With President Kennedy permanently glorified for history by a battalion of hagiographers (Arthur M. (Schlesinger Jr., Theodore C. Sorensen and uncountable other droolers) debunkers of his mythology face a serious public-opinion obstacle. But history has a way of getting beyond unblinking idolatry, and we are learning that many events presented as JFK’s “presidential triumphs” were in reality serious glitches in both performance and results.
Such surely was the case in his handling of the bold decision by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to build the infamous Berlin Wall in 1961 - a barrier that split East and West Berlin and left much of Eastern Europe in unnecessary communist thrall for three extra decades.
As Frederick Kempe, former diplomatic correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, details in his richly researched study of the Berlin Wall crisis, East Germany was imploding in 1961. One in six people - 2.8 million - had fled to the West since the East German state had been established in 1949, including the country’s most talented and motivated people. The unrest was spreading to other communist bloc nations, putting Khrushchev under tremendous political pressure from his ruling Politburo.
So how would the new American president react to moves Khrushchev made on Berlin or elsewhere? The Soviet made initial friendly gestures, releasing two American fliers who had been shot down on a spy flight and speaking of reconciliation. Kennedy responded with tough talk on military preparedness. His State Department advisers misread a blustery Khrushchev message to a party conference as a shift toward a harder line. In fact, what Khrushchev said was cookie-cutter bluster.
Khrushchev had had a chance to judge Kennedy’s mettle in the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. Cuban exiles directed by the CIA had been forced to attempt a much-truncated operation; at White House insistence, the landing site had been changed from a beach to a swamp, and promised air support had been withheld. Among those expressing disgust was former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who told a group of Foreign Service officers, “The European view was that we were watching a gifted young amateur practice with a boomerang, when they saw, to their horror, that he had knocked himself out.” As Mr. Kempe writes, JFK’s lack of decisiveness gave Khrushchev “valuable intelligence on the sort of man who was leading the U.S.”
Worse was to come. Kennedy, his ailing body laced with enough medications and feel-good pills to stagger a dray horse (Mr. Kempe details the substances) went to Vienna in June to meet Khrushchev. Apparently eager to shove Berlin aside, Kennedy “expressed willingness to accept the existing division of Europe into spheres of influence … he would mortgage the future of those seeking freedom in Warsaw Pact countries if the Kremlin would abandon hopes of expanding communism elsewhere.”
As the talks continued, Kennedy repeatedly used the word “West” in front of “Berlin.” (He also did so in subsequent public statements.) As Mr. Kempe writes, “No U.S. president had previously differentiated so clearly between his commitment to all of Berlin and to West Berlin. In perhaps the most important manhood moment of his presidency, Kennedy had made a unilateral concession.” His tacit surrender stunned veteran American diplomats.
The transcripts show that Khrushchev bullied Kennedy not unlike a cat toying with a terrified mouse. In a background briefing, Kennedy told James Reston of the New York Times, “Worst thing in my life. He savaged me.” For Times readers, Reston toned down the harshness, writing that Kennedy “was astonished by the rigidity and toughness of the Soviet leader.” Indeed.
Advisers such as Acheson urged Kennedy to make military displays that would discourage any precipitant moves in Berlin. But he was brushed aside by a dovish coterie - the SLOBs, for Soft Line on Berlin - led by Schlesinger, then a White House aide.
Thus, only muted protests were uttered in Washington on an August Sunday when East German troops closed off East Berlin - 27 miles within the city, 69 miles where West Germany bordered the East German countryside. The initial barbed-wire barriers were replaced rapidly by concrete walls.
The closure clearly was illegal. Under the 1945 four-power agreement on unrestricted movement throughout Berlin, Kennedy had every right to order his military to knock down the barriers. In a token “show of force,” Kennedy dispatched Gen. Lucius D. Clay, hero of the 1948-49 Berlin airlift, to the city, but with his hands tied. At one point, 10 American tanks faced 10 Soviet tanks across the border, literally turret to turret. But a mutual pullback was negotiated quickly.
Kennedy would defend his inaction by quipping, “Better a wall than a war.” Perhaps. But Mr. Kempe observes that he almost got the latter anyway a year later when Khrushchev, emboldened by JFK’s back-down on Berlin, placed offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba.
The ever-acerbic Acheson perhaps put it best in a midcrisis aside: “Gentlemen, you might as well face it. This nation is without leadership.” As history is now demonstrating, JFK’s chief claim to fame rests on his martyrdom, not his accomplishments.
Joseph C. Goulden’s revised edition of Spy Speak: The Dictionary of Intelligence will be published by Dover Books in the fall.
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