Kennedy's first mistake | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 16, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 16, 2011

Kennedy's first mistake

Book reveals his inexperience led to Cold War

It was the first, live televised press conference in US history, and President John F Kennedy beamed his 200-watt smile as he looked across the assembled media gathered in the cavernous, newly opened State Department auditorium.
He had real news for them: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had released two captured American airmen, which Kennedy could sell as an early demonstration that he could handle Moscow more effectively than had his predecessors.
However, in what would be the first mistake of his five-day-old presidency, the new president instead was privately obsessing on what he considered a Khrushchev declaration of escalated Cold War against him.
The young and inexperienced president, who had not yet assembled his Soviet experts for a policy review, thought a Khrushchev speech in early January contained Khrushchev's true intentions. Thus, he failed to realise many Soviet good will gestures, including the unprecedented publication of the US president's full inaugural address in the Soviet media.
This early Kennedy judgment call on Khrushchev would shape the rest of the year, though it was based on faulty analysis.
Nine days later, to add insult to injury, speaking like a leader who had discovered the great purpose he had been seeking. He said:
“Each day, the crises multiply. Each day, their solution grows more difficult. Each day, we draw nearer the hour of maximum danger. I feel I must inform the Congress that our analyses over the past ten days make it clear that, in each of the principle areas of the crisis, the tide of events has been running out and time has not been our friend.”
Seldom has history provided a better example of the dangers that come with a newly elected US president who, though convinced of his own instincts and brilliance, lacks the experience or context to weigh the data that begins to flood him.
Kennedy's hawkish turn toward the Soviet Union prompted Khrushchev to dramatically retreat from his early efforts to woo Kennedy. On February 11, Khrushchev's will was turned into a resolve after a party meeting where his rivals called for a policy shift about US.
Kennedy's response may have seemed understandable at the time. In his January speech, Khrushchev had said, “We will beat the United States with small wars of liberation. We will nibble them to exhaustion all over the globe, in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.”
The US envoy to Moscow duly sent a cable to Kennedy informing the rhetoric.
But what he failed to tell Kennedy was that there really was nothing new in what Khrushchev had said. His speech was merely a belated briefing to Soviet ideologists and propagandists on the conference of eighty-one Communist parties the previous November.
Kennedy considered Khrushchev's words “game changing,” but they only became so because of the young president's overreaction to them.

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