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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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BARACK OBAMA FIRST VOWED to meet unconditionally with the leaders of America's foremost enemies in the YouTube Democratic candidates' debate on July 23, 2007. Since then he has reaffirmed and expanded on the commitment in a variety of contexts, promoting such meetings as a sort of panacea for America's national security challenges. In making these pronouncements, Obama sounds like a precocious college undergraduate who finds himself granted a vision that has eluded elders whose befuddled reckoning has brought them to an impasse.

In Portland on May 18, Obama cited John F. Kennedy's 1961 summit with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna among the series of negotiations that led to America's triumph over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The Vienna summit, however, disproves Obama's assertion regarding the unvarying value of meetings between enemy heads of state about as decisively as any historical episode can refute a thesis. In addition to poor judgment, Obama has demonstrated that he doesn't know what he's talking about.

Kennedy first addressed the subject of a possible summit with the Soviet Union in the second Kennedy-Nixon debate. Unlike Obama, Kennedy expressly rejected a summit without preconditions. Indeed, Kennedy expressed his agreement with Nixon that he "would not meet Mr. Khrushchev unless there were some agreements at the secondary level--foreign ministers or ambassadors--which would indicate that the meeting would have some hope of success, or a useful exchange of ideas." In the third debate, Kennedy suggested that the strengthening of American conventional and nuclear forces should precede any summit with the Soviet Union.

Once in office, Kennedy more or less discarded his previously expressed conditions for a summit. In a letter written in February and secretly delivered to Khrushchev in March 1961, Kennedy expressed his willingness to meet Khrushchev "before too long" for an informal exchange of views. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy sensed that discussions without an agenda or prior agreement might be disadvantageous to the United States. He let the matter drop, but Khrushchev accepted the invitation on May 4. The meeting was to occur in Vienna late that spring.

Through a secret Washington encounter between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Soviet intelligence agent Georgi Bolshakov the following week, the president sought to explore an acceptable compromise on nuclear testing in connection with ongoing negotiations in Geneva that might be finalized in Vienna. The compromise, however, would have to be depicted as originating from the Soviet side. In Jack Kennedy: Education of a Statesman movie-star biographer Barbara Leaming shows a finer sense of power politics than Barack Obama does. In his back-channel offer, she writes, Kennedy inadvertently conveyed to Khrushchev "that in the aftermath of Cuba he was nervous that Vienna be perceived as a success" and that "he was willing to deceive the American people, who, at his instigation, were to be told that the [compromise offer] had come from the Soviet negotiators rather than from him. In sum, he bared his vulnerabilities to an opponent well able to take advantage of them."

The parties reached no agreement on any set agenda or proposals prior to their meeting in Vienna on June 3 and 4. The meetings were therefore confined to the informal exchange of views referred to in Kennedy's February letter. By all accounts, including Kennedy's own, the meetings were a disaster. Khrushchev berated, belittled, and bullied Kennedy on subjects ranging from Communist ideology to the balance of power between the Soviet and Western blocs, to Laos, to "wars of national liberation," to nuclear testing. He threw down the gauntlet on Berlin in particular, all but threatening war.

"I never met a man like this," Kennedy subsequently commented to Time's Hugh Sidey. "[I] talked about how a nuclear exchange would kill 70 million people in ten minutes, and he just looked at me as if to say 'So what?'" In The Fifty-Year Wound, Cold War historian Derek Leebaert drily observes of Khrushchev in Vienna, "Having worked for Stalin had its uses."

Kennedy sought a brief final session with Khrushchev to clear the air regarding Berlin. In that final meeting at the Soviet embassy, however, Khrushchev bluntly told Kennedy, "It is up to the U.S. to decide whether there will be war or peace." Kennedy responded, "Then, Mr. Chairman, there will be war. It will be a cold winter." On this unhappy note the two leaders' only face-to-face meeting came to an end.

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.