasized the significance of strengthening the conviction among the East European countries that the US and its Western allies ‘sees them as a part of Europe and has not consigned them to a sphere of influence subject exclusively to Soviet definitions of sovereignty …’ Furthermore, the strategy stressed the importance for the US of rebuilding the image of its relations with Eastern Europeans by nurturing the strong historical and cultural ties of the US with these nations (US Department of State).

The distinction between the people and the regimes in Eastern Europe, as an important element of the US approach, was mentioned in other official documents as well. A memorandum that Executive Secretary of the Department of State, George S. Springsteen presented to the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Brent Scowcroft, highlights that ‘the peoples of Eastern Europe are still Europeans, and they are basically pro-American and anti-Soviet. The centuries-old cultural and economic links between Eastern and Western Europe were not eradicated by the Iron Curtain’ (US Department of State).

Furthermore, in this period, the US approach became more resilient. Besides references to sociocultural ties, and distinction between people and regimes, yet another element introduced was the economic factor. In several official documents of the time, economic cooperation was mentioned as leverage that the US can utilize to increase the interdependence of East European countries with the West. A memorandum prepared on this issue by Henry Kissinger underlines the importance of conditioning economic relations with East European countries with the ‘satisfactory political conduct on international issues involving American interests, and on a demonstrated willingness to solve outstanding bilateral political problems’ (US Department of State).

Nevertheless, the general climate of relaxation during this period was not felt in the relations between the US and Albania. The reasons for this are to be found in Albania’s stubborn dogmatism in conjunction with the paranoia of losing the power grip. The US continued to issue, albeit occasionally, statements expressing Washington’s will to restore diplomatic relations with Tirana, but they found a deaf ear. Hence, during the 1970s, contacts with Albania (and Bulgaria) remained extremely limited.

Albania was always at the end of every official document prepared in Washington related to East European countries. Numerous documents of the 1970s refer sporadically and usually in a line or two that the US should continue ‘on appropriate occasion to give public indication of its readiness to negotiate the resumption of diplomatic relations with Albania.’ At the same time, the US continued to treat the Albanian regime as belonging to the group of the worst Communist regimes. One manifestation of this was a memorandum on the Port Security Program, prepared by the National Security Council in 1976. Albania, Cuba, Cambodia, Vietnam and North Korea were treated separately, and most negatively, and their vessels were excluded from any access to US ports (unless under force majeure). This was not the case with other Communist countries, including China and the Soviet Union, whose vessels could access US ports on the basis of reciprocity (US Department of State).

Albania continued with its ‘home-made’ Communist style throughout the cold war. China would very soon taste the irrationality of the Albanian Communist leadership. By the late 1970s, Beijing significantly altered its foreign policy outlook. In the words of Oksenberg, of the National Security Council, during the first 10 years of the cold war, China followed Mao’s policy of ‘leaning to one side,’ meaning to Moscow. Then, for the next 10 years they kept equidistance with both, the Soviets and the Americans. By the 1970s, they displayed the will to lengthen their distance to the Soviet Union, and to shorten the one with the US (Oksenberg, 175-195).

One of the first ‘collateral damages’ of this Chinese foreign policy shift was its relations with Albania and Vietnam. For the Albanian Communist leadership, the Chinese rapprochement with the US was not to be tolerated (US Department of State). Indeed, Albania had already advised China to keep its distance from ‘American imperialists’ and ‘Soviet revisionists,’ as Tirana labelled them. This issue was taken up by Prime Minister Zhou in a meeting in Shanghai with President Nixon in 1972, when Zhou stated that ‘Albania opposed Nixon’s visit to China and wanted China to be objectively isolated.’ He mentioned this, in order to show that it was not easy for China to make the steps towards the US, without putting in jeopardy relations with its close allies. Furthermore, Zhou indicated that China respected the views of its allies regardless of their size (US Department of State).

Thus, tiny Albania was asking big China to isolate itself, for the sake of ‘ideological purity.’ In particular, Tirana could not accommodate itself with the new era in the China’s relations with the US The rift with China culminated with a very long letter dated 29 July 1978 that Central Committee of the Party of Labor and the Government of Albania sent to the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Government of China, in response to the Chinese decision to stop military and economic aid to Albania. In this letter, Tirana accused Beijing inter alia of betraying Albania in its struggle against ‘US imperialism, Soviet social-imperialism, modern revisionism and world reaction’ (Letter of the Central Committee of the Party of Labor and of the Government of Albania, 55, 56). This marked the beginning of a new trajectory of Albania’s foreign policy that lead into a rigid isolationism.

One cannot think of any geopolitical rationale that can explain such an adamant stance. Albania, and particularly its leader Hoxha, was not anxious because of any American or Soviet threats. The real nightmare for Albanian Communists seems to have been the fear that the opening to the world would discredit their political and economic tenets, and hence would shake their regime. It was political and sociocultural insulation, associated with cruel political repression, the command economy and extreme collectivization, which constituted the foundation of Albania’s peculiar communism. If the term ‘captive nations’ was coined by US foreign policy-makers to describe the East European countries that were caught in the Communist claws, then Albania could have been termed as a ‘self-captive nation.’ Throughout the cold war, Albania lived, first under the tutelage of the Soviet Union, then of the Communist China and, at the end, under rigid self-imposed isolationism. And, this was a political course that the Albania Communists choose for their country.


The examination of official documents of the Department of State and other US agencies for the period 1945-1980 underlines the fact that for Washington, the geopolitical value of individual countries of Eastern Europe was primarily determined by their relations with the Soviet Union. Albania could not have been an exemption in this sense, although it was quite peculiar, as it gave a particularly harsh manifestation of Communist dogma. In the US cold war perception, Albania was a satellite of the Soviet Union and China. Beyond this grand geopolitical calculus, Albania’s significance was negligible.

The official US documents pertaining to Albania during the period under scrutiny highlight two key arguments. First, Washington perceived the cold war, first and foremost, as a rivalry with the Soviet Union and, by default, with its satellites. Hence, Albania appeared only in the larger Soviet geopolitical map of the US, not independently from it. It is not surprising, then, that the American attention on Albania peaked during Khrushchev’s visit in 1959. In this regard, the split with Moscow and the reorientation of Tirana’s towards China did not cause any particular anxiety in Washington.

Second, the essential element of the American strategy towards the Soviet bloc was weakening the Soviet grip over the East European nations, by stimulating them to become more independent from Moscow and friendlier to the US Paradoxically, in the case of Albania, the increase of independence from Moscow did not lead to a softening of its hostile attitude towards the US.

However, the official US documents show that, after the Hoxha and his party consolidated their control in Albania, Washington did not have any particular hope that it could make Tirana benevolent towards the US At some point, the entire US policy was reduced to reiterating Washington’s willingness to re-establish diplomatic relations with Albania, the failed efforts of the American mission in Albania in 1945-1946 notwithstanding. It took the fall of Communism to have this aim achieved. As the official US documents confirm, absurd ideological dogmatism played a large part in Albania’s behaviour. After all, how can one explain a country with about two million inhabitants, with the poorest economy in the continent, whose leadership was pretending to act as ‘ideological tutor’ to Soviet Union and Communist China? While examining the aforementioned documents, one can infer that during the cold war, Albania’s significance for Washington was determined by Tirana’s manoeuvres in the grand geopolitical chessboard, defined primarily by the American-Soviet rivalry. Accordingly, Albania’s formidable communism did nothing to make that country more important in American eyes.