Things didn’t go well when U.S. President John F. Kennedy met with Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961. Or at least they didn’t from Kennedy’s perspective.
Speaking to American journalist James Reston after the Vienna summit’s second and final day, Kennedy described it as the “roughest thing in my life.” Khrushchev, he said, “just beat the hell out of me.”
While Kennedy’s domestic popularity was high, he came to Vienna under inauspicious circumstances.
The Bay of Pigs fiasco (see April 11 column) had dented his self-confidence and raised questions about his character.
And Yuri Gagarin’s space flight had made many wonder whether the Soviets had surpassed the Americans technologically. They hadn’t, not by the longest stretch. But that wasn’t immediately obvious.
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There was also the issue of Kennedy’s health.
Contrary to the image of robust vitality, Kennedy’s underlying health was precarious. He was beset by an array of maladies requiring a regular drug cocktail, which he supplemented from time to time with amphetamines. And his back – ever fragile and chronically painful – had been injured again by a ceremonial tree-planting in Ottawa.
The dynamics of a negotiation can be affected by a number of factors, one of which is how the parties regard each other. Sometimes these personal assessments are right, sometimes they’re not and sometimes they’re a bit of both. But they influence what transpires.
And although Kennedy and Khrushchev had met briefly during the Soviet leader’s 1959 American visit, this time was different. Kennedy was now president and Khrushchev had formed an unfavourable assessment. He thought Kennedy was weak.
The Bay of Pigs was a major contributor. According to Khrushchev’s son, he had this to say: “I don’t understand Kennedy. What’s wrong with him? Can he really be that indecisive?”
Kennedy acknowledged as much in his post-summit conversation with Reston: “I think he did it because of the Bay of Pigs. I think he thought that anyone who was so young and inexperienced as to get into that mess could be taken, and anyone who got into it, and didn’t see it through, had no guts.”
Kennedy had hoped for a pragmatic exchange. This is what he’d wanted to happen: “I propose to tell you what I can do, and what I can’t do, what my problems and my possibilities are, and then you can do the same.”
But having pegged Kennedy as a pushover, Khrushchev was in a different attitudinal space.
After Vienna, Khrushchev soon moved to address one of his priorities – finding a way to shut off the persistent outflow of East Germans fleeing west via the divided city of Berlin.
Around 2.7 million people had exited in the previous 12 years, and the outflow was up to about 25,000 per month by the summer of 1961. For communist-ruled East Germany, this was economically destabilizing and profoundly humiliating.
So in August 1961, the infamous Berlin Wall came into being. There was great outrage and substantial suffering. But Kennedy privately acquiesced.
He did so for a simple reason. Khrushchev’s other expressed solution entailed a separate Soviet/East German treaty, which raised the spectre of unilaterally eliminating access rights to West Berlin. As Kennedy put it, “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”
Two other developments can be plausibly traced, at least in part, to Vienna.
Having dominated Kennedy face-to-face, Khrushchev felt sufficiently confident to install Soviet missiles in Cuba, thereby precipitating one of the most dangerous moments since the end of the Second World War. While the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis resolved peacefully, it was touch-and-go for a time.
Kennedy also came away from Vienna believing he had a problem with Khrushchev: “If he thinks I’m inexperienced and have no guts, until we remove those ideas we won’t get anywhere with him.”
Consequently, Kennedy needed to calibrate future actions with that in mind. He had to show that he couldn’t be pushed around, that he wasn’t just resolute talk and no action.
Did this consideration influence Kennedy’s evolving military commitment to South Vietnam?
Historian David Reynolds thinks it did and that there were consequences: “At the very least, Kennedy made it much harder for either himself or his successor to pull out of Vietnam. The Vienna summit marked an important step into America’s quagmire.”
Of course, Reynolds might be wrong. History is tricky.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.
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