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To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peaceby Jeffrey D Sachs
Synopses & Reviews
Sachs / TO MOVE THE WORLD
The Quest for Peace
When John F. Kennedy came to office in January 1961, the world lived in peril of a nuclear war between the two superpowers. The Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union would eventually consume trillions of dollars and millions of lives in wars fought around the world. At times, humanity seemed to be “gripped by forces we cannot control,” a pessimistic view that Kennedy noted and strenuously argued against in his Peace Speech. And yet the power of those disruptive forces at times was indeed nearly overwhelming, causing events to spin beyond the control even of presidents, Communist Party chairmen, and the countries they led.
The Cold War was in every sense a stepchild of the two world wars. Those wars created the structures of geopolitics, military might, and, perhaps most important of all, the psychological mindsets that determined the course of the Cold War. John Kennedy’s peace strategy would emerge from his intimate understanding of the dynamics that had driven the two wars. The first war he knew as a voracious student of history, especially the history as written by Winston Churchill. The second war he knew firsthand. The years between 1938 and 1945 were a deeply formative period of his adult life—as a student in prewar London while his father was U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom; as a young author grappling with the question of why England had failed for so long to confront Hitler; as a patrol boat captain in the Pacific, where his vessel PT-109 was sunk by a Japanese destroyer; and as part of a grieving family when his elder brother was lost in a daring bombing mission over Germany.1
The overwhelming question facing the world, and facing Kennedy during his presidency, was how to prevent a third world war. The factors that had caused the two wars—geopolitics, arms races, blunders, bluster, miscalculations, fears, and opportunism—continued to operate and to threaten a new conflagration. Yet the context was also fundamentally new and more threatening. The nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 to conclude World War II had ushered in the nuclear age, and had made the stakes incalculably higher. A thermonuclear bomb could now carry far more explosive force than all of the bombs of the Second World War.
Kennedy’s worldview on these issues was shaped above all by the influence and model of Winston Churchill, England’s great author-politician-warrior-statesman, whose masterly history of the first war, The World Crisis, described a tragic era of war through miscalculation;2 whose warnings about Hitler in the 1930s had gone unheeded until almost too late; whose leadership as prime minister between 1940 and 1945 enabled the United Kingdom to survive and eventually triumph over Hitler; whose warnings in 1946, just after World War II ended, alerted the West to the ris- ing threat of Soviet power; and whose calls during the 1940s and 1950s for a negotiated settlement with the Soviet Union did much to influence Kennedy’s peace strategy as president.3 Kennedy’s lifelong fascination with, learning from, and urge to emulate Winston Churchill has been recounted by many biographers.
The greatest problem facing Kennedy (and indeed the world) in drawing lessons from the two world wars was that the les- sons were highly complex, subtle, and even seemingly contradictory. World War I seemed to be a lesson about self-fulfilling crises, where the fear of war itself led to an arms race, while the arms race in turn led to a world primed for war. These lessons seemed to call for restraint in the arms race and avoidance of a self-fulfilling rush to war, and so even as Hitler rearmed Germany in the 1930s, in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles that had ended World War I, Britain avoided provocations that could spiral out of control. Most famously, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain argued that it would be better to accede to Ger- man demands on border adjustments with Czechoslovakia, and so “appeased” Hitler in the name of peace at the Munich conference in 1938, a disastrous mistake that fueled Hitler’s drive to war.4
If World War I seemed to argue against arms races and self-fulfilling prophecies of war, the lead-up to World War II, by contrast, seemed to argue for meeting strength with strength, and avoiding the temptation of “appeasement.” For Kennedy, the debate over appeasement was more than intellectual; it was intensely personal. John Kennedy watched closely as his father, Joe, strongly defended appeasement, indeed declaring that Chamberlain had no choice when he acceded to Hitler’s outrageous demands at the 1938 Munich conference, as Hitler would have defeated the United Kingdom in battle. When war finally broke out, the proponents of appeasement were humiliated and Joe Kennedy’s vast political ambitions were destroyed.5 The younger Kennedy would soon implicitly come down on Churchill’s side, writing in his first book, Why England Slept, that Britain had dangerously delayed rearming under the illusion that appeasing Hitler would keep it safe and out of war.6
As president, Kennedy would battle with these powerful and conflicting dynamics. Should he restrain the arms race in order to avoid a self-feeding race to war with the Soviet Union? Or should he strengthen U.S. arms in order to negotiate from strength? Should he make concessions to the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to acknowledge Soviet interests? Or should he hold the line to avoid the appearance and reality of appeasement? Kennedy would remain a student of history, and of Churchill, whom he most admired, trying to apply the complex lessons of the past to the urgent challenges of the present.
The Nuclear Arms Race
The problems of distrust between the Soviet Union and the United States were profound, pervasive, and persistent, and that distrust spurred the arms race. The two sides were of course rivals and competitors. And each side lied to the other, repeatedly and persistently. These were not grounds for easy trust. Nor was the historical context. Just a few years earlier, Hitler had cheated relentlessly, thereby winning significant concessions. Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich hung over the Cold War era: Don’t trust the other side. Better to arm to the teeth.
Even though there were enormous gains to be had by both the United States and the Soviet Union if they could agree on the postwar order in Europe, politicians on both sides found it nearly impossible to take any steps that required trust. If they did, they opened themselves up to extraordinarily harsh attacks by hardliners on their own side who denied that the other side would abide by any agreements. A U.S. politician who urged agreement with the Soviet Union risked immediate subjection to the cries of “Munich” and “appeasement,” powerful political charges and ones Kennedy was especially eager to avoid.
The two sides were trapped by two closely related problems: the prisoner’s dilemma and the security dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma holds that in the absence of long-term trust or binding agreements, the logic of inter-state rivalry will push both sides to arm. Should the United States arm or disarm? If the Soviet Union arms, the United States has no choice but to arm as well in order to avoid being the weaker side. If the Soviet Union disarms, then the United States gains military and political advantage by arming while the Soviet Union is weak. Therefore, arming is a “dominant” strategy: the best move no matter what the other side does. Since the logic is the same for the other side, both sides end up continually increasing their arms, even though a binding agreement to disarm would be mutually beneficial.7
The security dilemma, propounded by Robert Jervis, a leading political theorist, is a corollary of the prisoner’s dilemma.8 The security dilemma holds that a defensive action by one side will often be viewed by the other side as an offensive action. Thus, if the United States builds its nuclear arsenal to stave off a Soviet conventional land invasion of Europe, the Soviet Union will view the U.S. nuclear buildup as preparation for a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union rather than as a defensive measure. And if the Soviet Union tries to catch up with the U.S. nuclear arsenal, that will be viewed as an offensive action by the United States. U.S. hardliners would argue that the Soviet Union is trying to neutralize the U.S. nuclear deterrent so that the Soviet Union can launch a conventional attack.
As a result of the absence of trust, and the harsh logic of both the prisoner’s dilemma and the security dilemma, both sides continued to amass nuclear weapons to the point of massive overkill. And as the arsenals continued to expand, each side feared that the other was actually building up for a surprise first-strike attack. The United States indeed contemplated launching a preventive nuclear war, worried that it would be unable to defend itself in the future. Jervis recalled the words of the German statesman Otto von Bismarck, who called a preventive war “committing suicide from fear of death.”9
The nuclear arms race accelerated as the United States and the Soviet Union expanded their arsenals, and as the United Kingdom and France became nuclear powers (in 1952 and 1960, respectively) with their own independent arsenals. By 1960, the United States had nuclear warheads positioned in several countries around the world.10 The Soviet Union felt itself very much surrounded indeed, and increasingly unsure of whether these U.S. nuclear weapons were really under U.S. control.
Of course it wasn’t just the international situation that prompted the arms buildup on each side. It was also domestic politics. The military-industrial complex gained power within each government as time went on. In the United States, each branch of the military demanded its own nuclear arsenal, so that competition among the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Navy also drove up military budgets and the numbers of nuclear warheads and delivery systems. The same was true on the Soviet side, where there was far less constraint than in the United States on the political power of the military-industrial complex.
To the Brink
When Kennedy assumed office, he took to heart Churchill’s belief that political leaders must work actively to solve vexing international problems. He was intent on pursuing arms control, but was also a staunch Cold Warrior, partly out of conviction and partly out of political expediency, in order to protect himself from power- ful hardline anti-communists. Kennedy believed that he could untangle the dangerous conflicts with the Soviet Union. And, as Churchill urged, Kennedy would aim to solve these problems from a position of U.S. military strength and without relinquishing vital Western interests.
The tough and conciliatory sides of Kennedy’s negotiating strategy were mutually reinforcing. Churchill had long emphasized the essential role of negotiating with one’s adversary: “To jaw-jaw,” he said, “is always better than to war-war.”11 Churchill had called negotiation through strength his “double-barreled strategy,” and famously declared, “I do not hold that we should rearm in order to fight. I hold that we should rearm in order to parley.”12 In 1938, it had not been just a weakness of political will but also one of military preparedness that had led Chamberlain to appease Hitler at Munich.
Kennedy would refer to Churchill’s double-barreled approach in his campaign address in Seattle in September 1960:
It is an unfortunate fact that we can secure peace only by preparing for war. Winston Churchill said in 1949, “We arm to parley.” We can convince Mr. Khrushchev to bargain seriously at the conference table if he respects our strength.13
Kennedy had no doubt either of the enormous potential gains of cooperation with the Soviet Union, or of the grave risks if the United States cooperated (for instance, through arms control) while the Soviet Union reneged on its side of the deal. Cheating by the Soviet Union would threaten not only U.S. security, but also Kennedy’s hold on power domestically. Kennedy would repeatedly urge cooperation but remain alert that any move toward cooperation, however modest, could trigger political charges from the right that he was an appeaser.
The burdens on Kennedy were greater as a Democrat, since Republicans regularly assailed the Democratic Party for being “soft on communism.” Kennedy therefore aimed to assure all sides—the U.S. public, America’s allies, and of course the Soviet Union—that he would vigorously resist Soviet aggression and defend Western interests while he sought greater cooperation with the Soviet Union. He would aim, at the core, to pursue a tit-for-tat strategy (a way to break out of the prisoner’s dilemma by reciprocating cooperation from the other side), promising to join the Soviet Union in arms control, but also declaring repeatedly his readiness to revert to an arms race if the Soviet Union did not keep its promises. The tit-for-tat strategy of incremental cooperation was mapped out a year after Kennedy came to office by one of America’s leading sociologists, Amitai Etzioni, whose remarkable book The Hard Way to Peace spelled out a psychological approach to forging peace.14 Etzioni believed that confidence building was crucial, since in his view psychological rather than political or military factors were the decisive drivers of the Cold War. He propounded a notion of “psychological gradualism” to reduce fear, build trust, and initiate a phased process of reciprocated concessions. Eventually suspicion and fear would be “reduced to a level where fruitful negotiations are possible.”15 In many ways, Kennedy’s peace initiative in 1963 would pursue this approach.
Kennedy first signaled both aspects of his approach in his inaugural address on January 20, 1961.16 First came his robust, full-throated commitment to the defense of liberty:
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
But equally stirring was his commitment to pursue the mutual gains of cooperation:
So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate . . .
Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms—and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.
Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.
Kennedy’s emphasis on “precise proposals” was not incidental. Following Churchill once again, Kennedy believed that miscalculation with the Soviet Union would best be avoided through clear, detailed, and principled negotiating positions. Yet here too the ideal and the practical would collide. Negotiations are filled with feints, bluffs, and intermediate positions, and these inevitably raise the risk of miscalculation.
Kennedy was sincere in his inaugural address when he said, “So let us begin anew.” As a senator and as a presidential candidate he himself had helped to spur the arms race by opportunistically hammering away at Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration for allowing a “missile gap” to emerge, claiming in 1958 that there was every indication “that by 1960 the United States will have lost . . . its superiority in nuclear striking power.”17 In fact, the true missile gap, contrary to Kennedy’s claim, stood greatly in America’s favor. While the definitive knowledge of the Soviet Union’s very limited ballistic missile capacity was a closely held secret of the Eisenhower administration, based on secret U-2 spy plane flights, Senator Kennedy probably knew that he was exaggerating Soviet capabilities. As the presidential candidate running against hardline vice president Richard Nixon, Kennedy was especially keen to project a tough-minded foreign policy stance and avoid the charge of being soft on communism typically levied against Democrats. No matter what Kennedy may have believed as a candidate, he learned early in his presidency that there was no missile gap in the Soviets’ advantage.
Khrushchev would probably have understood the political reasons for Kennedy’s missile-gap rhetoric, and might even have benefited in a way from Kennedy’s exaggerated portrayal of Soviet power. Indeed, when Kennedy chose in October 1961 to reveal to the public the relative weakness of the Soviet nuclear force, Khrushchev was deeply aggrieved. Still, in the early days of the new administration, Khrushchev was intent on determining whether Kennedy was in fact a diehard Cold Warrior, like Eisenhower’s influential Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, or a potentially cooperative counterpart in peaceful coexistence. Early steps by Kennedy could therefore help to chart the course toward better relations.
In addition to their public speeches and the interaction of their diplomats, the two leaders would soon learn much more about each other in another way. Beginning with Khrushchev’s letter of congratulations to the newly elected Kennedy on November 9, 1960, the two men engaged until Kennedy’s death in a back-channel personal correspondence of more than a hundred letters. Both pledged that the letters would be held confidentially and never leaked for propaganda purposes. “For my part,” Kennedy wrote, “the contents and even the existence of our letters will be known only to the Secretary of State and a few other of my closest associates in the government.”18 Both leaders seem to have honored their pledges of confidentiality. The result is a most extraordinary exchange that together with other events offers critical insights into the thinking of both men, the issues that worried them, and their strategies for peace.
Kennedy’s Opening Provocations
Unfortunately for the prospects of U.S.-Soviet cooperation, and contrary to the approach of incremental cooperation, Kennedy came out swinging. He did this in three provocative ways. First, despite the fact that the United States was far ahead in nuclear weapons, Kennedy ordered a major military buildup of both nuclear and conventional arms. The total number of U.S. nuclear warheads would soar from 20,000 in 1960 to 29,000 in 1963, at a time when the Soviet Union had a small fraction of that number (1,600 in 1960 and 4,200 in 1963).19 Conventional forces were also greatly augmented, as Kennedy adopted a new model of “flexible response.” He was highly critical of Eisenhower’s nuclear policy of “massive retaliation” to meet Soviet threats, which purportedly relied on U.S. nuclear weapons to deter Soviet provocations. Kennedy wanted more non-nuclear options.20
Second, Kennedy approved a CIA plan for an invasion of Cuba, which would become the biggest blunder of his presidency. Third, he went ahead with a confrontational move that had been approved by his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. In 1958, Eisenhower had decided to strengthen the U.S. nuclear arsenal by posting intermediate-range nuclear missiles under U.S. control in Italy and Turkey. The placements of these Jupiter missiles were implemented in June 1960 in Italy and October 1961 (the first year of the Kennedy administration) in Turkey.21 The Soviet Union now faced the threat not only of America’s strategic bombers but also of nearby missiles that could reach the Soviet Union in minutes. This was a new and terrifying prospect that tipped the psychological and strategic balance toward the United States and constituted a major motivation for Khrushchev’s later attempt to put similar missiles into Cuba.
Kennedy sought to negotiate peace through strength, but these early moves were more than a mere show of strength: they were a ratcheting up of the Cold War. Here the contradictory lessons of World War I and World War II were starkly revealed. Kennedy was profoundly concerned about a war starting through mis- calculation, as had World War I, but was equally if not more concerned with being perceived as weak if he failed to project military strength and firmness. Yet by taking steps to build U.S. military strength and increase the number of U.S. military options, he inadvertently exacerbated the risks of terrible miscalculation, very much a case of Jervis’s security dilemma in operation.
At the time that Kennedy assumed the presidency, the CIA was already in high gear to topple Cuba’s new left-wing government, which had begun to confiscate U.S. assets and sidle up to the Soviet Union. America had long backed Cuba’s corrupt dictator, Fulgencio Batista, who offered privileges and protection to American investors in the nearby island, only ninety miles from Florida. During the 1950s, the young lawyer Fidel Castro led a guerrilla insurgency against Batista, finally succeeding in prompting the dictator to flee on January 1, 1959.22 No sooner had Castro consolidated his control over Cuba than Eisenhower and the CIA director, Allen Dulles (the brother of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles), began to plot a coup to bring him down. Castro was not yet a hardcore Soviet ally, though a partial U.S. trade embargo, initiated by the Eisenhower administration in 1960, was pushing Cuba in that direction. U.S. actions in 1961 would soon lead Cuba fully into the Soviet camp. The CIA briefed Kennedy early in his term about plans for a CIA-backed invasion of Cuba that would be carried out by Cuban expatriates. The planning was far advanced, as the CIA had prepared it in the final year of the Eisenhower administration.
From the start, Kennedy was deeply concerned not only about the invasion’s chances of success, but also about its implications for U.S.-Soviet relations. This would be among the first major moves in his new strategic game with Khrushchev, and it would be far from a cooperative one. Kennedy feared specifically that any action against Castro might prompt Soviet retaliation in Berlin, the hotspot of the Cold War. This linkage was probably exaggerated—the Soviets did not yet see Castro as vital—but it played a role in Kennedy’s thinking. The planned invasion was also one of Kennedy’s first foreign policy decisions. He did not yet have the confidence to disregard the CIA and the military.
Kennedy tried to have it both ways, and ended up in a disastrous muddle. He gave the green light to the CIA-based Cuban invasion in April 1961, but he wanted “deniability” of U.S. involvement and so withheld key military backing, such as air support, that was vital to any chance of military success. The hope of deniability was foolish; the U.S. role was obvious. Kennedy’s prevarication guaranteed a complete failure of the attack (a failure that was most likely in any event), followed by harsh international criticism of the United States. The operation was too small for success, but too large for deniability. The expatriates who landed at the Bay of Pigs were quickly killed or captured, and the entire episode ended ignominiously.23
In the postmortem, Kennedy met with Eisenhower to discuss the botched operation, and Eisenhower asked Kennedy why he had denied air cover for the invasion. The historian Michael Beschloss described the painful interchange:
Kennedy said, “Well, my advice was that we must try to keep our hands from showing in the affair.” Eisenhower was aghast: “How could you expect the world to believe we had nothing to do with it? Where did these people get the ships to go from Central America to Cuba? Where did they get the weapons? . . . I believe there is only one thing to do when you go into this kind of thing: it must be a success.”24
By itself, the CIA operation was foolish, naïve, and incompetently designed and managed. This was par for the course for the CIA, which had bungled one operation after another in many parts of the world. The Bay of Pigs fiasco also confirmed Kennedy’s deep mistrust of the military, which had begun with his experience in World War II. Kennedy told reporter and friend Ben Bradlee, “The first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.”25
It also contributed to a cascading set of errors. Forced to appear tough and decisive after the very public failure, Kennedy quickly called for increased military spending and harsher measures to destabilize the Castro regime.26 These included a series of hare-brained attempts to assassinate Castro, part of the larger anti-Castro strategy the CIA dubbed “Operation Mongoose.”27 As a result, both Castro and Khrushchev came to believe that Ken- nedy’s next gambit would be a full-fledged invasion of Cuba. That expectation contributed to the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year.
The Kennedy-Khrushchev private letters offer a remarkable interchange regarding the Bay of Pigs. The letters before the Bay of Pigs are highly congenial, the opening moves of confidence building under the tit-for-tat strategy. Khrushchev writes on Novem- ber 9, 1960, that he hopes Kennedy’s election will mean that “our countries would again follow the line along which they were developing in Franklin Roosevelt’s time,” when the two countries were allies.28 He holds out the prospect of important agreements: “we are ready, for our part, to continue efforts to solve such a pressing problem as disarmament, to settle the German issue through the earliest conclusion of a peace treaty and to reach agreement on other questions.”29 Kennedy responds that “a just and lasting peace will remain a fundamental goal of this nation and a major task of its President.”30 They begin to arrange an early summit meeting.
Yet the tone cracks in Khrushchev’s letter of April 18, two days after the Cuban invasion:
Mr. President, I send you this message in an hour of alarm, fraught with danger for the peace of the whole world. Armed aggression has begun against Cuba. It is a secret to no one that the armed bands invading this country were trained, equipped, and armed in the United States of America.31
“I approach you, Mr. President,” Khrushchev writes, “with an urgent call to put an end to aggression against the Republic of Cuba.”
Kennedy’s answer the same day is dreadfully maladroit. “You are under a serious misapprehension in regard to the events in Cuba,” he replies. “I have previously stated, and I repeat now, that the United States intends no military intervention in Cuba.”32 This patently false denial brings a powerful rebuke from Khrushchev four days later:
I have received your reply of April 18. You write that the United States intends no military intervention in Cuba. But numerous facts known to the whole world—and to the Government of the United States, of course, better than to any one else—speak differently. Despite all assurances to the contrary, it has now been proved beyond doubt that it was precisely the United States which prepared the intervention, financed its arming and transported the gangs of mercenaries that invaded the territory of Cuba.33
Kennedy’s denial marked the second notable U.S. presidential lie to Khrushchev in less than a year. The previous summer, the CIA had pressed Eisenhower to permit another round of U-2 spy flights over the Soviet Union. He reluctantly agreed. When a U-2 plane was shot down, the CIA and Eisenhower assumed that the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, had been killed and the plane destroyed in the crash. They therefore publicly lied about the mission, claiming that a U.S. weather-research plane had lost its way and crashed in Soviet airspace. Khrushchev then revealed Eisenhower’s lie by producing not only the U-2 wreckage, but the live pilot as well. U.S. perfidy was exposed, and Eisenhower was forced to take responsibility. Yet this was not a simple public relations victory for Khrushchev. It was a bitter setback for Khrushchev’s concept of peaceful coexistence. It also undercut his domestic credibility, as he had initially defended Eisenhower as not responsible for the U-2 flight, and the exposure of Eisenhower’s lie seemed to give credence to the Soviet hardliners who argued that the United States could not be trusted. Khrushchev soon enough would demonstrate his capacity to lie about weighty matters as well; the Cold War was not a game played by saints. Yet the back-to-back prevarications by Eisenhower and Kennedy surely emboldened Khrushchev in his own future dissembling regarding nuclear testing and Cuba.
In a follow-up letter to Kennedy (May 16), Khrushchev acknowledges that “a certain open falling out has taken place in the relations between our countries.”34 Yet he set the ground for an upcoming June meeting with Kennedy in Vienna by emphasizing the key point he sees: the importance of a U.S.-Soviet settlement on Germany. The fate of postwar Germany had proved a constant source of tension between the two superpowers since the dawn of the Cold War, and never more so than when Kennedy took office. It is therefore crucial to revisit some of this history.
At the July 1945 Potsdam conference at the end of World War II, it was agreed that a council of the four major Allied powers (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union) would administer postwar Germany, but the “how” was left unspecified.35 In the short term, the four powers accepted that Germany would be divided into four occupation zones and that each occupying power would manage its own zone until longer-term arrangements for a unified Germany could be agreed upon. The capital city of Berlin, though falling within the Soviet zone, was also divided among the four powers. But the longer-term arrangements for Germany were never agreed upon, and relations between the West and the Soviet Union quickly deteriorated once there was no common enemy of Hitler to unite them.36 The United States, France, and the United Kingdom soon amalgamated their occupation zones into a single entity, which in 1949 became the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). The Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The failure to agree on the fate of a unified Germany sowed the seeds for many of the Cold War conflicts that followed.
Herein lay the basic dilemma. The Soviet Union—which had lost more than twenty million soldiers and civilians in World War II—feared a German resurgence, and thereby asserted harsh control over the Soviet occupation zone of Germany. Not only that, but Joseph Stalin, the brutal leader of the Soviet Union since the mid-1920s, ruthlessly created satellite states in Eastern Europe (in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and elsewhere) under single-party communist rule, thereby establishing a controlling corridor from Russia all the way to the heart of Germany. To the Western powers, these actions seemed to suggest a Soviet plan to dominate all of Europe, if not the world. While U.S. leaders had initially favored deindustrializing Germany at the end of the war to prevent it from again becoming an economic and military power,37 they quickly changed their minds in the face of the perceived Soviet aggression. They instead decided to reindustrialize the western part of Germany as rapidly as possible as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and to strengthen Western Europe generally.38 The Soviet Union viewed the hardening of U.S. positions as a violation of agreements intended to prevent a long-term resurgence of German power.
It’s not hard to see where this led. As West Germany got stronger, Soviet anxieties rose. As the Soviet Union’s anxieties rose, it became more belligerent in response, and the West then became even more determined to rebuild West Germany to resist Soviet domination. This explosive dynamic continued after Kennedy’s assumption of office.
Making things even more difficult for Kennedy was the fact that Eisenhower had proved neither very attentive nor interested in the Soviet concerns vis-à-vis Germany. Eisenhower stood strongly in favor of Germany’s economic and military recovery, in part because he wanted Western Europe to defend itself so that U.S. troops could return home.39 Eisenhower liked neither the cost of stationing U.S. troops in Europe nor the long-term political commitment. Eisenhower believed that U.S. commitments should be tapered down as soon as Europe could take up the burdens of its own defense.40 And if that even meant a Western Europe with nuclear weapons, he was generally for it.
In the final years of the Eisenhower administration, in response to the European desire for nuclear weapons, the United States and NATO—the military alliance of Western powers, formed in 1955—began floating the idea of “nuclear sharing” among the NATO countries, perhaps through a nuclear Multilateral Force (MLF). The United States saw the MLF as a way to share nuclear weapons with allies and give Europe its own deterrent without having to give any one nation full control and the power to launch a nuclear weapon unilaterally.41 This prospect, particularly of West German nuclear access, was a crucial factor in the dramatic heating up of U.S.-Soviet tensions in the lead-up to Kennedy’s presidency. This point is made forcefully by the historian Marc Trachtenberg in A Constructed Peace (1999), one of the most incisive and important historical analyses of this phase of the Cold War.
Kennedy did not yet have a strategy for Germany, and indeed was pressed hard by the West German leader Konrad Adenauer not to have one. From Adenauer’s point of view, any thaw in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union would likely come at West Germany’s expense. But Kennedy would listen to and learn from Khrushchev’s repeated and heated concerns over Germany, especially concerning Germany’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Kennedy would eventually break with Adenauer on that question, thereby paving the way to closer cooperation with the Soviet Union. But that breakthrough was still two years in the future, and dire risks were strewn on the path to success.
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