Meeting with President de Gaulle in France
Kennedy embarked on his first trip to Europe as president of the United States at the end of May 1961. He arrived in Paris to spend some time with France's popular leader, President Charles de Gaulle, before meeting with Khrushchev.
The meeting with de Gaulle was important. De Gaulle was intent on making France a world power, and Kennedy was concerned with his desire to acquire nuclear weapons. The French president was no longer satisfied with protection from the United States; he did not trust the Americans to keep their word on protecting Europe from communism. De Gaulle requested that the United States provide France with the technology needed to develop a defense system.
Receiving a Royal Welcome
Kennedy and Jackie arrived in Paris on May 31. He had anticipated a somewhat hostile welcome from de Gaulle, but de Gaulle, well known for his insistence on speaking French to foreign guests, uncharacteristically greeted him in English. The red carpet at the airplane door, the roses, and the escort of fifty uniformed police officers on motorcycles underscored the importance of the event.
As they left Orly Airport, the Kennedys were greeted by crowds lining the streets in hopes of catching a glimpse of the American president and his beautiful wife. The First Lady's presence in France contributed to the warm reception. Jackie spoke fluent French, and de Gaulle enjoyed her company and noted her charm. She also intrigued the French press, which referred to her as a “queen.” Even Kennedy noted the attention Jackie received, commenting at a press luncheon that he was the “man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”
The Meeting with de Gaulle
Kennedy, however, held his own when it came to de Gaulle. Although he was young in comparison to the seventy-year-old de Gaulle, the elder statesman soon realized that Kennedy was well prepared for their meeting. If de Gaulle had thought he could exploit Kennedy's youth to get him to accept his proposal for shared military power in Europe, he soon realized he was mistaken. Kennedy gave de Gaulle the same answers Eisenhower had, assuring the French leader that the United States would defend France from an attack by the Soviet Union.
Their discussion moved on to the topic of West Berlin. This was Kennedy's real concern. Kennedy proposed that he make some concessions with the Soviets on West Berlin as long as the three powers continued to have military access. De Gaulle, however, disagreed. He believed that there was no need to negotiate with the Soviets. He asserted that the Soviet Union wanted to avoid war as much as the United States did, and a U.S. presence in West Berlin was crucial.
How did the Berlin dispute between the Soviets and the three allies arise?
After World War II, the Soviets, in control of East Berlin and East Germany, created a communist government. The United States, Great Britain, and France occupied West Berlin and West Germany and helped establish a democratic government. In 1952, East Germany closed off access to West Germany, but escape to the west was still possible through West Berlin.
The Assassination of Rafael Trujillo
Kennedy's meeting with de Gaulle was going well until he received information that the Dominican Republic's dictator, General Rafael Trujillo, had been assassinated. When Kennedy became president he had learned of a CIA plot to kill Trujillo; Eisenhower had already approved the shipment of weapons by the CIA to the dissidents who planned the assassination. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy was hesitant to take any part in another potentially horrific plan. Nevertheless, the plan and the weapons were already in place.
When Kennedy heard of it, the assassination had not yet been confirmed by U.S. sources, nor had the information spread to the press. Kennedy preferred to keep it quiet, but White House press secretary Pierre Salinger was not aware that the news was internal. At an evening press briefing, Salinger casually responded to a question regarding Dean Rusk's whereabouts, telling reporters that he was dealing with the situation in the Dominican Republic.
Thirty-one years before Rafael Trujillo's assassination, the United States had been instrumental in placing him in power in the Dominican Republic. Trujillo owned 60 percent of the country's assets, which were comprised mostly of sugar cane fields. He had enjoyed aid from the United States until it was cut off following his attempt to take down Venezuela's Romulo Betancourt. This led Trujillo into talks with Fidel Castro.
Trujillo's assassination and Salinger's misstep could not have come at a worse time. Nevertheless, de Gaulle and Kennedy continued on as planned. They had dinner together, attended a performance by the Paris Opera Ballet, and continued their discussion. By the end of Kennedy's stay in Paris, he had won over de Gaulle's confidence in America. Although de Gaulle still viewed Kennedy's inexperience as a disadvantage, he saw that the American president represented the new generation of leadership. Kennedy left Paris after three days with a good feeling about his time with de Gaulle.