The Foreign Policy Legacy of President Kennedy

Monday, May 23, 2011

Experts analyze President John F. Kennedy's foreign policies including those pertaining to the Soviet Union, and review the lasting implications of his first year in office.

ALAN BRINKLEY: This meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations and -- maybe needs to be turned down a little bit, I think -- and for a conversation on the foreign policy of President Kennedy.

I have a couple of requests: One is to turn off your phones, BlackBerrys and all wireless devices. Don't just -- I had to do this myself just a moment -- (chuckles) -- and had to be reminded. So please turn off your cell phone, not just silence it, and of course I want to remind everyone that this meeting is on the record.

And I also want to welcome the council members who are in Washington, who are listening to this meeting on a password-protected teleconference.

So thank you all for coming, and we have two distinguished historians and journalists who have written important books about the era of John Kennedy -- of course, it was also the era of Khrushchev -- and so Frederick Kempe, who has recently published an extraordinary book, "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth," which I've recently read and am very impressed. And Richard Reeves, who is the author of "President Kennedy" -- "President Kennedy: Profile of Power."

Frederick Kempe, by the way, was a Wall Street Journal reporter for many years; Richard Reeves was a New York Times correspondent for many years. And these two books together are a very important -- is a very important account of the quite momentous, if brief, presidency of John Kennedy.

So we will -- I will ask both Fred and Richard to speak for just a few minutes to get started, and then we'll have a conversation among the three of us, and then we'll open this up to the audience for questions and comments.

So, Richard, do you want to go first and --

RICHARD REEVES: Well, I said to Fred when we talked before this that I have rarely admired a book so much that I disagreed with -- (laughter) -- although the disagreement is not huge.

I look forward greatly to this book because I think both of us felt -- obviously, Fred can speak for himself -- that President Kennedy's role in the erection of the Berlin Wall was widely misinterpreted at the time, partly deliberately because the government was fudging facts, but it -- for those of us who are old enough to remember, Kennedy did not mention the wall until three days after it was up. And in the first press conference by Pierre Salinger on the Berlin Wall, the wall was only the 34th question asked in that press conference.

And I think the reason -- and I think Fred and I probably agree on this part of it; what we might disagree on is the impact of this -- that there is no doubt in my mind that -- I was hoping that he would find the document; someday the document will come out -- that John Kennedy knew in advance the wall was going up. He had made it perfectly clear he wanted the wall to go up. He said again and again -- in what Fred interprets as weakness, I might interpret as guile -- that as long as Allied occupation rights were not violated, the Soviets and the East Germans could do whatever they wanted to do on their own territory.

And that it -- that the wall -- while we at home treated it as this terrible outrage showing what savages, barbarians the Soviets were, what in fact it was was the mechanism that solved huge problems for both sides, and it -- however badly Kennedy negotiated at the end, and I think he negotiated badly -- the wall solved both sides' problem.

The Soviet problem was the flight of refugees from East Germany and Eastern Europe through the gates between East Berlin and West Berlin. And by the peak -- we're now talking middle 1961 -- and it was exacerbated by the fact that as vacation times came and people could take their whole families, even more -- I think the height was 6,000 a day, but the average was 2,000 a day -- and they weren't just 2,000 people. They were the young, the best and the brightest: the doctors, the engineers, the enterpreneurs, for what they were -- the educated people who had decided to get out of East Germany while -- and East Berlin -- while they could.

That was Khrushchev's problem, and as Kennedy said many times privately, he had to solve that problem -- the depopulation of East Germany. Kennedy's problem -- our problem -- was that we had essentially demilitarized after World War II and that if the Soviets were to make a move in Europe -- and it would almost certainly be in Germany -- they probably could take the entire continent in a matter of weeks or months unless we used nuclear weapons to stop them. And John Kennedy did not want to use nuclear weapons and, I think, came up with -- although he often looks like a wuss in Fred's book, I think that the solution that he more or less hit on may well have prevented World War III.

So the other side -- (laughter) -- the other side of the argument is sitting to my left -- (laughs).

FREDERICK KEMPE: And I believe if -- the closest that we've been brought to it. So we disagree strongly on that.

I mean, where Richard and I do disagree most vehemently is, he wrote in a 1994 article, "That wall, which Kennedy publicly said sickened him, may actually have been the young president's greatest foreign policy achievement." I think it was his biggest failure.

And I think the book makes a strong argument. And it is interesting that on almost all other points about Kennedy, our books are in --

REEVES: Absolute sync.

KEMPE: -- are in sync, are in agreement. So let me talk a little bit about that.

I did this book for three reasons. And the first two, I'm going to be really brief on because we're really talking about Kennedy. The first was that, as a reporter for Newsweek, and then for a much longer time at the Wall Street Journal, I covered the last critical decade of the Cold War.

I was also, as a student -- I also as a student, I went and visited my relatives in East Germany. Most of my German relatives were in East Germany. So I came face to face with people who were unfree, which, as a young American journalist cutting your teeth in -- has a big impact on you. Covered the rise of solidarity in Poland, German unification, fall of Berlin Wall, collapse of the Soviet Union.

So I was fascinated with this. And as I was turning around for what I wanted to do in my fourth book, I read Margaret MacMillan's "Paris 1919." I thought, it's just a magnificent book. And I said to myself, well, good heavens, if I were thinking about a city and a year that I think is most important to the period of time I care much -- about most in my life, for me it was Berlin in 1961.

So first of all, I wanted to go back. I knew a lot about how the wall came down. I didn't know much about how it went up. And I was really asking myself, could it have been avoided? Could the Cold War have ended earlier? All sorts of interesting questions I had in my head.

Second reason, as a longtime Wall Street Journal page one writer, I just love stories with great characters. And so we're going to focus on Kennedy. But -- you know -- he -- you know -- your 43-year-old son of privilege versus a 67-year-old son of peasants. There's no way these two people will understand each other very easily.

And then the characters underneath them, Konrad Adenaur, 85 years old, totally distrusts Kennedy and doesn't think he's got the stuff to deal with Khruschev. Walter Ulbricht, the head of East Germany, totally distrusts Khruschev and thinks he's been dithering about closing the Berlin Wall and is really looking for ways to push him.

And in '61, why does things come to a head in '61? Because Walter Ulbricht's problems are getting worse and the economic situation in West Germany, West Berlin, is getting better. So the refugees' flow is increasing. There's a greater existential threat to East Germany.

So this sets the stage for a young, inexperienced president, youngest president, first president to be elected who was born in the 20th century, youngest president ever elected in the United States at age 43, John F. Kennedy.

And I do conclude, after many years of research and trawling through many, many documents and oral histories and memoirs and such, that it is one of the worst first-year foreign policy peformances of any modern presidency.

But I didn't just trust myself on that. I also saw how Kennedy was talking privately about himself during the year. And on several occasions, he was very worried that he was being perceived by Khruschev as weak. He was talking to aides and advisers about how he was worried about his performance and how it might affect Soviet behavior.

And then in the end of September, he talks to the Detroit News Washington bureau chief, Elie Abel, later my dean at Columbia journalism school. And -- who wants to write a book about his first year in the presidency. And Kennedy says to Elie Abel, who would want to read a book about an administration that has nothing to show for itself but a string of disasters?

Now, because we should probably get into as much discussion as we can as quickly as we can, let me just sort of list the four or five points very quickly that I focus on to tell the Kennedy portion of the story. I also tell the Ulbricht portion and the Adenauer portion and the Khruschev portion -- you just can't separate them.

But first day in office, he wakes up to the release -- very important gestures by Khrushchev, where I think Khrushchev was genuinely reaching out. He had a very difficult domestic political situation where after the May, 1960 U2 incident where Soviet troops shot down the American spy plane, Khrushchev started facing a resurgence of Stalinist remnants and also new pressure from China's leader, Mao Zedong, that he was not being tough enough with the Americans, with the imperialists, and he was being naive in thinking he could negotiate with them. But he still wanted to go in that direction. It was -- he was an errant -- erratic reformer, but he was a reformer.

And he introduced the notion of peaceful coexistence after Stalin. So the first mistake Kennedy makes is he doesn't think that Khrushchev's gestures on the first day of his presidency are -- he thinks they're to be mistrusted.

The release of the pilots, the reduction of jamming of Voice of America, the -- not pilots, the release of the captured airmen, reduction of jamming of Voice of America, and the printing -- publication in the Soviet newspapers of the entire Kennedy inaugural speech.

At the same time, what Kennedy is looking at is the speech that Khrushchev had given in early January, which was really a report to ideologists of the Communist Party on a meeting of 80, 81 communist parties in November. And it is pretty tough language. It sounds to Kennedy as if it's a(n) escalation of the Cold War against them and particularly the developing world.

So Kennedy focuses on this, which experts at the time felt was really routine propaganda, not that big of a deal. And this is perhaps the only serious opportunity he had to get things going with Khrushchev. Shortly after that, you have tests of Minuteman missiles, you have Robert McNamara revealing that the missile gap is not really a missile gap but the U.S. has great superiority.

Khrushchev reads all of this as Kennedy going in a much more hawkish direction than President Eisenhower. I extend that that story just a little bit because it is a mistake of a young president who's very confident in his instincts, but hasn't been in power and misreads something and things start heading in the wrong direction right from the beginning.

Then you have the Bay of Pigs, you all know that story. What's important for me about that is what Khrushchev reads about Kennedy into it, and he says to his son that he can't believe that Kennedy has been so indecisive: neither calling off a plan that was hatched in the Eisenhower administration nor giving it the teeth to succeed.

Then, six weeks after that -- six weeks, two months after that -- you have the Vienna summit, which Khrushchev only agrees to after the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy already wanted before, after the Bay of Pigs is a little bit worried that he's going to be going in weak and unprepared, but on the other hand wants to restore his foreign policy image.

So he goes there unprepared and you have a first day where his experts and advisers have told him not to get into an ideological argument with Khrushchev; but he does. And he gets mauled. And the second day, he thinks because of prenegotiations that he's not going to have -- there'll a discussion of Berlin, but there won't be anything substantial on Berlin.

But Khrushchev delivers an aide-memoire and an ultimatum, and just ambushes him. And Kennedy, at the end of this summit, says to The New York Times columnist Scotty Reston, he savaged me, worst day of my life. Kennedy comes away from this very worried Khrushchev's reading him as weak.

And then this is where Richard and I maybe part ways some. I don't think we part ways on the fact that Kennedy was complicit in the building of the wall. And I really thought I would find the document, and there's a lot that's still classified, and particularly Bobby Kennedy's papers are classified.

And a lot of the talk at that time was taking place between Bobby Kennedy and a Soviet spy named Georgi Bolshakov, a very unusual conduit. But Kennedy and Khrushchev, a back-channel they allowed to form between the two of themselves after the Bay of Pigs. And these two men met and communicated two or three times a month throughout my year 1961.

Kennedy certainly acquiesces to the Berlin Wall.

I think he acquiesces for the reason you're talking about. He think it's going to reduce tensions so he can negotiate the things he really cares about -- nuclear test ban, reducing the nuclear threat.

I think that he didn't make the world safer by doing this. I think he made it more dangerous, because he didn't end up going from the building of the Berlin Wall, construction of Berlin Wall -- and in terms of complicit, there are all sorts of signals to Khrushchev that he if stays within the parameters of doing this just on East Berlin territory, and if he doesn't touch West Berlin access or West Berlin freedom, he can do pretty much whatever he wants to do on August 12th-13th, which he does.

And there's no sanctions, there's no big response -- Kennedy certainly doesn't seem particularly surprised by it all, and seems quite relieved by -- but he doesn't get -- he doesn't get a more cooperative partner; he actually gets a more difficult partner.

And so the argument that I make is that the Cuban Missile Crisis one year later may not have happened had not Khrushchev come away from the Bay of Pigs, the Vienna Summit, and the construction of the Berlin Wall with the conviction that Kennedy could be had, and that once he got the missiles into Cuba -- as he said to his son Sergei, Kennedy would make a fuss, would make another fuss, but wouldn't do anything in the end.

So that's where I think Richard and I part ways. I think he created a more dangerous world, and then creates a less dangerous world by his response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the Cuban Missile Crisis may not have had to happen had we not gone through what we did there.

And I won't go into the showdown of tanks at Checkpoint Charlie, but this fits also into this scheme where, I think, Kennedy retreated on the principle. Soviet tanks withdrew first -- the first and only time that you had Soviet tanks, U.S. tanks and fighting men across from each other in October, two months after the building of Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie.

This is quite -- I go into quite some depth in the book about this; I won't do that right now. But it was another moment where Khrushchev saw Kennedy standing down on the principle of -- there was a -- there was sort of an esoteric arcane (for power ?) right that General Clay was enforcing, which was whether or not East German guards could check Allied identity cards at the crossing point or not. But the point of all those things was: Khrushchev, every time, comes away with, you know, I think I can push this a little bit further.

So that's -- that, I think -- I think there's a lot new in the book, but certainly my conclusions of Kennedy will be the most controversial.

BRINKLEY: Well, I think the difference between you is: Was Kennedy weak in connection with the Berlin Wall, or was Kennedy strong within -- on the issue of the Berlin Wall? I don't think that's the important question.

I think the important question is: What was the impact of the Berlin Wall on the world and on Europe? And I'm not sure I -- I'm not sure I know what the two of you think about this. You know, one argument would be that the Berlin Wall actually solved a problem for both the United States and the Soviet Union by defusing Berlin. The other argument is that the creation of the Berlin Wall was a catastrophe, was a human catastrophe, it was also a political catastrophe, and it was a sign of weakness from the United States. What do you think between --

REEVES: Well, I think that it was a sign of common sense by the United States. And I kind of feel history, in the end, fifty years later, is on my side. Nothing terrible happened. The strategy worked, even though Kennedy misunderstood much about Berlin and Germany.

When the Wall went up and the Americans made no response whatever, it -- literally no response whatever -- the people who panicked were the West Berliners. They suddenly thought that America was not going to back up its commitment to preserve them 110 miles inside East Germany. So that it was only six days later, when Kennedy got reports back from General Watson, that West Berlin -- there was going to be a new exodus; West Berliners were going to go to West Germany. They were going to get the hell out, because they thought the Americans were not going to protect them. And that was when Kennedy, in what, obviously, was a political gesture, but it worked, sent Lyndon Johnson -- there are very funny stories about that. Johnson kept saying, what if they shoot me? (Laughter.)

But when he got there, there was a crowd of 700,000 people cheering him, and he forgot about the shooting and broke into the crowd. And with him was Lucius Clay, the hero of West Germany. And that stabilized the morale of the West Berliners. I disagree. In Fred's book -- this is a great book -- but there is an almost rational thread running through the events, as if they were almost inevitable. I didn't see that at all.

As far as the Cuban missile crisis was concerned, and I think -- you've also got to remember, I was writing only from Kennedy's viewpoint and was writing in a journalistic way, history forward, what did the president know and when did he know it -- the Cuban missile crisis, I see -- I mean, there are obviously connections -- but I see as a separate track, not part of Fred's train. And the Cuban missile crisis, to me, was a result of the fact that we had strategic nuclear weapons, Polaris missiles -- we had surrounded the Soviet Union like a picket fence with nuclear weapons.

The Soviets had nowhere near the nuclear power we had, nor did they have strategic missiles with dependable guidance systems. So they could not hit the United States but we could hit them from about 12 different directions. Khrushchev, another canny fellow, decides that this is the biggest problem the Soviet Union now has to solve, and the way to solve that is if they can get medium-range missiles, tactical missiles close enough to the United States that they could hit United States cities, it would put them on a parity -- a nuclear parity with the Americans.

And that's why he wanted medium-range missiles in Cuba so that he could then announce, checkmate. It actually wouldn't have been checkmate but it was a hell of a plan. And as two quotes that Kennedy said, which influenced me, certainly, one was, I think to (Will Rossdale?) "a wall is better than a war." And the other was that if he were Khrushchev, concerning the medium-range missiles in Cuba, he would have done the exact same thing.

KEMPE: I disagree and the book disagrees. There are three reasons why I think --

REEVES: It's a hard thing for book and yourself to disagree, I think. (Laughter.)

KEMPE: I must say I agree with almost everything in the book. (Laughter.) You know, General Clay, in 1969, was of the view -- and I think he was right and I think this was proven in Cuba -- that -- and then he came away with this view because of the 1948 airlift, which you've written so brilliantly about -- that the Soviets, when a crisis is carried to the point in which a clash with America appears imminent, the Soviets will back down. I'm not --

REEVES: Clay believed that, absolutely.

KEMPE: Clay believed that, absolutely. And I actually think in the case of Berlin, that would have been the case. I don't think there was a real danger of nuclear war over the wall, had the U.S. made clear that he couldn't do it or stopped him from doing it. You know, General Scowcroft writes, brilliantly, in the introduction to my book that history doesn't reveal its alternatives, so we're not going to know what would have happened if Kennedy had made clear, at the Vienna summit, that he would not accept a change in four power rights.

And building the wall did violate the four power rights in two respects, and it was only how you want to interpret it that it can lead you to the conclusion that it didn't. It did, in the sense that East German forces were not even supposed to be present in East Berlin, let alone be building, you know, barriers. It also violated in the technical sense of free passage and free access, so you can argue that.

Second of all, the East Germans watched and the Soviets watched for 48 hours. And the real building of the wall really only started on August 22nd, nine days later. Some of it started three days later. But there was a watching to see if Kennedy and the allies were going to respond. At this point, it had only been the East German action.

So I think you could have avoided it at the summit and you could have avoided it, which I think would have been a more certain way of avoiding the Berlin Wall, through the messages that Kennedy sent. Instead, Kennedy sent the messages, go ahead; under these conditions, I can accept this.

And then there was a period of time where, if the U.S. had come in and, in one way or another, dismantled or disrupted these temporary barriers, would the Soviets, with their 350,000 troops within the region of Berlin, have acted against the 12,000 Allied troops in Berlin? Don't know, but General Clay certainly thinks that they would not have, given past experience. We'll never know.

Then the greater question of whether it made it a safer or more dangerous world. If you look at what Khrushchev says to his -- well, first of all, Kennedy says in Vienna to Scotty Reston about Khrushchev, he says, he thinks anyone who is so young and inexperienced as to get into that mess (Bay of Pigs) can be taken, and he thinks anyone who got into it and didn't see it through to the end had no guts. He just beat the hell out of me."

So it's not just a rational string of events; it's actually one leading to another. Bay of Pigs and conclusions that Khrushchev makes leads to the Berlin Wall. Berlin Wall and the conclusions that Khrushchev makes leads to the Cuban missile crisis, where I just don't believe he would have risked -- as much as he wanted those missiles within reach of Washington and New York -- and you're right, it was something he needed to have happen -- would he have done it if he had any doubts about it?

And ahead of this, he does say to his politburo, you know, I've looked at this guy, Kennedy, and I don't think he has the background, I don't think he has the strength and the guts. So talking to his presidium at the end of 1961, he really gives his assessment of Kennedy and what he thinks he can do, and then ahead of the Cuban missile crisis, he talks to Sergei Khrushchev about how he believes that there will just be a fuss about it but once the missiles are there -- and this is another interesting question:

If the missiles had got in and Kennedy had only discovered them afterwards, you know, what would have been the outcome then? So I think Berlin, 1961, was decisive and I do strongly believe that the Cuban missile crisis would not have happened, had Khrushchev not come to the conclusions he did through Berlin, 1961. So I do think that's --

(Cross talk.)

ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, I think we should open the conversation to everyone here, and there are microphones on either side of the -- and because we have Washington members listening, make sure that you speak into the microphone when you ask a question or make a comment. And please identify yourself when you speak. The floor is open. Yes?

QUESTIONER: Norma Gloverman (sp). I have a question on something very basic that's been touched on but the answer seems to have gone over my head. Mr. Reeves, particularly, you referred to two advantages accruing to Khrushchev, and possibly also to us, in putting up the Berlin Wall, the first being cutting the outflow of people.

But then you talked of strategic -- you talked about the fact that without it, Russia could possibly have chosen to invade the whole of Western Europe. But I don't understand the key factor, which is, what was it about the Berlin Wall that kept that from happening? What is the cause and effect? What was the major strategic value to the USSR and, on the other hand, the possible advantage to the United States, in your view, of having the Berlin Wall?

REEVES: Let me take that last sentence first. The advantage of having the Berlin Wall was that it was a substitute for military action by the Soviet Union and its allies, who had far more resources in that part of the world than we ever had.

The reason a wall was better than a war, I suppose, quoting Kennedy, the problem was that as Stalin before him, Khrushchev did not believe that communist dogma and achievement could stand up to border-to-border, seeing each other as the -- (inaudible) -- and as West Berlin began to build up into a modern city, while East Berlin was still a pile of rubble, and that obviously, young people were saying, well, where's the future? I'm going west.

And that was the fact -- what Stalin hated so much and then Khrushchev was, he, for two reasons -- one, espionage and intelligence and, one, standard of living -- he did not want his people or his satellites' people to see how the West was living. That came later and was a factor when television came along.

KEMPE: Here's two important facts: One of them is the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and was driven, in large part, by an outflow of refugees. So what would have happened in that refugee flow had not stopped at that time? Could one have had an earlier implosion of East Germany and, therefore, an earlier implosion of the Soviet bloc?

The argument against that is you just had 1956, where the Soviets cracked down with quite a bit of determination in Budapest. The argument against that is that Soviet communism wasn't yet as exhausted. On the other hand, Berlin was not Budapest. There were American troops in Berlin. The same American troops that stopped war afterwards were there before the wall. And so I think it's the American troops being there that stops the war, not the wall. And by keeping --

REEVES: But there were only 6,500 of them.

KEMPE: Yeah, but they're hostage to our intent, as Kennedy said. And so Kennedy is not going to start a nuclear war over Berlin. He makes that clear to quite a few people. And he says, while sitting in the bathtub in Paris, to a couple of his pals during his talks with de Gaulle in June 1st, "It seems silly for us to be facing atomic war over a treaty preserving Berlin as the future capital of a unified Germany when all of us know Germany will probably never be unified."

One of the big differences between Kennedy and Eisenhower and Truman is he had a lousy relationship with Konrad Adenauer. He didn't have the same rhetorical commitment to German unification. And he was willing to go further than others in accepting the status quo of division in Europe, partly because he was more worried about the Soviets pushing further in the developing world and elsewhere, and less concerned with rolling them back in Eastern Europe.

So my argument would be that because of our nuclear superiority, because U.S. troops were there, that Khrushchev never would have pushed it to nuclear war over Berlin. We'll never know, but I do think that this is --

(Cross talk.)

KEMPE: Well, but I'm saying that if we had tried to prevent the building of the wall, he still would not have because it would have been a matter between, you know -- it would have been a matter of four power rights, of, you know. The key place where it could have been stopped was Vienna. The more dangerous place where it could have been stopped is in the 48 hours after the temporary barriers went up. I'm not as sure about that.

General Clay felt quite certain it could have even been stopped then. The one thing that has to be clear is, yes, things turned out fine. You know, Germany became unified. The wall came down. But Kennedy couldn't have known that in 1961, when he allowed it to -- when he acquiesced to it going up. He couldn't say, okay, I'm letting this go up and 28 years later, I will have been shown to have been brilliant because the wall will go down. Richard Reeves will say I was right. (Laughter.)

BRINKLEY: Well, I think what could have happened could have gone in innumerable directions. What did happen was that a wall went up and the crisis in Berlin basically ended. Now, there were crises in other parts of the world -- in fact, very, perhaps, connected to what happened in Berlin. But the building of the Berlin Wall, I think, was not a catastrophe. In fact, it might have been, actually, a good thing -- not for everyone, obviously, but for the geopolitical world.

KEMPE: Two quick arguments against that: The two outcomes of the Berlin Wall were 30 more years of Cold War so tens of millions of Eastern Europeans that might have been liberated earlier -- okay, you can accept that. But the Cuban missile crisis -- you don't know how -- I mean, that might have turned out quite differently and then you would look at the Berlin Wall in a much different way.

BRINKLEY: Well, but then this is another conjecture of what might have happened over the next 30 years, but if you look at was what happening in Berlin in 1961 and what Berlin looked like a year later, I think most people would have thought things were better. It seemed less dangerous. Now, it may well be that Khrushchev would never have gone to war over Berlin but we don't know that, either. So other questions, sorry? Yes?

QUESTIONER: Did Dr. Adenauer or Willy Brandt have anything to do with this? Thank you. Did they play any relative role in this?

KEMPE: I can talk about Willy Brandt. Willy Brandt, you know, was livid and wrote a letter to Kennedy after the wall went up because there was so little protest, so little outrage, so little -- and you know, Brandt takes some credit, himself, personally, that Lyndon Johnson and the troop reinforcements came in his letter to Kennedy.

And Kennedy was livid. He thought this was a campaign stunt. Willy Brandt was running for chancellor against Konrad Adenauer. The elections were in September. And he then made public his letter in front of this huge rally in Berlin where Willy Brandt, himself, was trying to buck up West Berlin morale before the visit of Lyndon Johnson and Lucius Clay. And so in terms of holding the city together in terms of morale, I think Willy Brandt was instrumental.

He would say he was instrumental in putting the pressure on Kennedy to respond. Kennedy, at first, was very angry about the letter; then got some advice from some close friends and then, after that, decided to send Lucius Clay and Lyndon Johnson and troop reinforcements to Berlin. So Brandt, I think, played a very key role.

Adenauer played a different kind of role. I don't know -- (inaudible) -- but I think Adenauer cared very little about Berlin, and he went late after that. And he certainly was frightened to death of what the Soviets could do under a Kennedy administration but he was most worried that Khrushchev would act to undermine what he had constructed in West Germany -- this economic miracle, this place of freedom. And he was busily building up the Bundeswehr, the federal army. And he, like Kennedy, just wanted to avoid a blowup over Berlin.

REEVES: I think that's exactly right, that Adenauer and Kennedy could be considered the status quo politicians in this particular confrontation. I want to use the quote, though -- this is when Willy Brandt sent a four-page letter to Kennedy basically chastising him for not doing anything about the wall. I want to give you Kennedy's exact reaction to that: "Who does this little son of a bitch think he is?" (Laughter.)

KEMPE: And then -- and he said that to Marguerite Higgins, who then said, you better take this seriously because you're going to have an outflow of tens of thousands of West Berliners and the city itself is going to be imploding. You'll see a whole new kind of refugee flow. And by the way, I just had a conversation with my friend, General Clay, and you may want to talk to him about this.

And the thing that I do in the book that I think is a little bit new is looking at domestic politics. And domestic politics plays a huge role in what Khrushchev does during this year. We very often underestimate that authoritarian countries, whether it's today's Iran or the 1961 Soviet Union, have domestic politics. And by failing to understand Khrushchev's domestic politics, I think Kennedy made some mistakes.

But Kennedy also had domestic politics that were expressed in curious ways. General Clay -- key fundraiser for Eisenhower, Republican, at a time when he may be looking weak because of the Berlin Wall -- he sends Clay out there on a PR exercise and Clay just kind of forgets that, that was his purposes and gets us into this tank showdown. But also, Dean --

REEVES: Clay is ready to attack.

KEMPE: But Dean Acheson -- he brings Dean Acheson in, in April -- so early in his administration -- to do a review of NATO and Berlin policy, partly because he really respects the former secretary of state to Truman but partly also because it protects his conservative flank. So there's very interesting -- I think we all underestimate the impact of domestic politics on foreign policy.

You know, just this week with Obama going to Europe, I was talking with one of my friends in the audience and the fact that he's spending a lot of time with the Irish and the Polish on this trip, there is a domestic political link to all that. So I think if I were to come back and live again as a historian, I'd spend a lot of time looking at that.

REEVES: Actually, all politics is local.

QUESTIONER: I'm wondering if I could ask you to broaden the conversation -- oh, sorry, I'm Richard Weinert -- broaden the conversation a little bit and talk about Vietnam. Is there a way in which you see the experiences in Berlin as leading, in some, or affecting in some way the decisions made on Vietnam?

KEMPE: We were talking about that. Richard is more expert on this than I.

REEVES: I'm probably in a minority on this, that I think the most dangerous book written in the United States in our time was "The Ugly American," which John Kennedy read, believed, gave to every member of Congress, took a full page ad in the New York Times urging people to read this book, which was absolute nonsense. But he believed it at that time, and he was -- he may have been too soft for Fred but he was a Cold Warrior.

As his presidency went on, he did begin to realize the world was a more complicated place than it seemed when he was campaigning in West Virginia. But I think that, that feeling of not backing down -- I think John Kennedy is the one who got us into Vietnam, not Lyndon Johnson. I don't know what Kennedy would have done if he lived, but on August 23rd of 1963, the day of the "I Have a Dream" speech, there was, while he was waiting for Martin Luther King and Walter Reuther, the rest of the troops to come down from the Lincoln Memorial, Kennedy had a short National Security Council meeting in which he signed off on the overthrow of Diem, August 23rd, 1963. It failed.

On November 1st, with help from the CIA, they try again -- and particularly help from Henry Cabot Lodge and Averell Harriman. And Diem is overthrown and then is immediately murdered by the people. Kennedy professed great shock at -- he just wanted the guy thrown out. Kennedy, after all, when Diem lived in exile in the United States, the Kennedys paid his bills. So this is November 1st, 1963.

It is largely lost to history, I think, because 21 days later, Kennedy was dead. But the fact was, if you follow the Colin Powell rule -- you broke it, you own it -- after November 1st, 1963, we had broken Vietnam and we owned it. Now, I'm among those who tend to think he never would have gone as far as Lyndon Johnson did but maybe he would.

But he was the one significant decisions passed -- and we can talk about domestic politics -- Kennedy's presidency was so dense with event -- I mean, this is not foreign policy, though it had an effect -- I mean, part of the reason that we had a black revolution, a long time coming, at that time, was that these same speeches about freedom and self-responsibility and taking your life in your own hands that Kennedy was making, basically, to people of Czechoslovakia were being heard by black kids in Greensboro, North Carolina, and they said, he's right.

And we are going to end -- whatever he's remembered for, John Kennedy could be remembered that he was the president that put the government on the side of the minority in a democracy, and that is no small thing. And the other thing is, all of these things were happening at the same time, and that's what it's like to be president.

BRINKLEY: I think I wouldn't be so confident that John Kennedy was the principal cause of the Vietnam War. Six presidents were engaged in the Vietnam War and not one of them found a way out. And I mean, if you think about the politics of the Vietnam War until, say, 1968, the vast majority of Americans believed in the Vietnam War and it would have been a tremendous political blow for Kennedy, or for any president, to pull out of a war that the United States had, in fact, engaged in.

It would have been the first time that the United States had allowed a piece of the world that was seen as a -- I mean, think of South Korea. Think of what would have happened if Truman had said, we're going to let South Korea go. That would have been the end of Truman. And I think the same would have been true of Kennedy, even though it probably would have been the best for the world f the Vietnam War had stopped in 1963.

There are a lot of people who believe -- a lot of historians who believe that Kennedy would have gotten out after 1964. He said that himself. Of course, lots of people have said that, including Nixon, who never was able to do it in the way that they wanted. But I think there is plenty of blame to pass around on the Vietnam War and Kennedy is -- you know, has his role but lots of other people did, too.

KEMPE: Part of the problem with assessing Kennedy's foreign policy is his administration was tragically cut short. So a lot of the assessment is, you know, would he have done that on Vietnam? Would he not have done that on Vietnam? How would he have followed up the Cuban missile crisis? Let's not forget 1963 was his "ich bin ein Berliner" speech.

So he was in full voice then and there's a learning process that goes on with the presidency, and part of my point about 1961 is presidents, especially young, inexperienced presidents, they come in the first day in office and they're playing match point and they don't have all the experience to deal with it. I think it's the most dangerous moment for the U.S., is the first year of a young and relatively inexperienced president.

And so what I think we ought to do with Kennedy is look less at what would have happened afterwards and look more at what happened. And that's why I think '61 is so valuable to look at because you have the Bay of Pigs; you have a Vienna summit where he (sat?); you have a Berlin Wall that goes up that lasts for 30 years; you have Cuban missile crisis, where we're brought to the brink of nuclear war.

Now, maybe we didn't have it and one should praise his courage for getting out of it but maybe we shouldn't have got to that point in the first place. So I think we do need a re-examination of Kennedy and his foreign policy but I think it should focus very much with what happened in those three years and the knowledge that we can't ever know what would have happened in the time afterwards.

REEVES: Now, Alan, you revealed to us that you're writing a book on JFK. What approach are you taking? (Laughter.)

BRINKLEY: I'm making it up as I go along. (Laughter.) I'm not sure, yet, actually.

QUESTIONER: Benn Steil, Council on Foreign Relations. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, an enormous amount of Soviet-era archival material has become public, sometimes with the cooperation of the Russian government, sometimes without, as in the case of the Mitrokhin files. I get the impression from the course of this discussion that none of this material actually illuminates Khrushchev's thinking with regard to Berlin and President Kennedy. Is that the case or have we learned anything from that material?

REEVES: I actually missed the first part of the question.

KEMPE: My experience in reporting this book was I could come up with nothing new from Soviet, from Russian archives, what opened for a short period of time. You know, I got some stuff that was out there that hadn't been used that I translated and used but others had got a hold of it earlier. Natalie (Imprasenko?) has done some really important work. But access has become more difficult. I'm not a great expert on this but just from my experience, I found access for anything new was hugely difficult.

REEVES: I think we're going to have a hard time. The Soviets did not keep archives the way we do, so that you have -- if things went badly -- I did a lot of work in their archives on the Berlin Airlift. The Berlin Airlift was a failure for them and, for some reason, there seem to be about three sentences on it in the Russian archives I've been able to find, so far. So I think like many other -- (inaudible, background noise) -- in a totalitarian society based on fear, records either are not kept or are disappeared. Because I've had the same experience.

KEMPE: Or are in places you just can't get to. I mean, I still think there's probably much more, for example, in the (Bolshakov?) body, Kennedy relationships, since some of the most interesting material that's come out about that relationship has come out of Soviet archives. I think the whole question of Kennedy and Khrushchev and their communication up to the Berlin Wall -- maybe it's there but it's difficult to find where it is. And then where you think you know where it is, it's very difficult to find out how to ask and get it. And then when you do, you invariably get turned down.

QUESTIONER: Ron Shell. While the president has to take the ultimate responsibility, doesn't a lot of this have to do with his advisors? And I just wonder what kind of advisors you think he had, be it the secretary of defense or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or whatever.

REEVES: I'll just answer part of that question. Among Khrushchev's notes on Vienna was a comparison of Kennedy and Eisenhower, and the first thing in that comparison was that, while Eisenhower constantly placed his advisors and looked to them as he answered, particularly John Foster Dulles, never once did John Kennedy look at his advisors.

KEMPE: I've got a chapter where there's a disagreement with his advisors on how to handle the Soviet Union but there's a big disagreement within the Democratic Party. And Kennedy is forged -- he runs a campaign that is much more anti-Soviet than Richard Nixon's campaign, interestingly, and it may have been one of the reasons he got elected.

And he's coming out of a Democratic Party that's been pummeled for being too soft on the Soviets. He's from a part of the party that is believing in more defense spending and in getting more aggressively engaged in the world. So he's coming in a much different sort of situation, but he still has this other part of the party around him.

And there's a division between the Acheson group and what they call the "Berlin mafia," who are tougher and more hawkish toward the Soviet Union and on the question of Berlin and then the people they called the "SLOBs," which were the soft-liners on Berlin. And the soft-liners on Berlin, who didn't much like that acronym, included Arthur Schlesinger, included, for a time, interestingly, Henry Kissinger, who was a very young consultant at that point in the White House.

And there's a real showdown late in July when Acheson is trying to push, almost to a full mobilization, and gets pushed back through a memo written by Abram Chayes, the general counsel of the State Department, and Henry Kissinger and Arthur Schlesinger. But at the same time they're fighting this out, Khrushchev is pushing forward with plans to construct the wall and close the border.

And let me just quote my colleague, Richard Reeves, from his book: "Kennedy was decisive, though he never made a decision until he had to and invariably, he chose the most moderate of available options. His most consistent mistake in governing was thinking power could be hoarded for use at the right moment." I think there's some truth to that, and so I think that --

REEVES: Some? (Laughter.)

KEMPE: I think there's absolute truth to that and that's the reason I stole the idea in my own book. (Laughter.) But so he had his advisors there. He made his own decisions. But within the meetings, he would not reveal his hand. Very often, he would turn them into a seminar and not reveal his own hand as going through that. But there was a real interesting tension on Berlin between the soft- and the hard-liners.

BRINKLEY: Well, I'm afraid we've come to the end of our time, and I'm sorry to all of you who haven't had a chance to have your questions answered. But thank you all for coming and thanks for Fred Kempe and Richard. (Applause.)











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