By Richard Larsen
Published – Idaho State Journal, 06/01/08
History oftentimes is whitewashed through the lens polished by hindsight. People and events of any given time can seem inconsequential, but in retrospect, loom large in identifying causal events from a historical perspective.
The administration of JFK has been largely whitewashed as a “Camelot” presidency due in large part to its tragic premature termination. Some of that revisionist history is justified in light of subsequent events, but some is not.
The continuing flap over Senator Barak Obama’s assertion that he would be willing to meet unconditionally, yet with preparation, with any world leader, including those who seek to harm the United States, prompted one such opportunity for historical revisionism. The Senator defended his position, “If George Bush and John McCain have a problem with direct diplomacy led by the president of the United States, then they can explain why they have a problem with John F. Kennedy, because that’s what he did with Khrushchev.” He went on to state, “When Kennedy met with Khrushchev, we were on the brink of nuclear war.”
Historically, this is incorrect. The tendency is to envision a handsome, youthful President Kennedy facing the enemy of freedom, the Premier of the Soviet Union. However, the historical reality is far different. Kennedy’s faceoff with Nikita Khrushchev in June of 1961 was disastrous and actually led to an escalation of the Cold War, the construction of the Berlin Wall, led directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as an escalation of the Vietnam War.
Just months into his administration, President Kennedy wanted desperately to visit face to face with the Soviet Premier. In his inaugural address in January, 1961, he declared, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” With that as his foreign affairs theme, he was convinced that he could approach the totalitarian leader in a way not done before, and that he could have success in bridging some of the ideological chasms separating the two because of his intellect and eloquence.
Most of Kennedy’s senior advisors counseled the President not to meet with Khrushchev. Dean Rusk, then Secretary of State, queried, “Is it wise to gamble so heavily? Are not these two men who should be kept apart until others have found a sure meeting ground of accommodation between them?” George Kennan, Truman’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union, counseled Kennedy to not rush so quickly without qualifications into such a meeting. He argued that Khrushchev had ramped up his rhetoric against the U.S., appeared to be more aggressively confrontational, and that the current pressing issues between the two countries should be handled by diplomats through the State Department.
As Nathan Thrall and Jesse Wilkins recently wrote, “Kennedy went ahead, and for two days he was pummeled by the Soviet leader. Despite his eloquence, Kennedy was no match as a sparring partner, and offered only token resistance as Khrushchev lectured him on the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, and cautioned America against supporting ‘old, moribund, reactionary regimes.’ Khrushchev used the opportunity to warn Kennedy that his country could not be intimidated and that it was ‘very unwise’ for the United States to surround the Soviet Union with military bases.”
The face-to-face with the Soviet Premier was an unmitigated disaster. Diplomats on both sides of the table offered the same assessment. One of Khrushchev’s aides recorded that Kennedy seemed “very inexperienced, even immature.” Khrushchev himself said of the two-day meeting that the youthful Kennedy was “too intelligent and too weak,” and returned to Moscow elated at his newfound elevated position of advantage, and extremely unimpressed at the naïveté and seeming impotence of the new President.
Kennedy’s self-appraisal was no less severe. He said of Khrushchev, “He just beat the hell out of me. I’ve got a terrible problem if he thinks I’m inexperienced and have no guts.”
The consequences of this humiliating diplomatic effort could not have been foreseen. Just a few months later, Khrushchev ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall, and a few more months after that, authorized the shipping of nuclear missiles to Cuba to, as he phrased it, “throw a hedgehog at Uncle Sam’s pants.”
There can be no doubt that Kennedy’s weakness contributed significantly to Khrushchev’s perception that he could build the wall and install nuclear missiles off our Southern coast. As a result, Berlin was divided by a wall for nearly half a century and we were brought to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon in spite of Kennedy’s intelligence and articulation. It could therefore be argued that these events were precipitated because of Kennedy’s hubris and his self-perceived ability to persuade. To counter this weakness, Kennedy resolved that he wouldn’t get pushed around by the Soviets any more, and determined to make his stand in Southeast Asia. The rest is regrettable history.
A profound reminder to those who seek political office: “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”