The Structure of Great Power Politics, 1963–75
JOHN F. KENNEDY'S most fundamental goal as president of the United States was to reach a political understanding with the Soviet Union. That understanding would be based on a simple principle: America and Russia were both very great powers and therefore needed to respect each other's most fundamental interests. The United States was thus prepared, for its part, to recognize the USSR's special position in eastern Europe. America would also see to it that West Germany would not become a nuclear power.1 In exchange, the Soviets would also have to accept the status quo in central Europe, especially in Berlin. If a settlement of that sort could be worked out, the situation in central Europe would be stabilized. The great problem that lay at the heart of the Cold War would be resolved.
But to reach a settlement based on those principles, Kennedy, in effect, had to fight a war on two fronts. He had to get both the USSR and his own allies in Europe to accept this sort of arrangement. The Soviets, however, were not particularly receptive when it became clear to them, beginning in mid-1961, what the president had in mind. The Americans, in their view, were making concessions because they were afraid the Berlin Crisis would lead to war. Why not see what more they might get by keeping the crisis going?
As for the Europeans, they by no means welcomed the new Kennedy policy with open arms. The West German government was especially distraught. Germany was divided and there was obviously not much
This is an expanded version of a paper that was published in the second volume of Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, eds., The Cambridge History of the Cold War (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Reprinted with permission.
1 Note especially Kennedy's comments to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna summit conference in June 1961. Kennedy assured his Soviet counterpart that the United States did not “wish to act in a way that would deprive the Soviet Union of its ties in Eastern Europe” and that it was also “opposed to a buildup in West Germany that would constitute a threat to the Soviet Union.” Khrushchev would have had no problem understanding what Kennedy was driving at. Kennedy-Khrushchev meetings, June 4, 1961, Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS], 1961–1963, vol. 14, pp. 87–98 (the quotations are on pp. 91 and 95); henceforth cited in the form: FRUS 1961–63, 14:87–98. That Kennedy was telling Khrushchev that the United States recognized eastern Europe as a Soviet sphere of influence is also suggested by the fact that the U.S. government found that statement of his embarrassing as late as 1990: the sentence about eastern Europe, published in 1993 on p. 95 of the FRUS volume, had been “sanitized” out of the version of the document released three years earlier.