The Vienna summit was a summit meeting held on June 4, 1961, in Vienna, Austria, between President John F. Kennedy of the United States and Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union. The leaders of the two superpowers of the Cold War era discussed numerous issues in the relationship between their countries.
In November 1960, Kennedy had defeated U.S. Vice-President Richard Nixon in the presidential election of that year. The Vienna summit was the first time Kennedy met the Soviet premier, and Khrushchev (who had been in power since Joseph Stalin's death in 1953) was determined to prove his apparent superiority over the young and inexperienced Kennedy. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961, initially planned during the Eisenhower administration but finalized and carried out on Kennedy's watch, made Khrushchev all the more determined to display his apparent superiority over Kennedy.
The discussions were amicable, unlike the breakdown in talks between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Khrushchev in 1960 over the U-2 incident in May of that year. Accordingly, there was a great deal of speculation before the summit as to whether it would be a success or not.
When the two men first met in Vienna, Kennedy somewhat awkwardly looked Khrushchev up and down several times, unable to hide his curiosity about the Soviet leader.1 The discussions touched on a range of topics, including the position of Laos and the broader conflict in Indochina, nuclear disarmament, and ideological musings. Discussions over Berlin, however, dominated the meeting.
Khrushchev threatened to sign a peace agreement with East Germany that would impinge on Western access to Berlin by turning over control of the access roads and air routes. However, though Kennedy stood firm on Western access to Berlin, he also placed unprecedented emphasis on the phrase "West Berlin" during the summit and conveyed tacit acquiescence to Soviet actions in their sector of Berlin, including a possible border closure.2
Khrushchev told Kennedy, "Force will be met by force. If the U.S. wants war, that's its problem." "It's up to the U.S. to decide whether there will be war or peace." "The decision to sign a peace treaty is firm and irrevocable, and the Soviet Union will sign it in December if the U.S. refuses an interim agreement."
To this, Kennedy replied, "Then, Mr. Chairman, there will be a war. It will be a cold, long winter."
For the Americans, the summit was initially seen as a diplomatic triumph.3 Kennedy had refused to allow Soviet pressure to force his hand, or to influence the American policy of containment. He had adequately stalled Khrushchev, and made it clear that the United States was not willing to compromise on a withdrawal from Berlin, whatever pressure Khrushchev may exert on the "testicles of the West", as Khrushchev once called them.
However, it may seem, in retrospect, to have been a failure. The two leaders became increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress of the negotiations. Kennedy later said of Khrushchev, "He beat the hell out of me" and told New York Times reporter James ‘Scotty’ Reston it was the "worst thing in my life. He savaged me".4 Kennedy's performance at the summit encouraged Khrushchev to think afterwards that the United States leader was politically lightweight, a perception that may have caused the subsequent Cuban missile crisis.5
In addition to conveying US reluctance to defend the full rights of Berlin’s citizens, Kennedy ignored his own cabinet officials’ advice to avoid ideological debate with Khrushchev. Khrushchev outmatched Kennedy in this debate, and came away believing he had triumphed in the summit over a weak and inexperienced leader. Observing Kennedy’s morose expression at the end of the summit, Khrushchev believed Kennedy "looked not only anxious, but deeply upset…I hadn’t meant to upset him. I would have liked very much for us to part in a different mood. But there was nothing I could do to help him…Politics is a merciless business.”6
Kennedy’s poor performance during the summit may have been due to the combination of powerful medication he was taking for his back pain and other ailments. Following the prescriptions of Max Jacobson (informally known as "Dr. Feelgood"), Kennedy was injecting himself with a drug cocktail that included hormones, steroids, animal organ cells, vitamins, enzymes, and amphetamines. Among the possible side effects of this combination were hyperactivity, nervousness, impaired judgment, and wild mood swings.7
- Kempe, Frederick (2011). Berlin 1961. Penguin Group (USA). p. 221. ISBN 0-399-15729-8.
- Kempe, Frederick (2011). Berlin 1961. Penguin Group (USA). pp. 243, 247. ISBN 0-399-15729-8.
- Thrall, Nathan (2008). "Kennedy Talked, Khrushchev Triumphed". New York Times.
- Kempe, Frederick (2011). Berlin 1961. Penguin Group (USA). p. 257. ISBN 0-399-15729-8.
- Palmowski, Jan (2008). "Kennedy, John Fitzgerald". Oxford University Press. A Dictionary of Contemporary World History. Retrieved 14 September 2013.
- Kempe, Frederick (2011). Berlin 1961. Penguin Group (USA). pp. 225–257. ISBN 0-399-15729-8.
- Kempe, Frederick (2011). Berlin 1961. Penguin Group (1961). p. 213. ISBN 0-399-15729-8.
- Vienna Summit at Historycentral.com
- at U.S. Department of State
- "The Kennedy-Johnson, Scott W, Khrushchev Conference for Dummies: Remedial history for Barack Obama", Weekly Standard - 28 May 2008 @ 12:00:00 AM