The Magazine

Eyeball to Eyeball

Our guy blinked, with the following results.

Aug 1, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 43 • By JAMES DELMONT
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In late 1958, Khrushchev presented an ultimatum to the Eisenhower administration almost identical to the one he thrust at Kennedy in June 1961: Within six months sign a German peace treaty to fix the boundaries of East Germany and end Allied occupation rights in Berlin prior to its transition to “free city” status. Kempe makes the point that Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, were seasoned, mature men not about to be intimidated by Khrushchev. So they ignored the Soviet leader’s bluster but indicated a willingness to negotiate—a process that fell apart in 1960 when the U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russian territory, embarrassing Khrushchev and Eisenhower alike as they arrived for a summit meeting in Paris. Moreover, both Kempe and Beschloss make the corollary point that Kennedy was lacking in the steadiness, wisdom, and experience required for the trial he faced: Kennedy, wrote Beschloss, “lacked Eisenhower’s consistency, his determination to avoid alarming the American people .  .  . his understanding of the arms race and his domestic political strength.”

Kempe describes a Kennedy badly shaken by the Bay of Pigs fiasco of April 1961. Most historians now maintain that Kennedy rushed unwisely into an early summit with Khrushchev, in Kempe’s view to make up for the Bay of Pigs: “[T]o veteran diplomats, the president’s haste looked restless and naïve.” In bad health, and rattled by the Cuban disaster, Kennedy was “a weary, wounded commander in chief who was inadequately prepared and insufficiently fit for what would face him.” What faced him was the human volcano of the Russian strongman: “Khrushchev’s raw energy was overpowering Kennedy’s more subtle charms.”

Indeed, JFK’s much-advertised charm was no more effective with Khrushchev than FDR’s charm had been with Stalin. “This man is very inexperienced, even immature,” Khrushchev told his interpreter after the first day of the Vienna summit in June. Kennedy left Vienna battered and verbally beaten, threatened, and bullied—a state he admitted to members of his inner circle in frank language. “Kennedy was in over his head,” Kempe writes, describing how the president cried when recalling the event to his brother, Robert. Kempe also considers the state of Kennedy’s health, as manifested during the state visit to France just before the Khrushchev summit, closely following Beschloss’s descriptions of procaine injections from one physician (for excruciating back pains) and amphetamine injections from another. Disagreeing with Robert Dallek—who believes that JFK’s health problems did not affect his presidency—Kempe echoes Beschloss in suggesting that they did, in fact, hinder his performance. Kempe calls his chapter on the Bay of Pigs “Amateur Hour” and mentions Kennedy’s “greater comfort at appearing tough than actually being so,” concluding that Kennedy’s first year in office was “one of the worst inaugural year performances of any modern U.S. president.”

Besides a bungled summit and the Bay of Pigs disaster, Kennedy took the fatal steps, within weeks of assuming office, of escalating American involvement in South Vietnam. Kennedy also went public with his panic, calling for large increases in the defense budget and in military manpower. Yet it was the building of the Berlin Wall in August that got him off the hook, a slap in the face that JFK accepted with relief. But not for long: Khrushchev remembered Kennedy’s fear of nuclear war, which persuaded him to secretly ship offensive nuclear missiles to Cuba the following year, setting off yet another crisis.

James Delmont is the author of the forthcoming The Great Liberal Death Wish.