Summit Asymmetries


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.

Moscow Summit: 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. No one mentioned Soviet SA-2 missiles and thousands of Russian-built anti-aircraft guns along with MiG jet fighter planes downing U.S. planes over North Vietnam. Nobody objected that a Soviet Air Force general and a slew of advisors and technicians were directing the air defense of North Vietnam along with the interrogation of Air Force and Navy prisoners of war, especially those with a background in nuclear war delivery systems, strategies, and tactics.

The Moscow summit opened the door to an era of détente during which the Soviet Union further descended into economic doldrums while America, under President Jimmy Carter, endured a decade of strategic malaise before President Ronald Reagan began a military buildup bolstered by an American economic revival that consigned the Soviet Union to the dustbin of political history.

Fast Forward to Helsinki July 16, 2018

While President Donald Trump was in Britain after a successful NATO summit, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers on charges of interfering in the November 2016 national elections. Democrats and no small number of Republicans, joined by a majority of the Washington establishment including much of the media, urged canceling Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Make no mistake: Russia interfered with the American political process. That is not news nor is it new. The indictments, however, allowed Democrats to re-energize their accusations of collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Moscow, for which there is absolutely no evidence. That’s irrelevant to Trump’s opponents, which include most Democrats and some “establishment” Republicans, along with much of the libertarian cohort.

The “collusion conspiracy” hatched from the Russian GRU’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee revealed the Clinton campaign rigging the primaries against Bernie Sanders. This alienated some Sanders supporters. The Republicans won because they ran a more strategically targeted campaign. Russian intelligence has, however, done well with the usual cohort of useful idiots on the American left to include much of what are now the Democrat Party establishment, American academe, and the mainstream media. That ultimately likewise poses a great danger, as does a revived Russia.


—Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.