President Kennedy: Berlin, Laos, and “Flexible Response”

Posted on May 14, 2012
By Alan Brinkley

Late in May 1961, Kennedy decided to present a second State of the Union address—only four months after his first. He explained the unusual timing as a result of “extraordinary times.” His January speech had focused mostly on domestic affairs. But his May speech included only a cursory call for “economic and social progress at home.” Instead, he devoted the bulk of his long speech to international issues. He called for America to help economic progress abroad; for military reorganization and disarmament; and for the exploration of space, which he saw as part of how to “win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny.” These were all goals consistent with his bold rhetoric. But such a speech, only a month after the Cuban catastrophe, almost certainly grew out of the unhappy results of his first hundred days, which included the Bay of Pigs disaster and a series of legislative defeats as well. It was as if he was trying to relaunch his presidency as he set off on another momentous challenge. “I have long thought it wise to meet with the Soviet Premier for a personal exchange of views,” Kennedy concluded his speech as he announced that he would meet with Khrushchev in Vienna in early June. “We will make clear America’s enduring concern is for both peaceand freedom—that we are anxious to live in harmony with the Russian people—that we seek no conquests, no satellites, no riches—that we seek only the day when ‘nation shall not lift upward against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’”

* * *


The foreign policy of the Kennedy years, as the Cuban failure suggested, was a work in progress in the spring of 1961. But it was clear that he would be simultaneously more cautious and at times more reckless than Eisenhower had been. In 1956, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles described the American Cold War strategy of the 1950s as “brinkmanship”: a risky strategy that rested on “the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war. If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.” The Eisenhower administration would, in short, rely on nuclear weapons to intimidate the nation’s adversaries, the Soviet Union most importantly. They believed that Khrushchev would back down before armaggedon. Dulles liked the idea because it was “tough” and intimidating. Eisenhower supported the strategy (which was known at the time as the “New Look”) in part because it would avoid the creation of a “garrison state” and would provide a less expensive approach to the Cold War.

Kennedy was skeptical of the Eisenhower-Dulles strategy. He had a much greater aversion to nuclear weapons than his predecessors did, especially after the tests of the first hydrogen bombs. He had long wanted to slow down the growth of nuclear weapons. But he also wanted an alternative—a way to deal with problems around the world without relying on global war. This new approach came to be known as “flexible response”: a strategy that would give the United States a greater ability to intervene against aggression using conventional arms with limited goals. Although he had dismissed Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell, the top leaders of the CIA, in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, he continued to rely on the agency even more than Eisenhower had done. He also took a particular interest in the Special Forces (known as the Green Berets), an elite military force inspired by British troops who were trained to fight unconventionally, including guerrilla warfare. Kennedy expanded the Special Forces and gave them significant publicity. Robert Kennedy, also a champion of counterinsurgency, kept a green beret on his desk in the Justice Department.

* * *

Among the many costs of the Bay of Pigs failure was the deterioration of Kennedy’s relationship with Khrushchev as he was preparing for the Vienna summit meeting. Many issues awaited him in Europe, but the most dangerous was the future of Berlin. At the end of World War II, the Western and Soviet armies had temporarily divided defeated Germany. Gradually, these makeshift boundaries became a lasting separation, with the Soviet-occupied area becoming the nation of East Germany and the Western allies’ area becoming West Germany. “All of us know,” Kennedy said in Paris, “that Germany will probably never be reunified.” But the future of Berlin, located in the middle of East Germany and divided into two cities, remained a sore point within the communist world. The Soviet leaders considered partitioned Berlin an insult. More important, the division had created a problem for East Germany, whose citizens were fleeing in vast numbers into West Berlin. Khrushchev had insisted that Berlin must be united under the control of East Germany. Kennedy wanted to evade the issue, aware that there was no visible solution to the dilemma. Both leaders knew that Berlin would be the most important question at the summit that was scheduled for Vienna in June.

The president’s first stop on his Europe an trip was Paris, where Kennedy received an ecstatic reception as he rode through the streets with French president Charles de Gaulle. “Side by side, the two men moved all day through Paris,” the New York Times wrote, “age beside youth, grandeur beside informality, mysticism beside pragmatism, serenity beside eagerness.” The great banquet for the Kennedys dazzled not only the Parisians but also the Americans at home. The Washington Post wrote gushingly that it was “indescribably elegant” (largely because of Jacqueline’s enormous popularity there). More important to Kennedy, however, was to seek advice from de Gaulle about how to deal with Khrushchev. “It is important,” the French president told him forcefully, “to show that we do not intend to let this situation change. Any retreat from Berlin, any change of status, any withdrawal of troops . . . would mean defeat. It would result in an almost complete loss of Germany.” That was not what Kennedy wanted to hear, especially when de Gaulle announced that if Khrushchev wanted war “we must make clear to him he will have it.”

Privately, de Gaulle expressed only tepid confidence in Kennedy’s ability to match wits with Khrushchev in Vienna. Others were not even that certain. William Fulbright expressed “great nervousness” about Kennedy’s readiness for the summit. The journalist Richard Rovere observed, “Mr. Khrushchev may not see in our young President quite all that Theodore Sorensen and Charles Bohlen see in him.” The diplomat George F. Kennan was concerned that the Soviets would deliberately undermine the summit meeting to weaken America’s “world position and influence . . . [by] an all-out propaganda attack that could include an effort to eclipse and embarrass at their summit talks.” Khrushchev himself worried that the president might proceed from what he called a “completely wrong basis” and would repeat what he considered Eisenhower’s “many errors” (which Khrushchev defined as Eisenhower’s intransigence). That, Khrushchev said, would be “absolutely unacceptable.” Unknown to all but a few intimates, Kennedy approached the summit in weak health and great pain, soaking for hours in a hot bath to make it possible for him to walk or even to sit for a few hours—another problem that his closest colleagues feared might weaken his negotiating.

The American ambassador to the Soviet Union, Llewellyn Thompson, warned Kennedy that if there was no progress on Berlin, Khrushchev might unilaterally move to incorporate West Berlin into East Germany. That event, Thompson warned, would produce an unthinkable humiliation to the West, and perhaps war.

At the least, Thompson predicted, Khrushchev would “seal off the sector boundary in order to stop what they must consider the intolerable continuation of the refugee flow through Berlin.” Kennedy was not yet ready to settle the Berlin issue. His plan was delay—perhaps for as long as five years—to avoid having to make a difficult decision in Vienna. It was an unrealistic hope.

Kennedy and Khrushchev arrived in Vienna early on June 3—Khrushchev with little attention, Kennedy in a large motorcade that moved through great throngs of cheering Austrians. After arriving at the American embassy, the two leaders spent a few minutes of awkward small talk and then began their first serious conversation—although one that Ambassador Thompson had warned the president to avoid. It was a discussion of the relative strengths of communism and democratic capitalism, a tedious debate that Thompson had correctly predicted would go nowhere. “Communism exists and has won its right to develop,” Khrushchev argued, noting that former secretary of state Dulles “had based his policy on the premise of liquidation of the Communist system.” Kennedy responded that “the Soviet Union was seeking to eliminate free systems in areas that are associated with us.” Khrushchev said that “ideas should be propagated without the use of arms or interference in the internal affairs of other states. If Communist ideas should spread in other countries, the USSR would be happy, just as the US would be glad if capitalist ideas were to spread.” The conversation came to a testy end when Kennedy warned about what turned out to be a very sensitive word for Khrushchev: “miscalculation.” He responded with a tirade. He accused Kennedy of wanting the USSR “to sit like a school boy with his hands on the table,” and he insisted that “the term ‘miscalculation’ should be stored away.” Perhaps the most useful comment of this conversation was Khrushchev’s suggestion that he “would not try to convince the President about the advantages of Communism, just as the President should not waste time to convert him to capitalism.”

Kennedy was on the defensive from the start, and so it continued through the afternoon, as Kennedy tried and failed to find common ground. Khrushchev pounded on the “miscalculations” of the United States. During an informal walk after lunch (according to Kenny O’Donnell and Dave Powers, watching from the window), “Khrushchev was carrying on a heated argument, circling around Kennedy and snapping at him like a terrier and shaking his finger.”

He “treated me like a little boy,” Kennedy later complained. By the time their second session came to an end, Kennedy was exhausted (it was rare for him to go so long without rest and medication). So far, he had made little progress. Never did Kennedy challenge Khrushchev on the USSR’s greatest flaws: the use of violence against uprisings in Hungary and East Germany, the secret prisons for dissidents, the 3.5 million refugees fleeing East Berlin. “This man is very inexperienced, even immature,” Khrushchev told his interpreter. “Compared to him, Eisenhower is a man of intelligence and vision.” On other issues—Iran, China, Korea—the awkward parrying between the confident Khrushchev and the defensive Kennedy continued.

* * *

Both men understood that the real issue of the summit was Berlin, by far the most difficult question they would encounter in Vienna. On that issue there would be no agreement. Khrushchev was adamant that West Berlin must be incorporated into East Germany through a peace treaty—with or without American agreement. He tried to soften his demands by suggesting that a united Berlin would become a “free city,” with open access from Western nations. But he was insistent that East Germany would have “sovereignty” over the city. He wanted to “sign a peace treaty and the sovereignty of the GDR [German Democratic Republic] will be observed. Any violation of that sovereignty will be regarded by the USSR as an act of open aggression against a peace- loving country with all the consequences ensuing therefrom.”

Kennedy responded with equal determination. “We fought our way [into Germany] during World War II,” he said. “We are in Berlin not by agreement of East Germany but by contractual rights.”

In this long and difficult day, what Khrushchev rightly called “this sore spot . . . this thorn” led to an intractable dispute. Both leaders claimed that they were in danger of unacceptable humiliation. “US intentions did not bode anything good,” Khrushchev said. “The USSR considered all of Berlin GDR territory . . . if the US should start a war over Berlin there was nothing the USSR could do about it . . . This constitutes a threat of World War III which would be even more devastating than World War II.” Kennedy replied that Khrushchev wanted to “precipitate a crisis . . . by seeking a change in the existing situation.” He told Khrushchev that even though he was a “young man,” he had “not assumed office to accept arrangements totally inimical to US interests.” He had “come here to prevent a confrontation face to face between our two countries,” and he “regretted to leave Vienna with this impression.” But Khrushchev called his decision on Berlin “irrevocable.” Kennedy replied, “If that’s true, it’s going to be a cold winter.”

Kennedy was disappointed by what he considered his failure at the summit. “Worst thing in my life,” he told the New York Times columnist James Reston. “He savaged me . . . I’ve got two problems. First, to figure out why he did it, and in such a hostile way. And second, to figure out what we can do about it.” Reston, whose interview was off the record, nevertheless wrote in the Times that Kennedy “was astonished by the rigidity and toughness of the Soviet leader.”

On his return to Washington, Kennedy was brooding about an imminent doomsday, fearful that Khrushchev would move against West Berlin. His aides told him that their only plan for the defense of Berlin was to use nuclear weapons. “Goddamit . . . use your head,” Kennedy snapped at Roswell Gilpatric, the deputy secretary of defense. “What we are talking about is seventy million dead Americans.” Bundy’s conclusion was equally bleak: “The only plan the United States had for the use of strategic weapons was a massive, total, comprehensive obliterating attack upon the Soviet Union . . . [and] the Warsaw Pact countries and Red China.” It was not only casualties that worried Kennedy. It was also his own credibility. “There are limits to the number of defeats I can defend in one twelvemonth period,” he told his aides. The columnist Joseph Alsop wrote an article for the Saturday Review about a meeting he had with Kennedy and titled it “The Most Important Decision in U.S. History.” He asked “whether the United States should risk something close to national suicide in order to avoid national surrender.” In early August, Kennedy announced a civil defense program “to stiffen public willingness to support U.S. use of nuclear weapons if necessary.”

Throughout much of the summer, Kennedy spoke publicly and often about the crisis. “West Berlin,” he said in a televised speech in July, “has now become—as never before—the great testing place of Western courage and will, a focal point where our solemn commitments stretching back over the years since 1945 and Soviet ambitions now meet in basic confrontation . . . We have given our word that an attack upon that city will be regarded as an attack upon us all.” The speech was more for Khrushchev than it was for the American audience.

Kennedy’s powerful rhetoric on defending West Berlin bothered, and even outraged, some of his colleagues and many West Germans because he seemed to be ready to abandon the communist sector of the city. Once again, he faced accusations of “weakness.” The postwar treaty of 1945 called for a united Berlin, and there were many Germans—and some Americans—who considered his position a surrender of half the city. William Fulbright complicated the debate by asking “why the East Germans don’t close their border, because I think they have a right to close it.” Kennedy did not refute Fulbright’s claim, and he told Deputy National Security Adviser Walt Rostow that Khrushchev “will have to do something to stop the flow of refugees. Perhaps a wall. And we won’t be able to prevent it.”

A few days later, in the early hours of August 13, 1961, the border between East and West Berlin was closed—and would remain so for twenty-eight years. The barrier began with barbed-wire fences but quickly evolved into tall concrete walls, ending the complicated relationships that had shaped Berlin since 1945. There was outrage in West Berlin and fear of what might happen next. But Kennedy’s response was calm and unruffled. He went sailing after he learned of the events in Berlin, and he told Dean Rusk to go to a baseball game. The State Department released a cursory protest but added that further comments would come only through appropriate channels. Kennedy’s most telling remark was a private statement that “this was the end of the Berlin crisis . . . The other side panicked—not us. We’re not going to do anything now.”

* * *

What Kennedy called the “end of the Berlin crisis” was, of course, not the end of the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall may have been a relief to Kennedy, but his casual acceptance of the wall, and the absence of any strong criticism of it, added to the anger of the right and of much of western Europe.

In the United States, Kennedy was accused of not investing enough in weapons, including nuclear weapons. To some degree, this charge was a result of his earlier, and mostly false, claims of a “missile gap” and his assertion that America was “falling behind.” The issue became so toxic in October that Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric responded to a Khrushchev speech with an incendiary one of his own. At a meeting in Hot Springs, Arkansas, he spoke of “our confidence in our ability to deter Communist action, or resist Communist blackmail . . . The Iron Curtain is not so impenetrable as to force us to accept at face value the Kremlin’s boasts . . . The United States does not intend to be defeated.”37 The Kremlin responded with equal bombast: “The imperialist powers are hatching mad plans of attack on the Soviet Union . . . The threat does not frighten us.”

As Kennedy’s first year in office neared its end, the Cold War was still the central issue facing the United States. Conservatives in the United States were unhappy, as the editor of the Dallas Morning News, Ted Dealey, made clear. At a White House luncheon, Dealey read a statement to the president: “You and your Administration are weak sisters . . . We need a man on horseback to lead this nation and many people in Texas and the Southwest think that you are riding Caroline’s tricycle.” Kennedy was so shaken (and furious) by Dealey’s tirade—and others like it—that he made a rare speech attacking his opponents. While endorsing Democratic candidates in the coming midterm elections, he spoke harshly about “the discordant voices of extremism . . . who are unwilling to face up to the danger from without are convinced that the real danger is within . . . So let us not heed the counsels of fear and suspicion.”

In the aftermath of so many frustrations in 1961, Kennedy tried again to destabilize the Castro regime through a program named “Operation Mongoose.” It was a response, in part, to Maxwell Taylor, the general the Kennedys most revered. Taylor’s secret report not only explained the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation but also concluded that “there can be no long-term living with Castro as a neighbor . . . His continued presence within the hemispheric community as a dangerously effective exponent of communism and anti-Americanism constitutes a real menace.” With another invasion out of the question, the only option was a covert counterinsurgency. The president assigned Robert Kennedy to oversee the project. Among the few officials who were aware of the operation, a significant number were opposed, including Arthur Schlesinger and Chester Bowles, the deputy secretary of state. “The question that concerns me most about this new administration,” Bowles wrote, “is whether it lacks a genuine sense of conviction about what is right and what is wrong.” His opposition led to his replacement by George Ball, who was more amenable to the plan. That the Berlin crisis was easing made the possibility of a new effort against Castro more attractive. “My idea,” Robert Kennedy said, “is to stir things up on the island with espionage, sabotage, general disorder, run & operated by Cuban themselves . . . Do not know if we will be successful in overthrowing Castro but we have nothing to lose in my estimate.”

By the end of 1961, the new operation was stalled. Robert Kennedy, speaking for the president at a small meeting, “expressed grave concern over Cuba” and called for “immediate dynamic action.” The president, frustrated by the lack of progress, asked Tad Szulc, a New York Times reporter deeply engaged with the Cuba issue, “What would you think if I ordered Castro to be assassinated?” Szulc was strongly opposed, on both moral and practical grounds. Kennedy claimed to agree with him but complained that he was under great pressure to act. Reckless talk of assassination was already under way within Operation Mongoose. Robert McNamara brought up the idea of killing Castro, and his comments were included in the record of the meeting to the alarm of some of the CIA participants in the project. It is clear that at least some CIA operatives believed that assassination was one of the options for Mongoose. (John McCone, soon to be the director of the CIA, was enraged at the open discussion of assassination and demanded that it be “expunged from the record.”) Whether or not assassination was part of the agenda, Robert Kennedy said in a meeting in October that the president wanted “massive activity.” There is little doubt that the Kennedys wanted a clandestine program to bring down the regime. A new operation would, Kennedy hoped, restore his reputation as a strong leader against the communist world.

* * *

President Kennedy continued to hope for progress on disarmament. At the Vienna summit, he had made no specific proposals, but he had hoped that a conversation might begin about how to reduce the danger of nuclear war. Khrushchev had made no proposals of his own. Kennedy believed that his only realistic hope was to persuade the Soviets to approve a nuclear test ban treaty. Such a treaty, its supporters claimed, would slow and perhaps even stop the development of new atomic weapons. Kennedy envisioned a gradual reduction of arms, but Khrushchev continued to insist that complete nuclear disarmament throughout the world had to be a precondition of any agreement. Kennedy knew that so broad a proposal had no chance of success, but he continued to push for a ban on testing. Khrushchev responded that “the test ban alone would not be very important to the national security of the people. The danger would remain.” But he did say that “the USSR would not resume testing if the United States did likewise.”

Encouraged by Khrushchev’s informal pledge not to test any more bombs, Kennedy sought an agreement among the American military, the Congress, and the scientific community. Jerome Wiesner, one of Kennedy’s science advisers, argued for a comprehensive ban. Without it, according to another White House adviser, “this dilemma of steadily increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security has no technical solution.” But given Kennedy’s reputation for political weakness on armament matters, his opponents were many. The military was reluctant to agree to a test ban without rigorous inspection, but Khrushchev insisted on only three inspections a year. “A larger number would be tantamount to espionage,” he claimed. Some of the Russian scientists were against any limitations on testing; others believed that testing should be only underground, to reduce the spread of radioactivity in the atmosphere. A lack of trust on both sides made the issue difficult. In the end, there was no agreement in 1961, and even Khrushchev’s informal promise at the Vienna summit not to test new atomic weapons if the United States did the same did not last for even a year. The USSR successfully tested a fifty- megaton hydrogen bomb in the atmosphere in August. “Fucked again,” Kennedy barked. The issue of a test ban did not arise again until 1963.

* * *

Among the many crises Kennedy faced in his first year in office was his inheritance of the issue of Laos, a problem Eisenhower introduced to him in their meetings in late 1960. Laos is a small, landlocked country that had 3 million people in the early 1960s and was bordered by Burma, China, Cambodia, and primarily Thailand, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. Throughout the 1950s, there were battles between the weak royal government of Laos and the growing strength of the Pathet Lao (the Laotian communist Popular Front) with ties to North Vietnam. In the Eisenhower years, there were many CIA efforts to undermine the Pathet Lao, including occasional military support. When Kennedy took office, the instability in Laos was still growing.

Kennedy devoted much of a March 23, 1961, press conference to what he called “the most immediate of the problems that we found upon taking office.” The Pathet Lao “have had increasing support and direction from outside. Soviet planes, I regret to say, have been conspicuous in a large-scale airlift into the battle area . . . plus a whole supporting set of combat specialists, mainly from Communist North Viet-Nam.” But Kennedy was not inclined to go to war in Laos, and he was quietly determined to downgrade the U.S. role there. He insisted instead that “we strongly and unreservedly support the goal of a neutral and in de pen dent Laos, tied to no outside power or group of powers, threatening no one, and free from any domination.”

Seeking neutrality for a nation threatened by communism enraged the many Americans who believed in aggressive responses to communism anywhere in the world. Time magazine’s editors described Kennedy’s effort as “the sickening realization that U.S. backed Laos was about to go down the communist drain.” But Kennedy was determined not to get drawn into a war, and the more he learned about Laos the more determined he became. He consulted with five American generals, and each one had a different point of view; the president was so frustrated that he “threw up his hands and walked out of the room.” He recalled advice from Charles de Gaulle, who—remembering France’s failed efforts in Indochina after 1945—had warned him that “intervention in this area will be an endless entanglement.” Both Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed in Vienna that “Laos was of no strategic importance.” Once back in Washington, Kennedy confided to his aides, “If we have to fight in Southeast Asia, let’s fight in Vietnam.”

But strategic importance or not, Kennedy could not afford another public defeat—and “pulling out of Laos” was not an option. He chose instead, as Ted Sorensen later wrote, to “combine bluff with real determination . . . in proportions he made known to no one.” He refused to send troops into Laos, but he put American soldiers along the Thai-Laotian border, in the hope that their presence would intimidate the Pathet Lao. At the same time, he dispatched the veteran diplomat Averell Harriman to Moscow to ensure that North Vietnam would not intervene in the conflict. Kennedy’s bluff seemed to succeed. In mid-June, shortly after the Vienna summit, the Pathet Lao and the Laotian government agreed to talk. “Good news has come from Laos,” Khrushchev boasted to Kennedy. “There is no doubt that this may be the turning point not only in the life of the Laotian people but in the Consolidation of a peace in Southeast Asia.” A year later, the cease-fire led to a “Declaration of Neutrality of Laos” at a conference in Geneva. In the end, the cease-fire and the Declaration did little to stabilize Laos. The always-shaky coalition of the Laotian government and the Pathet Lao collapsed in the fall of 1962. Laos remained a problem for Kennedy, who tried in vain to solve it through continued clandestine interventions by the CIA, diplomatic efforts in Moscow and Washington, and a constant, if reluctant, willingness to use military measures if necessary. Only the insignificance of Laos and the weakness of both sides in the civil war kept the tiny nation from becoming an active ally of its communist neighbors.

* * *

As 1961 came to an end, Kennedy had little good to say of his first year in office. When the NBC correspondent Elie Abel told the president he wanted to write a book about his first year, Kennedy replied, “Who would want to read a book about disasters?” But Kennedy also looked ahead and wrote to Khrushchev on December 30: “It is my earnest hope that the coming year will strengthen the foundations of world peace and will bring an improvement in the relations between our countries, upon which so much depends.” Khrushchev replied, “The Soviet people regard the future optimistically. They hope that in the coming New Year, our countries will be able to find ways toward closer cooperation for the good of all humanity.”

The editors of Time magazine chose Kennedy as their annual “Man of the Year.” Despite many disagreements between Time and the president, the article portrayed his first year in a much more positive tone than Kennedy himself did. He had, the editors wrote, “made 1961 the most endlessly interesting and exciting presidential year within recent memory . . . [He] has always had a way with the people . . . His popularity has remained consistently high . . . 78% of the American people said that they approved of the way he is doing his job.” The article concluded by calling Kennedy “the most vigorous President of the 20th century . . . In his first year as President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy showed qualities that have made him a promising leader . . . Those same qualities, if developed further, may yet make him a great President.” It was a hard portrait to live up to, and Kennedy knew how difficult it would be.



Excerpted from John F. Kennedy by Alan Brinkley.

Copyright © 2012 by Alan Brinkley.

Reprinted with permission from the publisher

ALAN BRINKLEY is the author The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist; Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression, which won the National Book Award; The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War; and John F. Kennedy. He is the Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University and has also taught at Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge.

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