May 22, 2008


Kennedy talked, Khrushchev triumphed (Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins, May 22, 2008, IHT)

In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy expressed in two eloquent sentences, often invoked by Barack Obama, a policy that turned out to be one of his presidency's - indeed one of the Cold War's - most consequential: "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy's special assistant, called those sentences "the distinctive note" of the inaugural.

They have also been a distinctive note in Obama's campaign, and were made even more prominent last week when President George W. Bush, in a speech to Israel's Parliament, disparaged a willingness to negotiate with America's adversaries as appeasement. Obama defended his position by again enlisting Kennedy's legacy: "If George Bush and John McCain have a problem with direct diplomacy led by the president of the United States, then they can explain why they have a problem with John F. Kennedy, because that's what he did with Khrushchev."

But Kennedy's one presidential meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, suggests that there are legitimate reasons to fear negotiating with one's adversaries. Although Kennedy was keenly aware of some of the risks of such meetings - his Harvard thesis was titled "Appeasement at Munich" - he embarked on a summit meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, a move that would be recorded as one of the more self-destructive American actions of the Cold War, and one that contributed to the most dangerous crisis of the nuclear age.

The scathing treatment of this summit--well, of the whole JFK presidency as regards foreign policy--in Michael Beschloss's Crisis Years is a must read.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 22, 2008 3:16 PM
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