The Crisis Years

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Michael Beschloss is a television journalist and the author of an important study of Dwight Eisenhower’s Soviet policy entitled Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair (1986). In writing The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963, Beschloss has made extensive use of newly declassified material, including tapes of White House conversations, records from Soviet archives, and interviews with key figures such as Richard Helms, the former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director.

This volume examines U.S.-Soviet relations from 1960 to 1963, a period that Beschloss appropriately labels the “crisis years” because it was a period in which the two great powers came closer to nuclear war than at any other time in history. Although President Kennedy became a capable crisis manager, Beschloss suggests that, in part because of his inexperience, Kennedy bore substantial responsibility for creating many of the crises that dominated his presidency. Beschloss claims that Khrushchev wished for rapproachment with the United States so that he could cut Soviet military spending and use the funds for consumer goods. Kennedy, however, consistently misjudged Khrushchev and pursued policies toward the Soviet Union that unnecessarily brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war.

During the 1960 election campaign, Richard Nixon pressed President Eisenhower to proceed with the invasion of Cuba before the election occurred, in the belief that the successful overthrow of Fidel Castro’s communist government would help Nixon’s election prospects. When Kennedy took office, he was immediately faced with making a decision as to whether to proceed with the invasion of Cuba that had been planned by the Eisenhower Administration. Beschloss indicates that Kennedy opposed an invasion by American troops for two reasons: He wished to align the United States with the emerging Third World nations and anticipated that an American invasion would be perceived as similar to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956, and he feared that if American troops invaded Cuba, Khrushchev would retaliate by sending Soviet troops into West Berlin and forcing Kennedy to choose between war with the Soviets or abandoning Berlin.

Although initially reluctant to approve the CIA-planned invasion using Cuban exiles, early in April, 1961, Kennedy changed his mind and told his aides to proceed with it. Beschloss notes that Kennedy had met with his father, Joseph Kennedy, over the weekend before making his decision and that the latter was strongly in favor of invading Cuba; Beschloss concludes that it was probably Joseph Kennedy who persuaded President Kennedy to take what proved to be an unwise step. Yet President Kennedy agreed to the plan only on the condition that no U.S. troops would be involved. As the invasion unfolded and it became clear that it would fail unless American forces were used, Kennedy refused to allow direct American intervention, because he believed it would trigger a Soviet attack on Berlin. Beschloss attributes the failure of the invasion to Kennedy’s basic ambivalence about it; his attempt to conceal American involvement led him to insist on the operation’s being too small to succeed.

Kennedy’s first meeting with Khrushchev following his election occurred in Vienna at the 1961 summit conference. Kennedy hoped a face-to-face meeting would enable them to establish a personal relationship that might ease tensions between the two countries. Instead, Beschloss suggests that the meeting was a disaster for Kennedy. Inexperienced in foreign policy, he inadvertently antagonized Khrushchev. The latter left the meeting insisting that the Soviet Union would sign a peace treaty with East Germany and that it would then be up to the United States to decide whether there would be war or peace. Kennedy was shaken by Khrushchev’s attempt to bully him and admitted it had been the roughest experience in his life. He drew the conclusion that he would have to do something to demonstrate his toughness or Khrushchev would likely make further attempts to take advantage of his youth and inexperience.

Beschloss’s claim that Kennedy did not oppose the establishment of the Berlin Wall—indeed he privately welcomed it—is one of the more striking revelations presented in this volume. With thousands of East Germans fleeing to the West by crossing into West Berlin during 1961, Khrushchev was under great pressure to take some action. In a public statement in July, Senator James Fulbright had acknowledged that East Germany had a right to close its border if it wished and expressed surprise it had not done so. When Kennedy did not repudiate this suggestion and did not warn Khrushchev against closing the East German border, Kennedy signaled the Soviets that this step would be acceptable to the United States. According to Beschloss, Kennedy viewed the wall as a solution to the Berlin crisis rather than as a new source of friction, because it reduced the pressure on Khrushchev to take action against West Berlin.

On October 27, 1961, U.S. and Soviet tanks faced each other across the Berlin Wall in a confrontation that could easily have led to war. This military standoff developed after East Germany attempted to restrict U.S. access to East Berlin....

(The entire section is 2173 words.)