Should Obama rethink JFK-Khrushchev?: The Swamp
 
The Swamp
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JFK's meeting was disastrous. So why does Obama use it to defend talking to foes?

Posted May 22, 2008 11:48 AM
The Swamp

Kennedy Khrushchev.jpg
Photograph from the U.S. State Department in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

by Frank James

Sen. Barack Obama, who received his undergraduate degree from Columbia University, took a hit today from two other Columbia men, Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins.

In a New York Times op-ed piece, Nathan Thrall, a journalist whose bio says he has a masters degree from Columbia, and Jesse James Wilkins, a doctoral candidate there, point to a problem with Obama's proposition that President John Kennedy talked with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Obama has noted Kennedy's meeting to defend his own stated willingness to meet without preconditions in the first year of his presidency with the leaders of nations adversarial to the U.S. As Thrall and Wilkins note, Kennedy's meeting was an unmitigated disaster. Kennedy viewed it that way himself.

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.

Historian Robert Dallek, in his eminently informative and entertaining Kennedy biography "An Unfinished Life" says the Soviet general secretary's "behavior irritated and frustrated Kennedy, since Krushchev did a good job of seeming somewhat unhinged, at turns, congenial then bellicose with the young president.

As Dallek writes:

"A British journalist who saw (Kennedy) as he escorted Krushchev to his car thought (Kennedy) looked 'dazed.' Pacing the floor of his bedroom in the embassy, (Kennedy) exclaimed, "He treated me like a little boy, like a little boy.' "

Kennedy, who had the fatigue-causing Addison's Disease would try to maintain his energy levels with injections of steroids among other medications and as Dallek notes, his performance might have been affected somewhat by his serious medical issues.

According to Dallek:

"A long day under much tension certainly accounts for most of Kennedy's weariness by the early evening, but we cannot discount the impact of (Dr.) Jacobson's chemicals on him as well. As the day wore on and an injection Jacobson had given him just before he met Khrushchev in the early afternoon wore off, Kennedy may have lost the emotional and physical edge initially provided by the shot. But more important than Kennedy's energy level was the fundamental difference in approach that each leader brought to the summit. Kennedy's eagerness to be reasonable and encourage understanding was no match for Khrushchev's determination to debate and out-argue the less experienced president."

Kennedy left Vienna convinced the U.S. had to take steps to show Krushchev that he meant business:

Here's Dallek again:

"He now needed to convince Khrushchev that he could not be pushed around, and the best place currently to make U.S. power credible seemed to be in Vietnam."

Pretty chilling, isn't it, that Kennedy decided to compensate for his inadequate performance with Khrushchev by pushing forward in Vietnam?

Given all this, it's curious that Obama hasn't been more circumspect in how he's used the Kennedy example, especially since the shortcoming of that meeting are well documented and have been known for decades.

What's more, Obama has had first-hand access to Sen. Ted Kennedy and Ted Sorenson, Kennedy's long-time adviser, and the American foreign-policy experts with his campaign certainly are aware of how disastrous the Kennedy-Khrushchev meeting was.

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Comments

Wow Frank James writes something quasi negative about the messiah?

Anyway, this is the point I was trying to make the other day (and mistakenly got my dates wrong). But regardless, the Obamabots will hear none of this. They are blind to history and blind to reality.


So, what are we to take away from this, that since JFK seemed inexperienced and weak, that it follows that Obama will do the same?

Or, perhaps we should blame Obama for Kennedy's alleged shortcomings in his meeting with Kruschchev??

Or, Obama was unaware of this bit of history???

Or????

Who gives a flying leap. It still makes sense to meet with your enemies and talk.

The neocon's shoot first and ask questions later approach has clearly been a disaster.


If one indulges the unusual experience of reading Khrushchev's book, one comes away with the same impression of Kennedy at the Vienna meeting. Khrushchev thought Kennedy was an inexperienced politician who could be pushed around and manipulated. He had witnessed Kennedy's inexperience and lack of resolve resulting in severe mistakes (in his view), such as in the case of the Bay of Pigs debacle. Some suggest, and rightly so, I think, that Kennedy invited the grief involved in the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile Crisis because of his demonstrated lack of resolve to finish off Cuba after the Bay of Pigs operation began. The Soviets certainly felt that way, and were thus emboldened to challlenge Kennedy on these latter two events because of it. While both Kennedy and Khrushchev were blamed for their respective roles, the United States certainly came out on the losing end of both of them. The Berlin Wall didn't come down for another 25 years, and Kennedy had to make concessions to Khrushchev in order to get him to withdraw the missiles from Cuba.

The significance of Kennedy's tough talk on Cuba evaporated when he promised Khrushchev that the U.S. would never again attempt to invade Cuba. The Cuban population in the U.S. felt betrayed. He made more than a few enemies by agreeing to withdraw our nuclear presence from Turkey as well.

So, a little bit of good, free advise to Obama would be to break out of the Kennedy moldt. It is simply not good enough to have good ideas and give good speeches. One must have the moral resolve to do the right thing in the face of extreme adversity. That's part of the job description of President. Kennedy failed in this in his early days in office. Obama needs to demonstrate early on that he will not likewise fail.


One must have the moral resolve to do the right thing in the face of extreme adversity.
Posted by: John W. | May 22, 2008 12:49 PM

So would you say doing nothing ( Bush Policy) when faced with extreme adversity is the way to go? Just wondering!


So, what are we to take away from this, that since JFK seemed inexperienced and weak, that it follows that Obama will do the same?
Posted by: Quippy | May 22, 2008 12:28 PM
Well, no. Obama is inexperienced. Period. That's self evident.
It is a safe bet that he'll be weak because he's long on bumper sticker slogans and short on concrete proposals. Furthermore his record (although sparse) indicates that his first loyalty is to his corporate sponsors at the expense of his constituency.,br>
As if that's not enough (and it should be) Obama has told us that he would negotiate with a dangerous psychotic like Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. That's reckless and foolish.


Well, no. Obama is inexperienced. Period. That's self evident.

It is a safe bet that he'll be weak because he's long on bumper sticker slogans and short on concrete proposals. Furthermore his record (although sparse) indicates that his first loyalty is to his corporate sponsors at the expense of his constituency.,br>
As if that's not enough (and it should be) Obama has told us that he would negotiate with a dangerous psychotic like Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. That's reckless and foolish.

Posted by: MJ | May 22, 2008 1:03 PM


So why don't you tell us exactly what hands on foreign policy experience that John McBush has?
Foreign policy experience comes from either being President, VP or serving in a cabinet position.


The Repubs shoot first ask questions later foreign policy is being rejected on a nation wide basis yet they still think it makes them sound tough or something.


...and by the way, Ahmadinejad is a sock-puppet figure in Iran, he's nothing more than a mouth piece who has no actual power so it wouldn't matter on what conditions any President met with him because he doesn't set Iranian policy..


That's reckless and foolish.

Posted by: MJ | May 22, 2008 1:03 PM

No more reckless and foolish as the cowboy politics of the last administration. I find it funny how the GOP goes on and on about entitlement, yet the Iraq oil doesn't pay for the war, the Iraq government doesn't pay for the war, but I do. If I'm going to pay..I much rather pay our citizens than ones that will turn around and stab you in the back later.


Finally, someone mentions this. I thought that Obama's use of this example was laughable , but thought it was worse that no one came out and said that those meetings were a mess. Obama must think people don't know their history...


Were the missles removed from Cuba or not ?!! All of a sudden, a Communist's word, or words, are believable !!I Wonder what Ronnie Reagan would have to say about that, as if it matters !!? The old Communist Killer!!
SUPPORT OUR TROOPS, BRING THEM HOME, ALIVE. NOW.


John W, I think Kennedy's biggest failure was that he agreed to go along with the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The lesson Obama needs to remember is that it's always better for a president and for our country when he isn't launching ill-advised, poorly planned invasions of countries that pose no real threat to our nation.


Finally, someone mentions this. I thought that Obama's use of this example was laughable , but thought it was worse that no one came out and said that those meetings were a mess. Obama must think people don't know their history...

Posted by: Canesvan | May 22, 2008 1:19 PM


Laughable? You mean like saying something like this?
-
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2kyXN4ZVQg


Obama may be inexperienced, but his supporters think he is much stronger than JFK.

Can you imagine, after seeing Hillary beat Obama like a drum in debate after debate, she would have demolished JFK -- that would be the logical extension.


It was Kennedy's poor performance at that meeting that led Kruschev to arrogantly declare "we will bury you."
JFK's bungled summit led to our involvement in Vietnam.
Don, the missiles were removed from Turkey, too. How do democrats always forget that? Kruschev got what he wanted out of the CMC.


* * * * *

So would you say doing nothing ( Bush Policy) when faced with extreme adversity is the way to go? Just wondering!

Posted by: bill "Hussein" r. | May 22, 2008 12:59 PM

Absolutely not. Do you think I'm a Bush fan? He's made many mistakes, some calculated, that he never should have made.


I find it rich that Republicreeps are claiming Obama is INEXPERIENCED. Well folks 8 years ago you had the choice of voting for John McCain or George Bush. The FACT you voted for George W. Bush over McCain means either John McCain is not fit to be President or you don't think experience is important. Which is it? Think before you answer.


Jackson, Bush still had more experience than the messiah Obama. Obama was a do-nothing state senator for a few years and he's been a do-nothing U.S. senator for one (in his three years, two have been campaigning and one he actually was in Washington doing what he allegedly was elected to do). Bush served as a governor, businessman and in his father's administration.


It was Kennedy's poor performance at that meeting that led Kruschev to arrogantly declare "we will bury you."

Posted by: Jeff | May 22, 2008 1:49 PM

God, Jeff, do you ever even try to get your history right?

The Vienna Summit was in June of 1961.

Kruschev made the "Bury you" statement on November 18, 1956.

That's more than four years before Kriuschev met Kennedy Jeff.

Really, stop trying to talk about history. You have no clue.


* * * * *

Posted by: Tom O | May 22, 2008 1:44 PM

I think your right. It was totally foolish of him to sign off on a plan that largely depended on an unknown variable as support from a popular uprising. There was simply no way for the planners to believe that such an uprising would ever occur. It was a lot of wishful thinking on the part of everyone involved.

I was giving the Soviet perspective on the incident. I'm sure they would have been happier had Kennedy never given the go-ahead for the Bay of Pigs operation. It was the fact that he went ahead with it, but pulled up short of doing what it took to win, that gave the Soviets the impression he was weak and could be pushed around.

Remember, also, that Kennedy campaigned for President on a foreign policy platform that was tough on Cuba (or Cuber). He was one of Eisenhower's biggest critics on Cuba policy, always claiming Eisenhower was too soft. His resulting approval of the Bay of Pigs operation is a good object lesson in how one's stated political views should not blind one to reality or common sense.


This is wrong.


Yes, their first meeting left Kennedy almost ill. Mr. K. had decided to come on strong, and Mr. K. was a force of nature. He also had many legitimate grievances at the time against the U.S.


But Mr. K. gained a lot of respect for Kennedy and grew to rather like him. And would anyone but a fool say it was bad for Kennedy to have had the opportunity to size Mr. K's personality with so many difficult times ahead?


There is never an argument, other than a fool's argument, for not engaging with your opponents.


With regard to those who advocate never talking to opponents, the public should be very wary, for such people are always have a hidden agenda.


*****

Posted by: jackson | May 22, 2008 1:54 PM

You have posed a false dilemma. Both were experienced, and Bush actually had executive experience as Governor of Texas. So it is simply untrue to suggest the choice of one over the other meant the experience isn't important or the one not chosen was unfit.

It's just unfortunate that Bush turned out the way he did. I know John E. will disagree, but, in my view, that was simply not reasonably foreseeable from what was known at the time.


Bush still had more experience than the messiah Obama. Obama was a do-nothing state senator for a few years and he's been a do-nothing U.S. senator for one (in his three years, two have been campaigning and one he actually was in Washington doing what he allegedly was elected to do). Bush served as a governor, businessman and in his father's administration.

Posted by: John D | May 22, 2008 2:07 PM


Yep, and Bush the man-chimp was a failure at all of those pre-Governor ventures that you mentioned, Lil Johnny.
Do some research, you dope....


John D,
The comparison was between George W. Bush and John McCain. I'll allow you the suggestion that holding the mostly ceremonial title of TX governor, running an oil company and baseball team into the ground (how many pennants did they win), and helping daddy reach out to religious zealots is experience. The question is, did he have more experience than John McCain in 2000. The answer is NO. So either John McCain is not fit to be President or you and your pals don't think experience matters that much.


and Bush actually had executive experience as Governor of Texas. So it is simply untrue to suggest the choice of one over the other meant the experience isn't important or the one not chosen was unfit.

Posted by: John W. | May 22, 2008 2:33 PM


Governor of Texas is mostly a figure head job, the Lt. Governor does most of the "Deciding". It was the perfect "job" for someone with as low of an IQ as W has.


As someone who voted for McCain in 2000 experience mattered to me then and it matters to me now. Again Jackson fails in his insipid attempt to frame the rules of argument so that they favor only him. We call that "pulling an Obama."
Wah, wah, wah, Michael, so that means Kennedy's mistakes DIDN'T get us into Vietnam? Please. You're a joke. It doesn't matter when Kruschev said it, it's the attitude he went into the meeting with Kennedy with and he left even more confident that he could bully the US than he was when he went in.


Hey, since it's okay for John E to call the President of the United States a "man-chimp" can I call Barack Obama a man-chimp? He's got those big ears, after all.


Jeff- You thought it was important enough to post, didn't you now? You thought it mattered.


Sorry to show up your ignorance. Again.



What? I was talking about Kruschev's attitude toward the US! His meeting with Kennedy only reinforced his belief that the Soviet Union could break us! None of that is dependent on when he said that. He got what he wanted out of the CMC, US missiles out of Turket. Sorry to show you your ignorance again, Michael.


Delusional Jeff-

Why did you say something that didn't matter at all then? Why would you make your arguement with a "fact" that had nothing to do with your arguement? Were you confused?

By the way Kruschev didn't get what he wanted out of the CMC. He wanted medium range missiles in Cuba to try and cut into the US long range missile advantage. He didn't get that. Getting the Jupiters out of Turkey, which were already obsolete and were supposed to have been removed already, was only a rather poor consolation prize to allow him to save some face.

Do they not have books where you are? You keep making these mistakes of historical fact, so I can only figure that you have somehow been prevented from educating yourself on these matters.


Hey, since it's okay for John E to call the President of the United States a "man-chimp" can I call Barack Obama a man-chimp? He's got those big ears, after all.

Posted by: Jeff | May 22, 2008 3:38 PM


It's nice to see Republicans like Jeff showing their true colors, I hope everyone in the Southern States reads Jeff's post because it represents exactly what the Republicans think about minorities in America and they will use every excuse they can think of to race bait for votes this fall.


Arguement? I was saying it because it was indicative of Kruschev's attitude toward the US. The attitude that was reinforced by his meeting with Kennedy. Read the story, (don't they have high speed internet where you're at?) his meeting with Kennedy only strengthened his belief that the US was weak and was led by a "very inexperienced, even immature" man. You can nitpick all you want about my post all day, it won't change what these two historians have written for the NY Times. You can believe that the missiles in Turkey were obselete and that we lost nothing by agreeing to remove them. If that's true why did Kennedy initially refuse to remove them and only agree to take them out when we were on the brink of full scale war? And if they were "supposed to be removed already" than why would they still be there if there wasn't a strategic reason? The USSR got nuclear missiles off its doorstep. That's a win for them. Kruschev didn't have missiles in Cuba before the CMC and didn't have them there after the CMC. The only side that lost anything was the US. We lost the ability to remove Castro and we lost the Jupiters in Turkey. Only a neophyte liberal like you would believe that those missiles weren't there for a reason.


Delusional Jeff-

Son, really get a book. The Jupiters were already obsolete at the time we agreed to put them in Turkey a few years before. Kennedy knew that , but didn't want to appear to be being pushed around by the Soviets. Those are facts, not my belief. I can't help it if you aren't well educated enough to know them.

http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/diplomacy/forrel/cuba/cuba090.htm

http://www.afa.org/magazine/aug2005/0805U2.asp


“It was during my visit to Bulgaria that I had the idea of installing missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba without letting the United States find out they were there until it was too late to do anything about them,” he said in Khrushchev Remembers, published in 1970.

He was reacting, superficially at least, to the Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missiles the United States had recently installed in Turkey. More important, though, Khrushchev wanted to compensate for Russia’s strategic disadvantage in long-range missiles.

“In addition to protecting Cuba,” he acknowledged in his memoirs, “our missiles would have equalized what the West likes to call ‘the ba lanc ofpower.’ ”

Protecting Cuba had little to do with it. Khrushchev saw the possibility of an instant strategic adjustment. IRBMs based in Cuba could reach US targets as easily—and faster—as ICBMs from launch sites in the Soviet Union."........

"That was so, but the United States also made a concession, which was not announced. The Jupiter missiles would be pulled out of Turkey.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy told Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, back-channel, that “within a short time after this crisis was over, those missiles would be gone.” It was no great loss to the United States or NATO. The Jupiters were obsolete, and the mission they were performing was taken over by Polaris nuclear submarines."



* * * * *
Posted by: Michael | May 22, 2008 5:51 PM

Even if what you say is entirely accurate, Kennedy still suffered from a loss of respect from those who believed he gave up too much. To get rid of the missiles in Cuba. Selling out the local Cuban population by promising not to invade Cuba put him in the doghouse with many Cuban ex-pats and anti-communists. Moreover, the fact the missiles in Turkey were obsolete (assuming they were) was not well known, and didn't help him out with the latter groups either. He took a P.R. beating coming and going.


I'm sorry but your statements are ridiculously stupid. No military organization puts missiles in another allied country for no reason like you would have us believe. We all know what the "facts" of what the administration said are. We also know that they didn't reveal the whole truth. They were obselete before they were installed, that was the party line. As if the US military installs obselete technology. Sure. Everybody knows that losing those missiles was a capitulation. Again I'll ask, if it was no great loss as you and the administration would have us believe, then why did the Kennedys originally refuse to agree to pull them out?
You're right that the Polaris subs took over first strike capability but the PR victory for the Soviet Union was getting missiles out of a nearby country. No one can look at a submarine that has a missile pointed at you. That's called diplomacy. Kruschev could go to the eastern bloc countries and say "I got the missiles" out of Turkey. The Soviet Union was the only nation in the Warsaw pact that even had the intelligence capability to detect the nuclear subs.


It might also help to read the headline: "Kennedy Talked, Khrushchev Triumphed"


The Cuban Missile Crisis included a military blockade, a US pilot being shot down (and killed), and brought us to the brink of nuclear war.

The fact that Obama flogged this example on several occasions as emblematic of a success of diplomacy should give anyone pause. I seem to remember something about the dangers of not knowing people not knowing history. Moreover, why didn't Obama's advisors tell him to back off this example? Were they ignorant or too afraid to challenge him?


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