In an op-ed in Thursday's New York Times, Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins chided Obama for quoting JFK in his inaugural address: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” They argued that Kennedy was made to eat these words after his "self-destructive" Vienna summit meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, and that the lesson Obama should learn from this is that "sometimes there is good reason to fear to negotiate."
There is a germ of truth in this. Kennedy agreed to the Vienna summit against the advice of his more diplomatically experienced advisers, including his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk. The summit wasn't preceded by the usual intense meetings of lower-level officials who would work out all of the details concerning the issues to be discussed, so that the summit itself would be a well-rehearsed kabuki. Instead, Kennedy, Harvard educated and one generation removed from South Boston rough-and-tumble, went, as the current White House occupant might put it, mano a mano with Khrushchev, a gut fighter of peasant stock who rose to premiership in the wake of Stalin's death by dint of sheer ruthlessness (although Khrushchev, in his so-called "secret speech" to the Communist Party Politburo in 1956, denounced Stalin's excesses and his "cult of personality").
After the meeting, as Thrall and Wilkins recount, Khrushchev remarked that Kennedy was “too intelligent and too weak.” How was it that the Soviet leader could corroborate intelligence with weakness, and why should intelligence be considered a disadvantage in summit meetings? Here's Thrall and Wilkins on Khrushchev's approach to Kennedy:
...Khrushchev lectured him on the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, cautioned America against supporting “old, moribund, reactionary regimes” and asserted that the United States, which had valiantly risen against the British, now stood “against other peoples following its suit.” Khrushchev used the opportunity of a face-to-face meeting to warn Kennedy that his country could not be intimidated and that it was “very unwise” for the United States to surround the Soviet Union with military bases.What I think Khrushchev meant was that Kennedy was intelligent enough to realize that there was some truth in what he had said. The U.S was, indeed, supporting reactionary governments (Franco's in Spain, Salazar's in Portugal, and Ngo Dinh Diem's--whose assassination Kennedy may later have approved, if not ordered--in South Vietnam, to name a few) on the theory that they were bulwarks against communism. Of course, Khrushchev did not live to see the Soviet Union's own old, moribund, reactionary regime collapse. In any event, what Kennedy may have been intelligent enough to sense was that neither superpower had a monopoly on truth.
Thrall and Wilkins would have us believe that JFK's performance at the 1961 Vienna summit was an unmitigated disaster. But here is the assessment of Jack F. Matlock, Jr., U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, 1987-1991, as set forth in his letter to the editor of the Times responding to Thrall and Wilkins's column:
In what sense did Khrushchev triumph — even temporarily?And, on the subject of summit meetings, we have this more recent cautionary example.
The issue over Berlin was Khrushchev’s threat to deny Western access rights to West Berlin, by military force if necessary. After building the wall between East and West Berlin, he abandoned his pressure on the access routes, and the viability of West Berlin (Kennedy’s prime objective) was assured.
As for “fear to negotiate,” why should the stronger party ever fear negotiation? Ronald Reagan did not, when he sought out our Soviet adversaries.
Refusing to talk and refusing to negotiate are dead-end streets, as the Soviet leaders before Mikhail S. Gorbachev never learned. And that’s why they lost.