“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
When John F. Kennedy took the podium in to deliver his inaugural address in January 1961, he did so in the context of a country on the precipice of its largest direct conflict with the Soviet Union since the beginning of the Cold War.
The dominant position held by the United States during the 1950s, due to uncontested military supremacy afforded by their nuclear advantage was now beginning to decline. Kennedy himself campaigned on the fear that the Soviet Union had reached or surpassed the ability of the United States to decimate its enemy, as well as the growing threat of communism as a political force globally, spreading in countries as large as China and near as Cuba.
However, Kennedy’s prescription was not an escalation of the arms race, nor did he view isolation on the part of the United States as a means to achieve safety. Instead, Kennedy strongly believed that negotiating with the Soviet Union as a means to halt increasingly competitive nuclear weapons tests would be an important first step towards an all important end ultimate goal – keeping additional countries from obtaining nuclear weapons that could destroy humanity.
“You have offered us an apple for an orchard. We don’t do that in this country.”
One of Kennedy’s first challenges as president was managing the long standing and turbulent Berlin crisis.
From the end of the World War II through the beginning of his presidency, Berlin had remained divided among the United States, Britain, France and Soviet Union, with each party refusing to leave out of fear that a unified Germany might irreparably swing the future balance of Europe towards either democracy or communism.
The quote above was stated by Kennedy during an oval office meeting with the Soviet Ambassador to the United States while heated negotiations over the Berlin Crisis continued in the fall of 1961. The “apple” Kennedy was referring to was a guarantee on the part of the Soviet Union and East Germany to continue to allow access to West Berlin, which Soviet Chairman Krushchev was threatening to remove if Kennedy did not meet his “orchard” of demands. These demands included an agreement that would legitimize the communist government in Eastern Germany, as well as a rollback of military forces that kept the Soviet Union from expanding its own presence in Europe.
Little did they know that just one year later they would be thrust in to negotiations over new and potentially more dangerous apples and orchards during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world held on for thirteen days in October 1962 as the United States and Soviet Union attempted to avoid the unthinkable.
“So, let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved.”
While Kennedy negotiated his way through two perilous sparks in Berlin and Cuban, he continued to stay vigilant in his desire to find agreement with the Soviet Union to prevent continued testing of more powerful and destructive nuclear weapons.
Despite numerous breakdowns during negotiations, a resumption of the testing by the Soviet Union during the Berlin Crisis, as well as subsequent lies about strategic missiles in Cuba, Kennedy continued to maintain dialogue both publicly and privately with Krushchev, in the hopes of swaying him towards a mutually beneficial treaty that could stem their recent atomic accelerations.
But in addition to managing the impressions of the Soviets internally in a way to keep them at the bargaining table, Kennedy needed to press publicly for a test ban treaty without giving his own political rivals an opportunity to attack him for being weak on communism. He was able to manage this balance brilliantly in a commencement address at American University in June 1963 (quoted above).
Just months after what came to be known as the “peace speech”, his lead negotiator in Moscow was able to seal the deal on a historic US-Soviet treaty, prohibiting further harmful nuclear testing in the atmosphere and marking an incredible triumph of President Kennedy’s leadership towards negotiating a safer future.