In the course of the Democratic primaries in 2008 Barack Obama provoked me into assessing his reading of the Cold War and the uses of diplomacy. I took a look in “The Kennedy-Khrushchev conference for dummies.”
Meeting with JFK in Vienna in 1961 at the height of the Cold War, Khrushchev sized up Kennedy as a weakling and a lightweight. Kennedy lamented:
“I never met a man like this,” Kennedy subsequently commented to Time’s Hugh Sidey. “[I] talked about how a nuclear exchange would kill 70 million people in ten minutes, and he just looked at me as if to say ‘So what?’” In The Fifty-Year Wound, Cold War historian Derek Leebaert drily observes of Khrushchev in Vienna, “Having worked for Stalin had its uses.”
In the aftermath of the conference, Kennedy resolved to show strength to Khrushchev:
Kennedy pondered his options for the following seven weeks. On July 25 he gave a televised speech to the American people reflecting on the Vienna meeting. In the speech he announced that he was seeking congressional approval for an additional $3.25 billion in defense spending, the doubling and tripling of draft calls, calling up reserves, raising the Army’s total authorized strength, increasing active duty numbers in the Navy and Air Force, reconditioning planes and ships in mothballs, and a civil defense program to minimize the number of Americans that would be killed in a nuclear attack. In August, Khrushchev responded in his own fashion, erecting the Berlin wall and resuming above ground nuclear testing. Kennedy showed his commitment to maintain Western access to Berlin by sending a battle group of 1,500 men together with Vice President Johnson and General Lucius Clay in from West Germany.
And yet Khrushchev wasn’t impressed. The next year brought the Cuban missile crisis. It didn’t end well for Khrushchev, but his legacy survives in the Castro regime.
Kennedy’s meeting with Khrushchev proved fateful in more ways than one. Something similar seems to have happened in President Obama’s meetings with Vladimir Putin, with much more evidence to support his reading of Obama than Khrushchev had in the case of JFK.
In any event, today’s news brings word of one element of Obama’s response to Putin’s moves in Crimea and Ukraine: “Biden heading to Europe amid Ukraine tensions.” This seems to support the proposition that we’re in the history-repeating-as-farce phase of events.