President John F. Kennedy was brutally honest about what would prove to be one of the worst performances of an American leader with his leading global counterpart of his time – his two-day summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. 

As he drove away from the Soviet embassy with Secretary of State Dean Rusk in his black limo, Kennedy banged the flat of his hand against the shelf beneath the rear window. Rusk had been shocked that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had used the word “war” during their acrimonious exchange about Berlin’s future, a term diplomats invariably replaced with any number of less alarming synonyms.
Despite all the president’s pre-summit briefings, Rusk felt Kennedy had been unprepared for Khrushchev’s brutality. The extent of Vienna Summit’s failure would not be as easy to measure as the Bay of Pigs fiasco six weeks earlier. There would be no dead, CIA-supported exile combatants in a misbegotten landing area, who had risked their lives on the expectation that Kennedy and the United States would not abandon them.
However, the consequences could have be even bloodier. A little more than two months after Vienna, the Soviet would oversee the construction of the Berlin Wall. That, in turn, would be followed in October 1962 by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Already in Vienna Kennedy was distraught that Khrushchev, assuming that he was weak and indecisive, might engage in the sort of “miscalculation” that could lead to the threat of nuclear war.  He didn’t know then that his prediction would become prophesy.
Kennedy carried with him from Vienna to London, for his follow-up meeting with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, the Khrushchev aide-memoire delivered in Vienna that detailed the Soviet demands for a German settlement within six months, “or else.” If the Soviets made it public, as Kennedy had to assume they would, his critics would accuse him of having walked into a Berlin trap in Vienna that he should have seen coming.
Before leaving Vienna himself, Kennedy met in a private room, behind closed blinds, at the U.S. ambassador’s residence with New York Times columnist James “Scotty” Reston.  He wanted to get across to Reston the seriousness of the situation, and then use him as a conduit to paint a grim picture for the American people.  He spoke to Reston in the tone of the confessional.
Kennedy wore a hat pulled low on his forehead as he sunk into the sofa. It would be one of the most candid sessions ever between a reporter and a commander-in-chief.
“How was it?” asked Reston.
“Worst thing in my life,” said Kennedy. “He savaged me.”
Reston jotted in his notebook: “Not the usual bullshit. There is a look a man has when he has to tell the truth.”
“I’ve got two problems,” Kennedy told Reston.  “First, to figure out why he did it, and in such a hostile way. And second, to figure out what we can do about it.”
Because of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy said, Khrushchev “thought that anyone who was so young and inexperienced as to get into that mess could be taken. And anyone who got into it and didn’t see it through had no guts. So he just beat the hell out of me…I’ve got a real problem.”
Reston rightly concluded in his New York Times report, which carefully protected his source, that Kennedy “was astonished by the rigidity and the toughness of the Soviet leader.” He said Kennedy “definitely got the impression that the German question was going to be a very near thing.”
Even Kennedy, however, underestimated just how quickly Khrushchev would act.
Fred Kempe is president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. His latest book, Berlin 1961, was published May 10. This blog series originally published by Reuters. Photo: Joseph Scherschel/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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