Vienna Summit

Arriving at Vienna

The trip to Europe began with a stop in Paris for consultations with French President De Gaulle. The French people received President Kennedy, and even more so Jackie, with great warmth. The meetings with De Gaulle also went well. The summit with Khrushchev was not very successful. Much of the time was spent exchanging polemics. Only on Laos was there any semblance of agreement. On the main issue, Berlin, threats were exchanged. Kennedy's final words were "It is going to be cold winter". Kennedy left the meeting shocked and fearful that there would be war. Press reports at the time were much more upbeat.


President Kennedy was eager to engage in personal diplomacy, believing that the force of his personality would be particularly helpful in pursuit of America's goals. Kennedy decided that before he was to meet Khrushchev, it would be advantageous for him to first meet with French President Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle was the last of the World War II leaders still serving in office. Kennedy hoped support from de Gaulle would boost his own status at the summit. France was an official ally of the US, a member of NATO and a founding partner of the nascent European Common Market. However, relations with France and de Gaulle had never been easy. In addition, there were a number of disagreements between the US and France that could have made the meeting rocky, but de Gaulle decided to help Kennedy make the most of this encounter.

De Gaulle received Kennedy with unusual warmth. For his part, Kennedy knew how to flatter Degaulle. His efforts were helped by the fact that Kennedy had his French-speaking wife, Jacqueline, accompany him on the trip. Her beauty, facility with the language and knowledge of French culture dazzled the Parisians. She was greeted like a rock star. This meeting would lead to one of the President's most famous lines: " I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris and I have enjoyed it. "

In advance of his meetings with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy's advisors attempted to prepare the President for what would doubtless be a challenging event. By and large, his advisors agreed that Khrushchev would try to intimidate Kennedy. Their first meeting took place in Vienna at the residence of the US Ambassador to Austria in the early afternoon of June3, 1961. The meeting featured a spirited debate between Khrushchev and Kennedy about their respective economic systems. The atmosphere improved during lunch. However, when the two leaders took a stroll later in the garden, Khrushchev relentlessly attacked both Kennedy and the US economic system. Later in the day, Dave Powers commented to the President how calm he looked during Khrushchev's attacks. Kennedy responded: " What did you expect me to do... take off my shoe and hit him over the head with it? "

The afternoon meetings were no better. Khrushchev continued his relentless attacks on Kennedy and American policies. That evening, a state dinner was held in the Schönbrunn Palace. Later that evening Khrushchev stated to his aides: " He is very young not strong enough; too smart and too weak. " The second day's meeting centered on Berlin and Germany. Khrushchev insisted he would sign a peace agreement with Germany with or without US approval, and without regard for US rights in West Berlin. Kennedy made it clear to Khrushchev that signing a peace agreement with Germany was not a problem, but blocking Western rights could lead to war.

When the formal meetings were over, Kennedy insisted on a short private meeting with Khrushchev. At that meeting, Khrushchev stated: " Force will be met by force. If the US wants war, that's its problem" . " It is up to the US to decide whether there will be war or peace. The decision to sign a peace treaty is firm and irrevocable, and the Soviet Union will sign it in December, if the US refuses an interim agreement. " Kennedy responded: " Then, Mr. Chairman, there will be a war. It will be a cold winter. " Kennedy left the meeting shocked to his core. He stated to James Reston immediately after the meeting that it was the " worst thing in my life" . Kennedy was convinced he could use his charm and work things out with Khrushchev. Now, after the meetings, he felt that war was a very real possibility. This encounter with Khrushchev forced Kennedy to rethink US policy throughout the world.