Trump-Putin Meeting Unlikely to Go as Badly as John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev's First Summit

Nikita Khrushchev
President John F. Kennedy meets with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1961. Evelyn Lincoln/The White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/Reuters

When Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin meet at the G20 Summit in Germany on Friday, all will be watching for signs that one leader has gained an advantage and whether any coziness marks either achievement of Trump's longtime goal—closer relations with Moscow—or America getting played.

Looming over their summit is a long legacy of American-Russian meetings. Since 1961, every first meeting between an American president and a Russian leader has been seen in light of the tumultuous first (and only) encounter between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. It's been called "the most ill-judged summit of the Cold War."

Related: Trump shouldn't smile when he meets Putin, says ex-U.S. diplomat

The new American president, then 44 years old, met the 67-year-old Soviet premier in June in Vienna. Around them, the Cold War raged. The previous year's summit, between Khrushchev and President Dwight Eisenhower, ended early because an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia. Khrushchev walked out of that Paris meeting.

The summit was Kennedy's idea, and despite most of his staff urging him not to, he approached the Soviet leader via a letter during his transition to the White House. He hoped for real progress on a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and other issues at the summit, not just for a photo opportunity.

Tensions were raging around the globe, and JFK's advisers thought little could be accomplished. In Germany, the U.S. and the Soviets had squared off over Berlin, which had been divided into American, British, French and Russian sectors after the allied forces won World War II. The city was an outpost of freedom buried deep in communist-controlled East Germany, and the Russians, who had tried to oust Western forces with a blockade in 1948, were trying again, insisting that Berlin belonged entirely to East Germany. Refugees from East Berlin were flooding West Berlin, and worries about the East German government's stability dominated Khrushchev's mind. He not only wanted to stanch the flow of people but hoped to use Berlin to squeeze the West, even likening it to testicles.

There were also conflicts in the Third World. In April, the U.S. assisted Cuban rebels seeking to take back the communist-controlled island nation from Fidel Castro. It did not go well. The Bay of Pigs disaster, named after the landing site for the botched invasion, proved a humiliation to the young U.S. president and made him forever distrustful of the CIA, which led the plan. In Southeast Asia, U.S. and Soviet advisers were close to a shooting match in Laos, as a conservative royalist government backed by America fought off a Marxist insurgency, the Pathet Lao.

The sense of dread in the world was high, the American triumph over the Soviet Union still unimaginable. At the time of the summit, the U.S. was losing the space race: John Glenn had yet to orbit the Earth, while the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, had already done so.

Far from being seen as the heroic figure, JFK at the time was a new and uncertain leader. His dazzling inaugural speech was receding from memory as he struggled not only on Russia but also on civil rights and getting his agenda through Congress. He was plagued by enduring back pain from his World War II naval accident, and was taking powerful painkillers. That spring, he was using crutches for the first time in years. He was taking injections of procaine, and had sent for a private physician to accompany him to administer amphetamines. " I don't care if it's horse piss. It works," JFK famously said of the drugs.

When the two met in neutral Vienna—Austria was not in NATO, and isn't now—there was tension. In the shadow of Neville Chamberlain's meeting with Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938, and of Franklin Roosevelt's meetings with Stalin at Potsdam and Yalta, which seemed to seal the fate of Western Europe, the whole idea of summits seemed dubious.

The suspicions were well founded. JFK and Khrushchev disagreed over Berlin: Khrushchev wanted the U.S. to recognize East German sovereignty over the city; JFK refused, and his tone was at times patronizing. The two wandered off into antagonistic discussions about the nature of freedom and accomplished little. There was no agreement on Berlin and a rather tepid statement on Laos that did little, of course, to prevent the onslaught of a much wider war in the region. In Game of Thrones style, Kennedy warned of a "cold winter" ahead.

Just a few months after the failed summit, the Russians and East Germans would begin construction on the most glaring symbol of the Cold War: The Berlin Wall. The famed barrier was a Russian-East German effort to stymie the flow of refugees from East to West Berlin. JFK later told journalist James "Scotty" Reston that the Khrushchev meeting was the "worst thing in my life. He savaged me." At one point, the two men discussed nuclear annihilation, with Khrushchev at one stage telling his interlocutor: "If the U.S. wants to start a war over Germany let it be so."

Historians believe the failed summit emboldened Khrushchev, leading to the confrontation over Soviet missiles in Cuba a year later. It also encouraged Kennedy to up the ante in Vietnam, wanting to show Khrushchev the U.S. wouldn't be pushed around.

But Kennedy grew in office, and his handling of the missile crisis was adroit—neither bombing the Soviet missile sites nor appeasing Moscow's aggression, he instead imposed a naval blockade that got the Russians to back down without lives lost. The following year, the two sides signed an above-ground nuclear test ban treaty and the Cold War saw its first major thawing in years.

The lesson for Trump, like every president subsequent to Kennedy, is to go into the first meeting with the Russians with limited expectations, a firm and steady hand and a clear agenda that has a chance of success. Even more important, the best thing for any president to do is to grow in office after the rookie meeting. Much was made of Kennedy's youth and inexperience—Khrushchev had a son Kennedy's age—but he learned to deal with the Soviets, even if he never met the premier again. Kennedy was, of course, assassinated in 1963, and Khrushchev would lose power a year later. There was no other U.S.-Soviet summit until 1967, when Lyndon Johnson and Leonid Brezhnev met in Glassboro, New Jersey, a relatively quiet meeting compared to other summits. Trump should hope for a quiet one, too.

Trump-Putin Meeting Unlikely to Go as Badly as John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev's First Summit | U.S.
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