In the footsteps of John Kennedy
Those who have grown up believing that John Kennedy's finest moment was the Cuban Missile crisis will be disappointed to learn that he may have contributed to the face off: widely considered the moment the world came closest to Central Nuclear War, by telegraphing weakness by his eagerness to "talk" to his adversaries. A NYT op-ed co-authored by Nathan Thrall and James Wilkins recounts:
Kennedy’s one presidential meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, suggests that there are legitimate reasons to fear negotiating with one’s adversaries. Although Kennedy was keenly aware of some of the risks of such meetings — his Harvard thesis was titled “Appeasement at Munich” — he embarked on a summit meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, a move that would be recorded as one of the more self-destructive American actions of the cold war, and one that contributed to the most dangerous crisis of the nuclear age.
The meeting was a disaster. Kennedy was prepared to be conciliatory. Khruschev was prepared to take the ball Kennedy wanted to hand him and run with it to the goal line.
Kennedy’s own secretary of state, Dean Rusk, had argued much the same in a Foreign Affairs article the previous year: “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?”
But 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, cautioned America against supporting “old, moribund, reactionary regimes” and asserted that the United States, which had valiantly risen against the British, now stood “against other peoples following its suit.”
If that were all, Kennedy could have chalked it up to experience. But JFK had repeated Chamberlain's key mistake at Munich. He sent a signal of abject weakness to an aggressor held back only by fear. He walked into shark-infested water bleeding and ringing the dinner bell. And although the US was overwhelmingly stronger than Khruschev's Soviet Union, the wily old Bolshevik judged it safe to hustle the "very inexperienced, even immature" Leader of the Free World. The Soviet strongman struck while the going seemed good.
A little more than two months later, Khrushchev gave the go-ahead to begin erecting what would become the Berlin Wall. Kennedy had resigned himself to it, telling his aides in private that “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” The following spring, Khrushchev made plans to “throw a hedgehog at Uncle Sam’s pants”: nuclear missiles in Cuba. And while there were many factors that led to the missile crisis, it is no exaggeration to say that the impression Khrushchev formed at Vienna — of Kennedy as ineffective — was among them.
Yet the John Kennedy who faced off against Nikita Khruschev was a combat veteran of the Second World War, and presumably tougher than the veteran of combats with the Rev Jeremiah Wright. But why is it so important for the American President to have manifest the qualities of coolness, discipline and steadfastness? Why can't America simply elect a man who will greet every foreign dictator he meets with a pre-emptive apology at the door?
Because the US President is, as Winston Churchill once described Grand Fleet Commander Admiral John Jellicoe, 'the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon'. He is the one person who can manufacture a world crisis by manner alone. The question is what impression The People We've Been Waiting For will convey to America's enemies may be put to a test. And this time we may not be as lucky as Kennedy was during the Days of October.
The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.