John F. Kennedy and the Limited Test Ban Treaty: A Case Study of Presidential Leadership

By Wenger, Andreas; Gerber, Marcel | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 1999 | Go to article overview

John F. Kennedy and the Limited Test Ban Treaty: A Case Study of Presidential Leadership


Wenger, Andreas, Gerber, Marcel, Presidential Studies Quarterly


John F. Kennedy's foreign policy leadership style has evoked contradictory historical evaluations. The early assessments written by administration officials like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Theodore Sorensen, and Roger Hilsman depicted Kennedy as a consummate pragmatist, skilled crisis manager, and, more generally, a great world leader.(1) Kennedy's almost heroic reputation as a foreign policy leader came under attack for the first time in the early 1970s with publication of works by David Halberstam, Louise Fitzsimons, Richard J. Walton, and Henry Fairlie.(2) Whereas Halberstam put at least some of the blame for America's unfortunate involvement in the Vietnam War on Kennedy's shoulders, the work of the three other writers referred to Kennedy as the great cold warrior and considered his foreign policy as imperialist in fact, if not in intent.

Neither the portrayal of Kennedy as a decisive and courageous statesman nor his depiction as an irresponsible and dogmatic cold warrior went unchallenged in light of growing insight into the U.S. policy-making process during the Berlin crisis of 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Emerging from the new body of sources and literature of the 1980s was a far more ambiguous Kennedy, whose foreign policy decisions were often characterized by vacillation and indecisiveness, marked by rhetorical overkill on one hand and restrained pragmatism on the other. At the same time, it became clear that Kennedy's ambiguity often had to be attributed to the interplay of domestic and foreign concerns and their influence on Kennedy's foreign policy.(3) Despite the considerable number of books and articles written about Kennedy, his foreign policy achievements and presidential leadership style still await a balanced assessment.(4)

This article contributes to our understanding of Kennedy's foreign policy by examining Kennedy's leadership in successfully concluding the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT). The authors conclude that Kennedy pursued the goal of signing a nuclear test ban with vigor and persistence from his first days in office through the trilateral debate of the treaty's language among American, Soviet, and British representatives in July 1963. Before the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, however, Kennedy felt that his domestic as well as his foreign policy position was too weak to take on arguments of those opposed to negotiating a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Kennedy's room for maneuver expanded with successful conclusion of the Cuban missile crisis. The months leading up to the final, two-week-long negotiation of the LTBT were marked by Kennedy's willingness to use his greater political freedom and take the lead in pushing the test ban. In doing so, he was prepared to take considerable risks both domestically and in terms of U.S. relations with its allies.

The test ban case reveals Kennedy as an active and flexible but still cautious president. His personal leadership and flexible organization of the policy process features that might have been a weakness regarding decision making on other issues formed the basis for successful negotiation of the first effective arms control agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union. While Kennedy was clearly not the cold warrior that Fitzsimons, Walton, and Fairlie accused him of being, his foreign policy decisions were subject to political considerations related to domestic and foreign pressures to a far greater degree than Schlesinger, Sorensen, and Hilsman lead the reader to believe with their emphasis on Kennedy's personal skills as a foreign policy leader and crisis manager.

Senator Kennedy, a Nuclear Test Ban, and Nuclear Nonproliferation

The issue of a nuclear test ban was not a new one in the 1960s. American, Soviet, British, and French delegations had discussed draft agreements to end nuclear weapons tests as early as the Truman administration. But during the early years of the cold war, the arms control and disarmament talks in Geneva never really left the realm of propaganda, and no substantive progress on the test ban issue was achieved. …

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