History records that Khrushchev spoke and stormed and hollered. There may have even been some shoe banging. Kennedy listened and squirmed and wondered what the hell was going on with this guy.
The meeting was behind closed doors, like so many things back then. The perception from the meeting was Khrushchev perceived JFK as young, inexperienced and weak, weak enough to build a wall in Berlin and send missiles to Cuba.
Kennedy’s experience was one I think Americans aren’t used to, he listened, he didn’t like what he heard, but he too, took the measure of his man, and the egalitarian statesman Kennedy was raised to be came to the surface. He did not bang his shoe on the Viennese table tops, but when it came time for the sound bite over the future of Berlin:
Khrushchev: “Force will be met by force. If the US wants war, that's its problem." "It's up to the US to decide whether there will be war or peace."
Kennedy: "Then, Mr. Chairman, there will be a war. It will be a cold, long winter."
And a long cold winter it was.
But as we have learned from our history, the leaders of the two most powerful nations on earth were not calling all the shots. By 1964, both man was no longer on the world stage. JFK was assassinated in 1963 and Khrushchev was removed from power a year later.
The Vienna Summit is a fascinating study for students of history and diplomacy and for politicians. How did both men approach the summit? How did both men handled themselves and each other? What were the results?
History is still being written, new books and new archive documents are coming out every year. What I find interesting is that the two men did not blow up the world as some thought possible, instead they managed to bring a lasting peace and a road map to future peace between Soviet Union and the United States.
Khrushchev wept upon hearing the news of JFK’s assassination... Maybe he knew that forces larger than him and the young leader he met in Vienna were on the move and in the end, neither man was the maker of his final destiny… or that of his nation.
I could think of a lot worse scenarios if these two men were not at the helm of their nations in 1961.