In the 2008 presidential campaign Barack Obama served up President Kennedy’s conference with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961 as support for his thought that it would be a good idea for the president to meet unconditionally with leaders of the Iranian regime. As is so often the case when it comes to history, however, Obama didn’t know what he was talking about. By all accounts — and I mean all accounts, including Kennedy’s own — the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit in Vienna was a disaster. Historians continue to add to the record, but the record has been clear on this point for a very long time.
Historian Robert Dallek provides an updated account of the conference in his 2003 JFK biography An Unfinished Life. Approaching the question from the side of the Soviet Union, William Taubman took a skeptical look at the conventional wisdom regarding the summit in Khrushchev: The Man and his Era and arrived at a conclusion consonant with Kennedy biographers and historians. I went back over the record for the Weekly Standard in “The Kennedy-Khrushchev conference for dummies.”
The Kennedy-Khrushchev conference provides the backdrop to the division of Berlin by the wall put in place by the Communists that August. Frederick Kempe’s new book, Berlin 1961, narrows the focus and explores the Berlin aspect of the story in depth. Yesterday Glenn Reynolds directed readers to this quote from Kempe:
I want Americans to understand how the decisions of their presidents — then and now — shape world history in ways we don’t always understand at the time of a specific event. I want readers to know that Kennedy could have prevented the Berlin Wall, if he had wished, and that in acquiescing to the border closure he not only created a more dangerous situation — but also contributed to mortgaging the future for tens of millions of Central and Eastern Europeans. The relatively small decisions that U.S. presidents make have huge, often global, consequences.
Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal performed the perfect marriage of book and reviewer, bringing Kempe’s book together with former CIA spy and long-time spy novelist Charles McCarry. McCarry’s review ran under the apt heading “When Kennedy blinked.”