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The Kennedy-Khrushchev Conference for Dummies

Remedial history for Barack Obama.

12:00 AM, May 28, 2008 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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Immediately following the final session on June 4 Kennedy sat for a previously scheduled interview with New York Times columnist James Reston at the American embassy. Kennedy was reeling from his meetings with Khrushchev, famously describing the meetings as the "roughest thing in my life." Reston reported that Kennedy said just enough for Reston to conclude that Khrushchev "had studied the events of the Bay of Pigs" and that he had "decided that he was dealing with an inexperienced young leader who could be intimidated and blackmailed." Kennedy said to Reston that Khrushchev had "just beat [the] hell out of me" and that he had presented Kennedy with a terrible problem: "If he thinks I'm inexperienced and have no guts, until we remove those ideas we won't get anywhere with him. So we have to act."

Seeking the advice of former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and others, Kennedy pondered his options for the following seven weeks. On July 25 he gave a televised speech to the American people reflecting on the Vienna meeting. In the speech he announced that he was seeking congressional approval for an additional $3.25 billion in defense spending, the doubling and tripling of draft calls, calling up reserves, raising the Army's total authorized strength, increasing active duty numbers in the Navy and Air Force, reconditioning planes and ships in mothballs, and a civil defense program to minimize the number of Americans that would be killed in a nuclear attack. In August, Khrushchev responded in his own fashion, erecting the Berlin wall and resuming above ground nuclear testing. Kennedy showed his commitment to maintain Western access to Berlin by sending a battle group of 1,500 men together with Vice President Johnson and General Lucius Clay in from West Germany.

The following year brought the Cuban missile crisis, another sequel to Khrushchev's reading of Kennedy's weakness. Close as the Cuban missile crisis brought the two sides to war, however, it was perhaps not the most consequential effect of Khrushchev's reading of Kennedy's weakness. Persuaded that he needed further to demonstrate "fearlessness and backbone," in the words of William Manchester, Kennedy observed to Reston that the only place where the Communists were challenging the West in a shooting war was in Southeast Asia. Summarizing Kennedy's own evaluation of the aftermath of the Vienna conference in his 2003 biography of Kennedy, Robert Dallek writes that Kennedy "now needed to convince Khrushchev that he could not be pushed around, and the best place currently to make U.S. power credible seemed to be in Vietnam."

In short, the Vienna conference resolved no issue between the United States and the Soviet Union. On the contrary, if anything, it precipitated crises that were resolved through the display and use of military force.

What harm can possibly come of a meeting between enemies? There are many, like Obama, who say that no harm can come from talking. To paraphrase JFK's June 1963 Berlin speech, let them come to study the Vienna conference.

Scott W. Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and contributor to the blog Power Line.