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The city of Vienna in Austria hosted the Cold War leaders Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy for a meeting on 3 June 1961. Initially, their meeting seemed to have very few tangible outcomes. However, this summit is often regarded as the catalyst for the building of The Berlin Wall. It is also associated with the closest the world ever came to full-blown nuclear war, in the form of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
How did two days of talks result in two of the defining events of the Cold War?
Let’s see some of the key facts about the summit.
On 3-4 June 1961, the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, and newly elected US President John F. Kennedy met for the first time at a summit in Vienna, Austria. They were there to discuss various issues in the relationship between the two powers. Prior to the meeting, the two had conversed only in writing, exchanging niceties and suggesting ways to improve the international situation.
A meeting between two heads of government.
During the talks, the two devoted a lot of time to discussing the political situation in Laos and the Berlin crisis. They came to an agreement regarding Laos, but Berlin proved far more troublesome. Khrushchev wanted the US to sign a peace treaty and remove its troops from West Berlin, but Kennedy refused. By the end of the summit, nothing tangible about Berlin had come out of the talks, apart from a 125-word, general joint statement.
Clear or definite results that can easily be seen, felt or noticed.
Several international events and disputes compelled the two leaders to meet and engage in talks. They came with preconceptions of each other, which made them believe they would be able to manipulate the other to achieve their own aims.
One of the major issues prompting Kennedy and Khrushchev’s talks was the ongoing situation in the German city of Berlin. They wanted to resolve the disputes over the US presence in West Berlin, which had been festering through the final years of the presidency of Kennedy's predecessor, Eisenhower. Khrushchev felt Kennedy was younger and more inexperienced. A meeting with him might result in him bending to Khrushchev’s demands.
The issue of Berlin had sparked tension between the Soviet Union and the United States since its division between the powers after World War II. Arguments about it dominated Khrushchev’s political interactions. It has been described as the epicentre of the tension between the US and the USSR. Khrushchev likened it to a
bone stuck in our throat.¹
These issues arose as Berlin was situated entirely in the Soviet zone of Germany. Yet the city was split between East Berlin, part of the Soviet zone that became the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1949, and West Berlin, which remained part of what became the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in 1949. West Berlin was effectively surrounded by the GDR.
Berlin had been a source of tension since the end of the Second World War. The Soviets cut off the land route between West Germany and West Berlin during the Berlin blockade in 1948. The US then had to airlift over 2.3 million tons of food, fuel, and other goods to West Berlin.2
For East Germans, Berlin offered a ‘window’ into what life was like in the West. The GDR was run by hardline communist Walter Ulbricht, and had poor living conditions, low wages, and lack of freedom compared to the more prosperous FRG. Between 1949 and 1961, over 2 million East Germans (many of them young professionals with a good education) defected to the West. The GDR closed the internal borders between East and West in 1952 to quell the flow. In Berlin, however, it remained quite easy to move from east to west.
A term used to refer to the mass exodus of the highly skilled and educated population from East Germany.
To leave a country or political party in order to join an opposing one.
The Soviet Union was desperate for a solution to stop this exodus. East Germany needed skilled workers to rebuild the economy. Equally, fleeing citizens meant bad publicity. Khrushchev pushed for the US to remove their troops from the city and hand border responsibilities over to the East German government, which would essentially allow them to deny East Germans passage. Eisenhower refused as he wanted to protect the freedom of West Berlin.
Eisenhower and Khrushchev met on several occasions to try and negotiate a deal but were never successful. The Vienna Summit offered a new opportunity for the dispute to be settled.
Laos, located in southeast Asia, provided the first foreign policy crisis faced by Kennedy. Laos had a fragile political system and faced a ‘communist threat’. His aim to establish neutrality in Laos was a major factor in his engaging in face-to-face talks with Khrushchev.
Laos was engaged in a civil war from 1959–75, between the communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao government. During this period three different factions were vying for power in Laos:
The right-wing Royal Lao government.
The communist Laotian nationalist movement, the Pathet Lao, that was allied with the Vietnamese.
Motivated by the Domino Theory, Eisenhower attempted to create a strong anti-Communist base in Laos to function as a bulwark against the bordering states of communist China and North Vietnam. His government supported the Royal Lao government and committed millions of dollars to their fight against the Pathet Lao.
The theory that if one state falls to communism, others will follow suit like dominoes.
A person or thing that acts as a defence.
Eisenhower had warned Kennedy before his inauguration that the fight against the Pathet Lao was on the verge of failure, and the situation might require US military intervention. Wanting to avoid this, Kennedy hoped to reach a settlement with the Soviet Union to establish a neutral government in Laos. This was an urgent priority for Kennedy before the Vienna Summit.
Kennedy’s failed attempt to overthrow Cuba’s communist leader Fidel Castro, in what became known as the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, rocked the congenial relationship between Khrushchev and Kennedy. Kennedy knew he needed to meet Khrushchev in person as soon as possible to mitigate potential conflict between the US and USSR. Khrushchev was also eager to meet Kennedy, as the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion led him to believe that Kennedy was a weak leader who could be easily manipulated.
In 1953, Castro had led the Cuban revolution against the US-backed military dictatorship of President Fulgencio Batista, overthrowing him in 1958. US-Cuba relations deteriorated and the US placed embargos on sugar and other Cuban exports. Cuba forged an alliance with the Soviet Union, with Castro and Khrushchev forming a strong relationship after meeting in New York in 1960.
An official ban on trade with a country.
Concerned that Castro was collaborating with the Soviets to spread communism in Latin America, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) organised a clandestine operation to overthrow his government. From April 1960, the CIA began recruiting and training anti-Castro Cuban exiles for this purpose. Under Kennedy, these exiles were sent to invade Cuba via the Bay of Pigs (a bay on the southwestern coast of Cuba). They failed miserably, as Castro was aware of the invasion and had a far stronger force.
A military or intelligence operation carried out secretly, so it goes unnoticed by the public or enemy forces.
The operation ended when Kennedy was forced to exchange $53 million worth of food and medicine for the men Castro had imprisoned. It was a humiliating defeat for the US and Kennedy, and the CIA was criticised for its lack of organisation and planning.
Someone who has moved away from their native country by choice or compulsion (often political or punitive).
The Vienna Summit lasted two days, with Khrushchev and Kennedy discussing the key issues in international relations, while not always reaching the same conclusions. Kennedy suggested that neither superpower attempt to upset the existing balance of power in any region where the other was already involved.
The Austrian response was defined by tolerance. The lack of protests or disturbances demonstrated that country’s neutrality. For many years afterwards, Vienna became the seat of major international organisations such as the United Nations. Many credited the reception for this meeting in establishing Vienna’s credentials as a good host city.
On the first day, little progress was made on the topic of Laos. However, day two saw Kennedy and Khrushchev agree on a ceasefire, neutrality, and a coalition government. They would do this by creating an agreement between the three forces in Laos to secure a neutral government. Neither wanted to be involved in a proxy war in Laos.
This agreement served as a test case for prospects of US-Soviet cooperation, and offered hope for future relations.
A war fought between two groups or smaller countries that represent the interests of other larger powers. These larger powers may support them but are not directly involved in the fighting.
The Berlin question did not see the same results, though the two leaders dedicated a significant amount of time to it. Khrushchev asked again for the US to remove their troops from West Berlin, proposing a peace treaty supporting the existence of the GDR and FRG.
A treaty between two or more hostile parties that agrees to formally end a state of war between the parties.
He suggested that if the US was concerned about the freedom of West Berlin, it could keep troops there, but Soviet troops would have to be there too. If the US refused, however, USSR would sign a unilateral peace agreement. This peace treaty between the USSR and the GDR would end the post-war commitments of the four powers in East Germany. This would essentially mean that French, UK, and US occupation rights would become invalid in West Germany, meaning they would no longer have authority there and would have to remove their troops. Soviet occupation rights would also become invalid in East Germany. However, since East Germany was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, it would still exercise control there, as in the rest of the Eastern Bloc.
A country that is formally independent but under heavy political influence from another (here, the Soviet Union).
The US did not support the peace treaty proposal as it felt it would lose its influence in West Berlin. The East German government would assume complete control of East Berlin, with the US only able to control West Berlin with permission.
Kennedy refused, leading to arguments over Berlin during the two days. Khrushchev said to Kennedy,
If the US wants to start a war over Germany, let it be so.3
By the end of the Summit, no agreement over Berlin had been reached, and Kennedy concluded the conversation by observing it would be a cold winter.
The Vienna Summit was initially seen as a diplomatic triumph for the US. Kennedy had not backed down to Khrushchev’s demands, and the Laos issue had been resolved. These claims were subsequently dismissed due to events such as the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, some observers have argued that the Summit prevented a full-blown war.
The Vienna Summit allowed for the 1962 peace conference in Geneva, which produced the Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos. This established a coalition government in Laos between the three factions.
A government formed jointly by more than one political party.
However, the declaration was flimsy and did not restore peace in Laos. The civil war resumed soon after the accord was reached, and Laos became a battlefield in the Vietnam War. The Ho Chi Minh Trail established there was used by the Communist forces as a crucial supply route from North to South Vietnam. To disrupt these supplies, the US bombed Laos for nearly a decade, in what was known as The Secret War.
In 1975, the Pathet Lao took control of Laos and turned it into a communist country, rendering Kennedy’s efforts in the Vienna Summit futile.
As no agreements were reached regarding Berlin, Khrushchev gave the US another six months to comply with its demands. Kennedy continued to reject these, activated 150,000 reservists, and increased defence expenditure.
Soldiers that are not serving in the regular army but can be called to serve when needed.
As refugees continued to flee East Germany to West Berlin, Ulbricht decided to take extreme measures. On 13 August 1961, Berliners woke to a makeshift barbed wire and concrete block fence separating West and East Berlin. Named the ‘antifascist protection wall’, this would be built up into the Berlin Wall, which separated the eastern and western sections of the city until it was finally brought down in 1989.
Its creation resulted in one of the most tense moments of the Cold War. Soviet and US troops engaged in a standoff on either side of the diplomatic checkpoint. Both states stationed tanks there. The situation only eased when Kennedy suggested Khrushchev remove his tanks, following which the US would reciprocate.
Before the Summit both leaders had presumptions about each other, and were coming from different positions of power. Kennedy had just suffered humiliation at the Bay of Pigs and was seen as inexperienced, whereas Khrushchev had put the first man in space.
After the meeting, Kennedy felt humiliated by Khrushchev, telling the New York Times that Khrushchev ‘beat the hell out of me’.4 Khruschev was far more positive about the Summit, but historian William Taubman argues in his book Khrushchev: The Man and his Era (2003) that was simply because he could ‘push Kennedy around’ (p.495).
However, the meeting was not completely disastrous for Kennedy. His firmness on Berlin made Khrushchev revise his view of him. Kennedy came to understand Khrushchev a lot better during the meeting, which helped the sides in averting catastrophe later.
Historian Stefan Karner believes that the tentative ties built up during the Vienna Summit staved off disaster during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the standoff at the Berlin Wall. He argues in the book The Vienna Summit and its Importance in International History (2014) that ‘Vienna most likely contributed to the Cold War not becoming a hot one.’ These relationships allowed the two powers to negotiate and ultimately avoided a full-blown war.
1. Raymond L. Garthoff, ‘Berlin 1961: The Record Corrected’, Foreign Policy, 84(3), 1991.
2. Tara Finn, ‘Coal, Calories and Candy Bombers: the Berlin Airlift 1948-9’, Gov.uk, 2018.
3. Office of the Historian, Memorandum of Conversation: Meeting between the president and Chairman Khrushchev in Vienna, 1961.
4. Thrall, Nathan and Wilkins, Jesse, ‘Kennedy Talked, Khrushchev Triumphed’, The New York Times, 2008.
The Vienna Summit took place on 3-4 June 1961 in the Austrian capital.
The Vienna Summit was important because it was the first face-to-face meeting between the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and the US President John F. Kennedy. The meeting allowed the two to form opinions of each other. Notably, Nikita Khrushchev got the impression that Kennedy was weak and easily pushed around. Arguably, this encouraged him to make daring moves such as building the Berlin Wall, and sending ballistic missiles to Cuba, which resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Vienna Summit was the first-ever face-to-face meeting between the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and the US President John F. Kennedy, convened to discuss the political situation in Laos and the Berlin crisis. The two were received in the capital of Austria, Vienna, and spent two days discussing these issues.
The Vienna Summit lasted for two days. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US President John F. Kennedy engaged in talks in the Austrian capital on the 3-4 June 1961.
Nobody overtly won the Vienna Summit. However, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev appeared to come out with the upper hand. Kennedy was ill-prepared and gave Khrushchev the impression that he was a weak and ineffectual leader. This arguably led to Khrushchev making the brash decisions to build the Berlin Wall, and ship ballistic missiles to Cuba. Both of these actions, however, did contribute towards Khrushchev’s ouster as leader of the Soviet Union, as he was criticised for his recklessness. One could argue that he ultimately lost.
What was particularly significant for Kennedy and Khrushchev at the Vienna Summit?
It was the first time they met in person.
What tangible outcome on Berlin did the talks have?
A 125-word general joint statement.
Why did Khrushchev feel that he might get his way regarding the Berlin crisis?
He saw Kennedy as being younger and more inexperienced than him. Kennedy’s failure at the Bay of Pigs also contributed to this.
What does the ‘brain drain’ refer to?
The mass exodus of educated, skilled professionals from East Germany to the west.
What were the three different factions vying for power in Laos? Choose three.
The Royal Lao government
Why did Kennedy feel that Laos was so important? Choose two.
Eisenhower had committed millions of dollars to fight the Pathet Lao.
What major Cuban product did the US place an embargo on?
What was the long term effect for Austria of the Vienna Summit and why?
For many years later Vienna became the seat of major international organisations such as the United Nations and many credited the reception for this Summit in establishing Vienna as a good hosting city. When the two leaders arrived, Austrians came to watch the spectacle, but this was defined by tolerance. The lack of protests or disturbances demonstrated Austria’s neutrality.
What did Kennedy and Khrushchev agree on regarding Laos? Choose three.
Why did the US not support the peace treaty Khrushchev put forward in relation to Berlin?
They felt they would lose their influence in West and East Berlin. The East German government would assume complete control of East Berlin, while the US would only be able to control West Berlin with its permission.
To what extent was Laos a success story for Kennedy?
Whilst the agreement on Laos was initially a success for the American side, later events ruled otherwise. The civil war continued just one year after the neutrality agreement was established. Laotians were subjected to a brutal bombing campaign by the US, and in 1975 the Pathet Lao took control of the country.
What did Berliners wake up to on 13 August 1961?
A makeshift barbed wire and concrete block fence separating West and East Berlin, that would later become the Berlin Wall.
How did the standoff between Soviet and US troops on either side end?
Kennedy suggested that Khrushchev remove his tanks. The US would reciprocate.
How did Khrushchev and Kennedy’s relationship change after the Summit?
Before the Summit, both leaders had presumptions about each other, and were coming from different positions of power. After the meeting, Kennedy felt humiliated by Khrushchev. The Soviet leader was far more positive, as he felt he was able to push Kennedy around.
However, Kennedy’s firmness on Berlin made Khrushchev revise his view of him. Kennedy came to understand Khrushchev a lot better during the meeting as well, which helped the two sides in averting catastrophe later.
In which situation did the Vienna Summit prevent catastrophe? Choose two.
The Vietnam War
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