On June 3, 1961, barely into the fifth month of his presidency, John F. Kennedy met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Kennedy requested the meeting in February as an “informal” opportunity to become better acquainted. Kennedy had risen rapidly through the American political hierarchy from the House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate and on to the presidency. Old guard Ukrainian Bolshevik Khrushchev was among the few in Stalin’s inner circle to survive purges to serve in the Great Patriotic War as a Red Army political officer.
Kennedy came to the summit relatively disadvantaged. He took the blame for the April fiasco at the Bay of Pigs where a brigade of Cuban refugees was overwhelmed by Cuban forces under Fidel Castro. The civil war in Laos had the communist Pathet Lao allied with neutralists against a cadre of right-wing generals backed by the United States and the Central Intelligence Agency. Laos was on its way to neutralization.
At their brief meeting, Khrushchev reportedly pushed Kennedy around, threatening war if the Western European powers did not vacate Berlin. When Kennedy left Vienna he feared war imminent. Upon returning to Washington, Kennedy called up portions of the Army and Air Force Reserves, stopped B-52 production and increased acquisition of tactical fighter-bombers needed to support ground forces and C-135 jet transports to move troops rapidly across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In August, the Soviets began building the Berlin Wall.
In early autumn, Kennedy and his advisors “drew a line in the sand” in Vietnam with the pro-American Saigon regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem and the fledgling Army of the Republic of Vietnam structured like U.S. Army lines to repel a conventional invasion. In late November, Kennedy ordered the Air Force to fly air cover under the ruse of training Saigon’s air force and increased the number of U.S. Army advisors as part of a covert war coupled with massive buildups of artillery and armored vehicles. Simultaneously, Moscow moved from nuclear confrontation with the United States to supporting wars of national liberation. The result bogged down American forces in South Vietnam in a war of attrition, bringing Richard Nixon to the White House in 1969 with a promise to end American involvement within four years.
May 22-24, 1972
Communist North Vietnam launched a major invasion of South Vietnam on March 31, 1972. On May 9, 1972, President Nixon inaugurated Operation Linebacker, the concerted bombing of North Vietnam, to include using B-52s throughout Indochina, to contain and ultimately defeat that invasion. Twelve days later, Nixon was in Moscow meeting with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev to sign the SALT I agreement limiting the growth in numbers of nuclear weapons. The American political public, including Democrats and Republicans, overwhelmingly supported the Moscow Summit.
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