- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2008




When young, charismatic President John F. Kennedy entered office in January 1961, he couldn’t wait to meet with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Kennedy thought the meeting could lead to reducing the chances of a deadly East-West conflict. To this end, he soon sent him an invitation to meet.

Weeks went by with no word from Mr. Khrushchev; then came the disastrous April 17, 1961, U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban emigres seeking to overthrow Fidel Castro. Mr. Khrushchev no doubt concluded that this evidently feckless Kennedy “is my pigeon.” It should be added that Mr. Kennedy was then also suffering from recent U.S. setbacks in Laos. Finally, the meeting took place in Vienna on June 3 and 4, 1961.

Mr. Kennedy, who was used to dealing with rational, reasonably well-behaved interlocutors, was ill-prepared for an encounter with a thuggish type like Mr. Khrushchev. As I used to describe this meeting to my students at Georgetown, “This was Little Boy Blue meets Al Capone.” Twice a day, I got a rundown on each morning and afternoon session from the U.S. note-taker, a friend of mine. Since this was a “principals only” meeting, the only Americans present were the note-taker and interpreter. I am probably the only American still alive who was, at the time, completely privy to what went on in these ill-fated sessions.

In the first meeting, on June 3, Mr. Khrushchev was tough, hard and ruthless, while Mr. Kennedy was apologetic and defensive — the worst possible stance under these circumstances. Mr. Kennedy sought hard to defend U.S. positions, but with little effect. On the second and final day, June 4, at the Soviet Embassy, Mr. Khrushchev repeated, as an ultimatum, an earlier threat to turn over control of access to Berlin to the East Germans who would most certainly block all escape routes to West Berlin and then on to West Germany. Mr. Kennedy left this last session visibly shaken. Associated Press correspondent John O. Koehler, later told me that Mr. Kennedy “looked green” when he left that session, and, uncharacteristically, brushed by the waiting reporters.

Defending “Four Power Control” of Berlin and access thereto was an issue of gravest importance to the three Western Powers. Then, about the only way World War III could have been triggered would have been a Western Allies clash with the Soviet Union over Berlin access or in inadvertent involvement in a greatly-feared widespread revolt in East Germany. Thus, Mr. Khrushchev’s threat was serious business, indeed. Mr. Kennedy reported to the American people that these were “a very sober two days” and that “our most somber talks were on … Berlin.” Mr. Kennedy reportedly complained that he had been treated [by Khrushchev] like a little boy and that this was “the worst thing in my life. He savaged me.” The first result of this disastrous meeting was the publication of Mr. Khrushchev’s ultimatum which created a panic in East Germany, leading to a hemorrhage of East Germans fleeing to free West Berlin. This led to the erection of the Berlin Wall beginning on Aug. 13, 1961. The most pernicious result of the Vienna summit, however, is that the weak impression made by Mr. Kennedy most probably emboldened Mr. Khrushchev to install offensive missiles in Cuba in 1962, thus bringing the world to the brink of a thermonuclear war.(Although it must be said on his behalf, Mr. Kennedy masterfully resolved this crisis.)

Now we have a young, charismatic presidential candidate who seems eager to meet with some of the world’s most hostile leaders without having had any experience in dealing with such thuggish types, as was the case with Mr. Kennedy. The results, while probably not threatening world peace, as in 1961-62, could still be seriously deleterious to our national interests. If, as someday may well become necessary, our president must meet with hard case hostile leaders, what better psychological preparation could there be than having had to daily confront thuggish types for five-and-a-half years, as did Sen. John McCain?

William Lloyd Stearman, a retired senior Foreign Service officer with the National Security Council staff, is a former faculty member of Georgetown University.

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