JFK's Berlin Wall blunder

Khrushchev treated Kennedy with brutal disdain. In excruciating pain from his ailing back and pumped full of perhaps disorienting drugs by his disreputable doctor (who would lose his medical license in 1975), Kennedy said that it was the “worst thing in my life. He savaged me.” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said, “For the first time in his life, Kennedy met a man who was impervious to his charm.” Kempe writes, “From that point forward Khrushchev would act more aggressively in the conviction that there would be little price to pay.” Kempe says that when Robert Kennedy met with his brother back in Washington, “Tears were running down the president’s cheeks.”…

On July 30, in a Sunday morning television interview, Sen. William Fulbright said: “I don’t understand why the East Germans don’t close their border because I think they have a right to close it.” He was wrong regarding the four powers’ rights, and five days later he apologized for giving “an unfortunate and erroneous impression.” But Kennedy, who did not dispute Fulbright’s mistake, evidently welcomed it.

After Aug. 13, an unsympathetic Kennedy, who never asserted the indisputable legal right of free movement of people throughout Berlin, told New York Times columnist James Reston that East Germans had had 15 years to flee to the West. Reston wrote that Kennedy “has talked like Churchill but acted like Chamberlain.” Clearly, there was a causal connection between Kennedy’s horrible 1961 and the Cold War’s most perilous moment — Khrushchev’s 1962 gamble on putting missiles in Cuba.