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Sunday, April 09, 1995

1961 Vienna Summit

CIA couriers delivered each morning CIA's Current Intelligence Bulletin to Kennedy military aide Brig. Gen. Chester Clifton. Clifton or National Security Adviser MacGeorge Bundy then would take the intelligence to President Kennedy and report back to the Agency any questions or comments.

The daily intelligence report was part of a volume of material Kennedy received daily and was often not read. This left Kennedy less informed than Kennedy thought he was, a situation that was driven home at the June 1961 Vienna Summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev when he found himself unprepared.

As James Reston reported in the New York Times 18 January 1966,

"Kennedy went there shortly after his spectacular blunders at the Bay of Pigs, and was savaged by Khrushchev....I had an hour alone with President Kennedy immediately after his last meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna at that time," Reston reported.

"How was it?" Reston asked casually.

"Worst thing in my life. He savaged me," Kennedy responded.

The president seemed to Reston to be almost in shock, repeating himself and speaking with astonishing candor to the journalist. "Not the usual bullshit," Reston wrote in his notepad. "There is a look a man has when he has to tell the truth."

Khrushchev had assumed, Kennedy said, that any American President who invaded Cuba without adequate preparation was inexperienced, and any president who then didn't use force to see the invasion through was weak. Kennedy admitted Khrushchev's logic on both points.

This lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The world came eyeball to eyeball with nuclear annhilation as a result of this conduct and sloppy preparation. A dangerous confrontation that could have been avoided if Kennedy had made it absolutely clear to Krushchev in Vienna that he was prepared to defend America, and its stragegic interests, along with our allies, by force of nuclear arms if necessary.
Diplomacy should have worked to thwart any Soviet imagination of even challenging the President’s resolve, rather than allowing a miscalculation by both parties to escalate into a crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis, far from being Kennedy heroic moment of courage, was infact provoked by Kennedy’s failure to make clear to an adversary how he as a world leader would react to a challenge to that leadership.

Kennedy said that to counter Khrushchev’s remarks, the United States would stand firm against Soviet demands in Berlin, and against the growing Communist insurgency in Vietnam. Reston wrote later he was "speechless" when Kennedy mentioned Vietnam, since Vietnam was outside the NATO theatre of operations and, in Reston's view, was of little significance.