JFK’s Big Moment

The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960–1963

by Michael R. Beschloss
HarperCollins/Edward Burlingame Books, 816 pp., $29.95

Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis

by Dino A. Brugioni
Random House, 599 pp., $35.00

The fading of the cold war makes it increasingly hard to write an objective review of Michael Beschloss’s excellent book. In this day of quieter relations with Moscow not even the most talented writer can fully re-create the atmosphere of fear and imminent danger that pervaded Washington. All of us who worked in the postwar American administrations were aware that the Soviet leaders had the power to blow America off the face of the earth.

That sense of ever-present doom proved particularly poignant for President John Kennedy, in whose administration I served first as under secretary of state for economic affairs and then as under secretary of state. Especially during his early weeks in the White House, he felt critically menaced both by enemies abroad and adversaries at home. He lacked his predecessor’s high reputation for military command, while his limited electoral victory in 1960 cast doubt on the breadth of his mandate.

I recall, for example, his excuse for inaction when in early 1961 some of us discussed an initiative to normalize relations with Red China. He could not seriously consider that project now, he said, but might well do so when and if he should win election for a second term with a larger majority.

In addition to his narrow electoral victory the President was, by twentieth-century (though not by eighteenth-century) standards, far too young to be taken seriously as a statesman. Although he maintained an outward appearance of aplomb and invulnerability, he never forgot that the American people were comparing him with Eisenhower, a looming father figure whose established reputation not only for overwhelming military but also for political victories had given him political self-assurance.

Kennedy’s political assets were far less impressive. In Congress, his reputation had been more for absenteeism than serious achievement. He had never belonged to the inner circle of senators; nor was he confident of an always capricious public support. His major political assets were his good looks and the glamour of a golden boy.

As Professor Beschloss suggests, Kennedy’s Soviet opponent in the opposite corner appears also, but to a lesser degree, to have been unsure of himself. He repeatedly attributes many aspects of Khrushchev’s behavior to constraints similar to those experienced by Kennedy. Khrushchev was constantly sensitive to the bitter hatred of the Soviet hard-liners.

Professor Beschloss quite accurately describes the shifting succession of preoccupations that marked the Khrushchev–Kennedy years. At the outset the new administration felt hard-pressed to rectify Kennedy’s reckless campaign charges of a “missile gap” between the US and the Soviet Union; and Defense Secretary McNamara finally had to acknowledge that none existed. Then Kennedy was beset by a problem that had already troubled the Eisenhower administration: repeated Soviet threats to sign a peace treaty with the DDR and thus gain control of access to Berlin.

In addition Castro’s Cuba formed an overhanging cloud of public shame and obsession. Many Americans felt outraged and vulnerable that a Communist outpost should exist so close to their country. Castro’s…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Subscribe for $1 an Issue

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.