Meeting with Khrushchev
Kennedy was anxious for his meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna. His priority was Berlin. The Soviets were mulling over the prospect of signing a peace treaty with East Germany. This would create an independent state with the power to take the city under its control and terminate allied occupation.
The First Summit Meeting
It was an important meeting, and Kennedy felt well prepared. On June 3, he arrived in Vienna to crowds of cheering Austrians and made his way to the home of H. Freeman Matthews, the U.S. Ambassador to Austria. Khrushchev arrived at 12:45 P.M. and the two leaders greeted each other with a firm handshake. Photographers captured the image of the short, stocky sixty-seven-year-old Khrushchev next to Kennedy's trim and youthful physique. Kennedy and Khrushchev proceeded inside to the music room.
Their discussion soon turned serious. Kennedy suggested that both nations were responsible to ensure that their competitiveness in the same geographic areas never led to a direct confrontation. Khrushchev jumped at the chance to reprimand Kennedy. He asserted that communism was a viable system that, just like democracy, had a right to develop. Kennedy responded that it was the Soviets who were trying to destroy America's influence. A combative Khrushchev acknowledged very little of Kennedy's response and instead asserted that ideas could not be suppressed. As for the spread of communism, according to the chairman, he could give no guarantee that it would stop at the Soviet borders.
“In the past, U.S. Presidents … have never fared too well in face-to-face meetings with Soviet dictators — even when the U.S. was dealing from strength. There was no doubt that Jack Kennedy, his New Frontier policies currently in a state of some disarray, was taking a chance. But Kennedy felt confident that he could look Khrushchev squarely in the eye and effectively warn him that despite recent reverses, neither the President nor the U.S. could safely be pushed around.”
— Time magazine, May 26, 1961
Kennedy and Khrushchev emerged from the meeting for lunch. Although the chairman had done most of the talking, Kennedy needed a break. The discussion had gone badly for the president, who could hardly get in a word. The two men sat down to lunch together, and the press glimpsed them getting along marvelously.
When they returned to the music room, Kennedy tried to reiterate his earlier point that confrontation was unproductive for each side. The possibility of a nuclear war, he asserted, was something both countries should work to avoid. Khrushchev quickly took control of the conversation, alleging that it was America who was responsible for intervening in conflicts in other countries. He proceeded to give Kennedy a long list of various countries subject to American intervention. Kennedy managed to elicit an agreement to later negotiate a settlement on Laos. Both sides agreed on the importance of a cease-fire in Laos and agreed to a neutral Laos.
During an Austrian state dinner, Jackie Kennedy mentioned to Khrushchev that one of the dogs involved in the Soviet space program had had puppies. She expressed an interest in having a puppy, and two months later a small dog name Pushinka entered the Kennedys' lives.
Kennedy reflected on the day's discussion and angrily concluded that Khrushchev had treated him “like a little boy.” Even his staff was surprised by Kennedy's poor performance. They had warned Kennedy that the chairman was explosive, but they had believed that when it came to the topic of communism, Kennedy was equipped to hold his own in the debate. They could only trust that the following day's meeting would turn out better.
The Second Summit Meeting
On June 4 at 10:15 A.M., Kennedy arrived at the Soviet Embassy for his second meeting with the feisty chairman. This time Kennedy wanted to put to rest the debate over communism and capitalism, stating that neither of them would be convinced to switch sides. He got right down to business with the discussion about a ban on nuclear testing. Khrushchev assured Kennedy that the Soviets had no plans to become the first to resume the testing that had ended three years before, but that an agreement to a treaty which would subject them to UN inspections was out of the question. Khrushchev would consider a test ban treaty if it included a general disarmament agreement and a provision for the UN's leadership to become a three-pronged directorate with a communist, a Westerner, and a neutral chairman.
“Mr. Khrushchev and I had a very full and frank exchange of views on the major issues that now divide our two countries. I will tell you now that it was a very sober two days. There was no discourtesy, no loss of tempers, no threats or ultimatums by either side…. No spectacular progress was either achieved or pretended.”
Finally, the subject of Berlin came up. Khrushchev was clearly angered by the topic. East Berliners and East Germans had been fleeing to West Berlin to seek a better future away from communism. Khrushchev wanted to put a stop to the flight. Also on his mind was the possibility of a U.S.-backed unified Germany, which he was staunchly opposed to. Khrushchev announced his intent to sign a peace treaty with East Germany, which would terminate U.S. access to Berlin. Once signed, any violation of it would be interpreted as an act of aggression.
Kennedy explained that Western Europe was vital to U.S. national security. If the United States abandoned West Berlin, it would also abandon Europe. Kennedy protested that the peace treaty was contrary to the 1945 agreement between the four allies, which granted them all access to Berlin. America would not accept the agreement. If the United States wanted to start a war over the matter, responded Khrushchev, then it was Kennedy's choice. He planned on signing the treaty at the end of the year, regardless of how Kennedy felt about it.
“The signing of a peace treaty is not a belligerent act…. However, a peace treaty denying us our contractual rights is a belligerent act…. The U.S. is committed to that area and it is so regarded by all of the world. If we accepted Mr. Khrushchev's suggestion, the world would lose confidence in the U.S. and would not regard it as a serious country.”
On that note, the meeting came to an abrupt end. After lunch and a ceremony the men parted ways; but it was temporary. Kennedy was concerned about their last exchange regarding Berlin and requested a ten-minute meeting with the chairman. Kennedy reiterated that the treaty was not the issue, but he was worried that the termination of the occupation rights in West Berlin would cause friction. Khrushchev stood firm on his decision to sign the treaty. It was up to the United States to choose whether or not to start a war over it. The Soviet Union was prepared to defend itself against American attack.