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Kennedy and Khrushchev

By Betsy Newmark

Obama has been citing Kennedy's meeting with Khrushchev as an argument why he believes that his proposal to meet without preconditions, but with preparation, with the leaders of Iran is the right policy. Yes, Kennedy did meet with Khrushchev, but not quite as Obama described it. Obama seemed to be placing the meeting of the two leaders during the Cuban Missile Crisis.



When Kennedy met with Khrushchev, we were on the brink of nuclear war."



The Cuban Missile Crisis took place in October of 1962. The two leaders did not meet during that crisis. But they had met over a year earlier, in the Spring of Kennedy's first year in office in June, 1961 in Vienna. And the results were not pretty as Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins write today in the The New York Times.

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." Khrushchev used the opportunity of a face-to-face meeting 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.



Kennedy's aides convinced the press at the time that behind closed doors the president was performing well, but American diplomats in attendance, including the ambassador to the Soviet Union, later said they were shocked that Kennedy had taken so much abuse. Paul Nitze, the assistant secretary of defense, said the meeting was "just a disaster." Khrushchev's aide, after the first day, said the American president seemed "very inexperienced, even immature." Khrushchev agreed, noting that the youthful Kennedy was "too intelligent and too weak." The Soviet leader left Vienna elated -- and with a very low opinion of the leader of the free world.



Kennedy's assessment of his own performance was no less severe. Only a few minutes after parting with Khrushchev, Kennedy, a World War II veteran, told James Reston of The New York Times that the summit meeting had been the "roughest thing in my life." Kennedy went on: "He just beat the hell out of me. I've got 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."



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.
So, Obama is correct that Kennedy advocating negotiations with our opponents, but the actual history doesn't provide the sort of historical evidence that supports Obama's argument about the efficacy of such a meeting.



Meanwhile,
Karl Rove casts some doubts on Obama's glib citations of Nixon going to China has a predicate for his visits with today's leaders of hostile nations.


 


I recommend that he read Henry Kissinger's book, "The White House Years." Mr. Obama would learn it took 134 private meetings between U.S. and Chinese diplomats before a breakthrough at a Jan. 20, 1970 meeting in Warsaw. It took 18 months of behind-the-scenes discussions before Mr. Kissinger secretly visited Beijing. And it took seven more months of hard work before Nixon went to China. The result was a new relationship, announced in a communiqué worked out over months of careful diplomacy.



The Chinese didn't change because of a presidential visit. In another book, "Diplomacy," Mr. Kissinger writes that "China was induced to rejoin the community of nations less by the prospect of dialogue with the United States than by fear of being attacked by its ostensible ally, the Soviet Union." Change came because the U.S. convinced Beijing it was in its interest to change. Then the president visited.



Perhaps what Obama needs is a few history courses.

Betsy blogs daily at Betsy's Page