Kennedy, Khrushchev and the most dangerous place on Earth
May 31, 1961
Historians haven’t done well over the years in answering an awkward question: when do the personal quirks and unusual habits of American presidents have historic consequences? Tabloid reporters salivate over salacious stories such as Monica Lewinsky’s affair with President Bill Clinton, but when do these become matters of state?
My book Berlin 1961 steered away from the most sensational accounts and speculations regarding President John F. Kennedy’s womanizing and health problems. However, I did want to know whether any of these had substantive impact that such a book should record.
The time when that seemed most likely was in June 1961 during President Kennedy’s trip to Europe to see Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. What concerned me the most were the secret, excessive and perhaps irresponsible ministrations of a physician named Max Jacobson – better known as “Dr. Feelgood” by celebrity patients such as Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote – which were laced with amphetamines.
For all the adoring French crowds, grand Gallic meals, and media hype generated by a thousand correspondents covering his first stop in Europe to see French leader Charles de Gaulle in Paris, President Kennedy’s favorite moments were spent submerged in a giant, gold-plated bathtub in the “King’s Chamber” of a nineteenth-century palace on the Quai d’Orsay.
May 9, 1961
Wearing a white shirt, a loosened tie, and a jacket held casually over one shoulder, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy bounded down the steps of the side entrance to the Department of Justice on Pennsylvania Avenue and extended his hand to Soviet spy Georgi Bolshakov.
“Hi, Georgi, long time no see,” the attorney general said, as if reacquainting himself with a long-lost friend, though he had met Bolshakov only briefly once, some seven years earlier. Beside Kennedy stood Ed Guthman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who had become his press officer. Guthman had arranged the unusual meeting through the man who had delivered Bolshakov by taxi and stood beside him, New York Daily News correspondent Frank Holeman.
April 20, 1961
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev could hardly believe his good fortune.
He had known from his intelligence that Kennedy was planning some sort of Cuban operation aimed at unseating Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Yet never in his fondest dreams had he anticipated the incompetence of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion.
When it was all over, Castro had killed 114 of the CIA-backed exile force and had taken 1,189 prisoners. He had gained his enemies’ surrender after three days of fighting. Kennedy, by refusing the direct U.S. military involvement that might have ensured the action’s success, had avoided giving Khrushchev a pretext for a tit-for-tat response in the Berlin.
Monday, April 3, 1961
Dean Acheson knew a White House policy vacuum when he saw it, the absence of any Kennedy administration Berlin policy, and he was determined to fill it with the rapier brilliance that had already made him an historic figure.
His paper, the first major Kennedy administration reflection on Berlin, landed on Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s desk the day before British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan arrived in Washington. Characteristically, President Truman’s secretary of state had timed its delivery for maximum impact, laying down a hard line on Berlin at the front end of a parade of Allied visitors.
Some of the best political humor grew out of Eastern Europe during the Cold War, when tens of millions of oppressed people let off steam through laughter.
The Soviet public’s growing awareness of their country’s failings in 1961 had produced a bumper crop of jokes, told in the growing food lines as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev hop scotched the country:
America’s ambassador to Moscow had never seen Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev so fixated on the Berlin issue nor so determined to bring the crisis to a head.
Khrushchev was already in foul temper when he reluctantly consented to receive President Kennedy’s first letter to him, which contained his long-sought invitation to a summit meeting in May – in either Stockholm or Vienna. Khrushchev had kept U.S. Ambassador “Tommy” Thompson waiting for ten days before he could deliver the message, and then only in Siberia, a 1,800-mile flight from Moscow.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was still waiting for John F. Kennedy’s answer to his multiple pleas for an early summit when the U.S. president delivered his apocalyptic State of the Union address, which spoke of the Soviet and Chinese quest for world domination, as the first of several perceived indignities.
The shock waves of Kennedy’s words were reverberating through the Kremlin when two days later, Khrushchev suffered the further humiliation of watching Kennedy’s America test launch its first Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile.
The ever-resourceful Ayana Morali found a chunk of the Berlin Wall in mid-Manhattan, the perfect locale to interview Frederick Kempe about his fascinating book, BERLIN 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth. Here’s a video of our conversation:
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.
East German leader Walter Ulbricht had never written a letter of greater consequence. He wanted Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to quit making excuses, to quit dithering and to finally launch a bold Berlin move that would stop the refugee bleed and his country’s economic decline.
Though his letter to Khrushchev was marked SECRET, Ulbricht intended it to circulate among all the top Soviet leadership and communist allies around the world. Ulbricht argued the time was right for forceful Berlin action because President-elect Kennedy, who would be inaugurated in two days, would go to great lengths to avoid a confrontation during his first year in office. Adenauer would want to maintain peace as well before his September elections, Ulbricht wrote.