Presidential Summits

Coming out of the summit meeting with the Russian leader, America has a black eye.  Our President looks weaker now than before, while the Russians are praising their leader’s political abilities.  While this can easily be said about President Trump’s meeting with Putin, I am actually talking about President Kennedy’s 1961 Vienna Summit with Nikita Khrushchev.  This column was inspired by a friend’s online post with a picture of President Trump saying, “There has never been a president tougher on the Russians” and then pictures of Presidents Reagan and Kennedy laughing below.  As always, I am not commenting on Trump’s latest meeting, make your own judgements, but do not rewrite history to do it.  It is fine if you want to consider JFK, or any president, tough on communism that is fine, just know that they all had their weak moments as well.

The images we have today of JFK and Camelot did not start right away.  In fact, the reference to Camelot did not come until after his death.  Also JFK’s image as a tough, cold warrior took some time to develop as well.  Unfortunately, JFK followed up the commanding officer of WWII and five star general Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Ike and Khrushchev, the two old cold warriors, were able to manage a working relationship and their eight years together saw a slight thaw in the Cold War.

With the election of the aggressive, yet young and inexperienced, Kennedy, Khrushchev saw someone he could push around.  It did not help that Kennedy’s first foray into world stage was a disaster.  Under Ike, the CIA had prepared an invasion strategy to overthrow the Castro government in Cuba.  Two months after JFK took office, he greenlighted the operation, known as the Bay of Pigs, which ended in total failure and completely embarrassed the Kennedy administration.

Two months later, still with the fallout of the Cuba calamity, Kennedy flew to Vienna to meet with Khrushchev.  The meeting was a second failure.  In public, the Russian leader treated the president like a young diplomat who needed schooling.  In private, Khrushchev berated him on issues of Cold War foreign policy.  The biggest issue was Berlin.  The German city had been divided since the end of WWII, and the Russians were trying to push the Americans out.  The summit was so one-sided that Kennedy told a Times reporter, “He beat the hell out of me.” 

Emboldened by the summit, Khrushchev returned home and began to build the Berlin Wall, the ultimate symbol of the Cold War.  Kennedy was powerless to stop it, another hit for the president.  By the end of Kennedy’s first year, it must be said that in foreign policy, his administration was failing.  The Russians were the opposite.  Feeling invincible, they began planning the deployment of nuclear weapons in Cuba. 

In October of the following year, Kennedy would shine.  His handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis was brilliant brinksmanship and he was described as having ice water in his veins.  A year and a month after the Missile Crisis, he was dead.  Kennedy’s foreign policy record is shaky at best.  Besides stopping the missiles to Cuba, he did negotiate a deal to limit nuclear testing but also started us down the road to Vietnam. 

I am not trying to defend the president’s actions at the recent summit with Putin, or saying that given the time Trump, like Kennedy, might having a shining moment, what I am saying is that if we are going to judge him alongside past presidents, then we need to make fair historical comparisons. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.  

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