Kennedy’s first mistake

May 12, 2011

It was the first, live televised press conference in U.S. history, and President John F. Kennedy beamed his 200-watt smile as he looked across the assembled media gathered in the cavernous, newly opened State Department auditorium.  He had real news for them: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had released two captured American airmen, which Kennedy could sell as an early demonstration that he could handle Moscow more effectively than had his predecessor Eisenhower.

However, in what would be the first mistake of his five-day-old presidency, the new president instead was privately obsessing on what he considered a Khrushchev declaration of escalated Cold War against him. The young and inexperienced president, who had not yet assembled his Soviet experts for a policy review, thought a Khrushchev speech in early January contained Khrushchev’s true intentions. Thus, he was suspicious of the airmen’s release and other Soviet good will gestures, including the unprecedented publication of the president’s full inaugural address in the Soviet media.

This early Kennedy judgment call on Khrushchev would shape the rest of the year, though it was based on faulty analysis. With it, Kennedy would miss perhaps the only opportunity he would have during the year to test whether it would be possible to improve relations with the Soviets.  Nine days later, he would sharpen his rhetoric toward the Soviet Union his State of the Union, speaking like a leader who had discovered the great purpose he had been seeking. He said:

Each day, the crises multiply. Each day, their solution grows more difficult. Each day, we draw nearer the hour of maximum danger. I feel I must inform the Congress that our analyses over the past ten days make it clear that, in each of the principle areas of the crisis, the tide of events has been running out – and time has not been our friend.

Seldom has history provided a better example of the dangers that come with a newly elected U.S. president who, though convinced of his own instincts and brilliance, lacks the experience or context to weigh the data that begins to flood him. Kennedy’s hawkish turn toward the Soviet Union prompted Khrushchev to dramatically retreat from his early efforts to woo Kennedy.  On February 11, Khrushchev would return from an agricultural tour for an emergency party leadership meeting, where his rivals called for a policy shift to address new American militancy.

Kennedy’s response may have seemed understandable at the time.  In his January speech, Khrushchev had said, “We will beat the United States with small wars of liberation. We will nibble them to exhaustion all over the globe, in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.” Referring to Berlin, Khrushchev promised he would “eradicate this splinter from the heart of Europe.”

Llewelyn “Tommy” Thompson, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, had stoked Kennedy’s concerns in a cable intended to prepare Kennedy for his press conference. He advised Kennedy, if asked about the speech, to say “he cannot understand why a man who professes to wish to negotiate with us publishes a few days before his inauguration what amounts to a declaration of Cold War and determination to bring about the downfall of the American system.”

What Thompson failed to tell Kennedy was that there really was nothing new in what Khrushchev had said. His speech was merely a belated briefing to Soviet ideologists and propagandists on the conference of eighty-one Communist parties the previous November. Khrushchev’s call to arms against the U.S. in the developing world had been the result of a tactical agreement with the Chinese to prevent a diplomatic breakdown.

Kennedy considered Khrushchev’s words “game changing,” but they only became so because of the young president’s overreaction to them.

For more on the book, visit www.fredkempe.com.

13 comments

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Well we taught them a lesson in eating their own words. Cold War: USA 1…USSR..Gone

Posted by Wes20 | Report as abusive

do you think this was a football game?

Posted by notquiteover | Report as abusive

sure it was a football game. isn’t the data to launch world war III called “the football”?

Having personally seen B 52′s taking off with rocket assist wings scraping the ground and only seconds between planes, headed straight for Russia and carrying the best hydrogen bombs money can buy, and having seen that they did NOT halt at their fail safe points (they came back way late and only through the success of emergency war refueling in the vicinity of the north pole), I KNOW it’s no joke when our country’s leaders square off with the leaders of another nuclear nation.

JFK was probably the second worst President in history, after Buchanen. We should dig up his body and burn it in effigy.

Thank God his Vice President was unlike him a decent sober and competent man.

Posted by johnwerneken | Report as abusive

Cold War: USA 1… USSR 0. We out spent them!

Posted by ruko | Report as abusive

Kennedy’s words are still relevant 50 years on

Posted by pams | Report as abusive

There was a cold and Russia was intent on destroying democracy. How many nations did they invade and conquer? Russia continued to fulfill their word until they caved in financially.

JFK read the times and numerous newspapers daily. Do you really believe this was the first time he heard that language and that Kennedy was unaware this was an old statement.

The re-announcement of Russia’s position was directed specifically at the new administration. JFK pushed back to show US strength and conviction.

Was it an overreaction? What would have happened had we treated Russia benign? Would the Berlin wall be gone today? Would more nations like Afghanistan be part of the USSR?

Don’t be so naive.

Posted by GSH10 | Report as abusive

Thank you GSH10 for your contribution … more typical American color-blindness. How many nations did WE invade and conquer? Or fail to conquer. Even the USSR gambits in Central America were largely reactive to the U.S.’s destabilization of democratically elected regimes, in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Chile, etc. That American interference continues today. Today, WE are in Afghanistan, and Iraq, Yemen, Georgia, Sudan, Libya.

Don’t be so naive.

Posted by BowMtnSpirit | Report as abusive

And saying that the USSR was trying to destroy democracy may be right but please do not imply that the US was trying to create democracy, the dictators that were supported by the US were just as autocratic and cruel as those imposed by the USSR. Remember Pinochet in Chile, and Noriega in Panama and so may others

Posted by crlsgrc | Report as abusive

Regarding the poster mentioning Russian invasions: Russia successfully invaded only countries on or very near it’s own borders. There is no evidence they even considered an invasion in Western Europe let alone the Americas which surely would have been a massive and embarrassing failure. Even today, they are having great difficulty keeping their former states from rebelling. The domino plan and effect has long ago been discredited as viable. China’s establishment and support of North Korea is an entirely different matter.

Posted by advocatusdiabol | Report as abusive

@BowMtnSpirit The current so-called imperialistic tendencies of the US is irrelevant to the commentary in the article. The author states that Kennedy jumped the gun and misread Khrushchev, causing the proliferation of the cold war, suggesting Kennedy as the cause of the Cuban missile crisis.

Do you believe that the USSR would not have attempted to plant nuclear missiles off our shores had Kennedy ignored Khrushchev’s 1960 remarks?

Should the US have laid down a red carpet for the USSR to do so?

Additionally, I never stated my position on Afghanistan, Central America, or any of the other endeavors of the US as that is tangential to this article about Kennedy’s impact on the US/Russian relationship at that specific time.

Kennedy was not perfect, but he was a good president. His strong stance aided in the removal of the Berlin wall. There is more freedom in the world today than at any other time in recorded history and I am happy for that.

Has the US made foreign relation mistakes? Absolutely.

Is the US or any other nation perfect? No.

Has the US gone off course. You betcha, and I speak out against our faulty domestic and foreign policies. You know why? Because we are free to do so with our freedom of speech, the ability to fire and hire our leaders with the right to vote that gives the people the power to change things without civil war.

Posted by GSH10 | Report as abusive

Nice that you caught that “mistake”. Too bad you are only 50 years late. What’s next, calling out Hitler & Napolean for attacking Russia in the winter?

Posted by mungous | Report as abusive

Kennedy and Khrushchev did eventually come to an understanding to end the Cold War as Kennedy’s little reported speech at American University made clear. They both faced serious internal opposition. Kennedy was assassinated and Khrushchev was deposed. It was Eisenhower who blew it when he approved that last U-2 flight that CIA Director Allen Dulles insisted he approve. The Soviets shut it down and captured Powers. Khrushchev concluded that he could not trust the Americans, so he came out shooting after Kennedy’s election to silence criticism from the Soviet hawks who wanted a hard line against America. It was all terrible tragic. The Kennedy-Khrushchev correspondence has been released for anyone who wishes to delve into this further.

Posted by cummings01 | Report as abusive

@advocatusdiabol The USSR invaded to conquer. We went into Afghanistan with their permission to wipe out the Taliban, not to conquer the country. According to your reasoning, it would be acceptable for the US to invade and conquer Canada and Mexico.

Both Iraq and Afghanistan were/are mistakes. But this article and my comment are about Kennedy’s statement about Khrushchev being a mistake. Let’s stick to the point.

Posted by GSH10 | Report as abusive