The worst day of JFK’s life
Vienna, Sunday, June 4, 1961
President John F. Kennedy was brutally honest about what would prove to be one of the worst performances of an American leader with his leading global counterpart of his time â his two-day summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
As he drove away from the Soviet embassy with Secretary of State Dean Rusk in his black limo, Kennedy banged the flat of his hand against the shelf beneath the rear window. Rusk had been shocked that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had used the word âwarâ during their acrimonious exchange about Berlinâs future, a term diplomats invariably replaced with any number of less alarming synonyms.
Despite all the presidentâs pre-summit briefings, Rusk felt Kennedy had been unprepared for Khrushchevâs brutality. The extent of Vienna Summitâs failure would not be as easy to measure as the Bay of Pigs fiasco six weeks earlier. There would be no dead, CIA-supported exile combatants in a misbegotten landing area, who had risked their lives on the expectation that Kennedy and the United States would not abandon them.
However, the consequences could have be even bloodier. A little more than two months after Vienna, the Soviet would oversee the construction of the Berlin Wall. That, in turn, would be followed in October 1962 by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Already in Vienna Kennedy was distraught that Khrushchev, assuming that he was weak and indecisive, might engage in the sort of âmiscalculationâ that could lead to the threat of nuclear war.Â He didnât know then that his prediction would become prophesy.
Kennedy carried with him from Vienna to London, for his follow-up meeting with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, the Khrushchev aide-memoire delivered in Vienna that detailed the Soviet demands for a German settlement within six months, âor else.â If the Soviets made it public, as Kennedy had to assume they would, his critics would accuse him of having walked into a Berlin trap in Vienna that he should have seen coming.
Before leaving Vienna himself, Kennedy met in a private room, behind closed blinds, at the U.S. ambassadorâs residence with New York Times columnist James âScottyâ Reston.Â He wanted to get across to Reston the seriousness of the situation, and then use him as a conduit to paint a grim picture for the American people.Â He spoke to Reston in the tone of the confessional.
Kennedy wore a hat pulled low on his forehead as he sunk into the sofa. It would be one of the most candid sessions ever between a reporter and a commander-in-chief.
âHow was it?â asked Reston.
âWorst thing in my life,â said Kennedy. âHe savaged me.â
Reston jotted in his notebook: âNot the usual bullshit. There is a look a man has when he has to tell the truth.â
âIâve got two problems,â Kennedy told Reston.Â âFirst, to figure out why he did it, and in such a hostile way. And second, to figure out what we can do about it.â
Because of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy said, Khrushchev âthought that anyone who was so young and inexperienced as to get into that mess could be taken. And anyone who got into it and didnât see it through had no guts. So he just beat the hell out of meâŚIâve got a real problem.â
Reston rightly concluded in his New York Times report, which carefully protected his source, that Kennedy âwas astonished by the rigidity and the toughness of the Soviet leader.” He said Kennedy âdefinitely got the impression that the German question was going to be a very near thing.â
Even Kennedy, however, underestimated just how quickly Khrushchev would act.
For more on the book, go to www.fredkempe.com.