Kennedy, Khrushchev and the most dangerous place on Earth
Konrad Adenauer, suspicious ally
January 5, 1961
Friends speculated that it had been his inconsolable concerns over President Kennedy’s fitness for office that had worsened Konrad Adenauer’s illness; a cold he had contracted before the U.S. elections deepened to bronchitis and then pneumonia. On the occasion of the West German chancellor’s 85th birthday, others attributed his fragility to age.
Whatever the truth, Adenauer still sniffled badly as he posed for birthday photos next to orphans dressed as Snow White and her dwarfs. His birthday celebration was spread over two days, to protect his health while accommodating the dozens of people who wished to congratulate him for having built upon Nazi ashes an economically strong, politically reliable and democratically vibrant state – and in only 16 years.
Adenauer, however, knew the free country that he had built out of the post-war French, British and American zones could only survive concerted Soviet pressures if he could maintain unwavering American commitment. In the best of times, he worried about U.S. abandonment without cause, but now Adenauer had found in Kennedy far greater reason for concern.
U.S. presidential transitions frequently cause consternation among allies, whose own political systems typically result in fewer foreign policy lurches and personnel changes. In the case of the West Germany, the Kennedy transition’s disruption was magnified further by the new President’s dramatically different view toward Adenauer and his country. Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kennedy’s predecessors, had considered Adenauer one of the great men who had countered nationalist and neutralist instincts among Germans.
In Eisenhower’s view, Adenauer helped provide both the philosophy and the means for the Western containment of Soviet Communism, arguing that greater Western military strength had to be a prerequisite for successful negotiations with the Soviets. By contrast, in 1957 Kennedy had written in Foreign Affairs – a publication that was closely read in Bonn after his election — that Adenauer was “a shadow of the past,” and he had declared “the age of Adenauer is over.” Kennedy believed previous U.S. governments had allowed their policies toward the Soviets to be constrained too much by excessive loyalty to the West Germans.
It was no secret that Kennedy preferred that Adenauer be replaced in September’s general elections in Germany by his Social Democratic opponent, West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, who at a handsome and charming age forty-seven was selling himself as his country’s Kennedy. In a break with protocol, Kennedy would receive Brandt in Washington in March, a month before he’d see Adenauer.
Though Adenauer had publicly praised Kennedy with false effusiveness after his election, he feared privately that Americans had elected a man of insufficient backbone to deal with Soviet brutality. The West German intelligence service had provided Adenauer with reports of Kennedy’s sexual infidelities, a weakness the communists would know how to exploit. Adenauer had privately called Kennedy, who was forty-two years his junior, “a cross between a junior naval person and a Roman Catholic Boy Scout,” both undisciplined and naïve at the same time.
So Adenauer faced four challenges as 1961 opened: managing Kennedy, defeating Brandt, resisting Khrushchev and wrestling with the inescapable biological fact of his own mortality. When pressed about his ambitions for 1961, Adenauer told a radio interviewer that he was certain only that it would have twelve months.
Beyond that, he said, he only hoped the year would be free of catastrophes.
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