6. Tests and Toughness: JFK’s False Start on the Proliferation Question, 1961–1962
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6 Tests and Toughness JFK’s False Start on the Proliferation �uestion, 1961–1962 ​ “Courage,” John F. Kennedy claimed, stood as the “most admirable of human virtues.”Asasenator,KennedylenthisnametoProfilesinCourage,aghostwritten paean to politicians who bravely resisted popular pressure to compromise their “ethics,” “integrity,” and “morality.” Principle proved more important to these leaders than did political success. While campaigning for president, Kennedy invoked their virtuous examples, portraying himself as a war hero and a “tough-minded” leader. In practice, JFK proved far more attuned to his electoral fortunes than to his private convictions. While senator, he had warned “of a nuclear holocaust being initiated for irrational reasons by a fanatic or a demagogue” should nuclear proliferation continue unchecked. As president, he made clear that the demagogue he most feared ruled in Beijing. The Soviets also hoped to impede Chinese, as well as West German, access to the bomb. Yet Kennedy and Khrushchev faced domestic critics, especially in their own defense establishments, who did not support a modus vivendi to contain proliferation. Unwilling to sacrifice his political standing for an agreement with Moscow, Kennedy resorted to false machismo and a traditional positions-of-strength policy, including a massive military buildup, and he resumed nuclear testing, all undercutting his arms control goals. By spring 1962, the prospects of a nonproliferation agreement seemed dimmer than at any other point since 1958.1 146  Tests and Toughness Nine Strangers and a Brother Kennedy entered office publicly and personally committed to a test ban and nonproliferation. After his friend Senator Clinton Anderson persuaded him that it would benefit national security, Kennedy had supported Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson’s call for a test moratorium in 1956. Three years later, a series of conversations with his close friend British diplomat David Ormsby-Gore strengthened his desire to curb testing and proliferation.That same year, Kennedy publicly condemned nuclear proliferation and argued that a test ban would place a major obstacle in the path of potential nuclear powers. This conviction did not fade during the 1960 presidential campaign. After his election, Kennedy instructed his staff to study how best to halt both European and Chinese proliferation. Secretary of State Christian Herter also warned him that Israel and India had shown signs of initiating nuclear weapons programs and advised the new administration to seek inspection and control of each country’s nuclear facilities. Shortly after the November election, Khrushchev attempted to assess Kennedy’s commitment to nonproliferation. The Soviet embassy in Washington depicted Kennedy as “a typical pragmatist” with no firm convictions. This personality profile noted Kennedy’s willingness to negotiate with Moscow , especially on arms control, but warned that the new president believed that the arms race would continue until the United States had reclaimed its “position of strength” throughout the world. Despite this guarded assessment , Khrushchev sent a wave of emissaries to sound out the incoming administration ’s attitudes toward détente and disarmament. Soviet ambassador Mikhail Menshikov visited Adlai Stevenson, who many thought would be the next secretary of state, and informed him that Moscow had “high hopes” for a test ban treaty.2 Others close to Kennedyalso received private assurances that Khrushchev wanted to improve U.S.-Soviet relations and negotiate nonproliferation measures . Walt W. Rostow and W. Averell Harriman, both of whom would hold numerous foreign policy positions in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations , became convinced that the Soviets urgently sought arms control. In late 1960, Rostow met with Soviet scientists and bureaucrats during two conferences, one in the United States and the other in the Soviet Union, organized by private nuclear disarmament groups.To his surprise, Moscow’s representatives seemed serious about arms control. Harriman emerged as the most frequent contact for Khrushchev’s emissaries. Menshikovand other Tests and Toughness  147 Soviet officials left Harriman with the impression that Moscow desired arms control agreements both to release economic resources for consumer production and to diminish the threat of German and Chinese proliferation. These initial hopes fordétente soon faded. Kennedy’s major foreign policy appointments signaled a tough public line with Moscow. The new president bypassed Harriman, Stevenson, and Chester Bowles, a foreign policy adviser during the campaign, all of whom had advocated reducing Cold War tensions . Kennedy instead appointed Dean Rusk, a veteran of Truman’s State Department, as secretary of state. For the other national security posts, the president selected Republicans: Robert S. McNamara as secretaryof defense, McGeorge Bundy as national security affairs adviser, and John J. McCloy as disarmament adviser. Kennedy...


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Subject Headings

  • Nuclear weapons -- Government policy -- United States -- History.
  • Nuclear arms control -- United States -- History
  • Nuclear nonproliferation -- United States -- History.
  • Nuclear weapons -- Government policy -- Developing countries -- History.
  • Nuclear arms control -- Developing countries -- History.
  • Nuclear nonproliferation -- Developing countries -- History.
  • United States -- Foreign relations -- Developing countries.
  • Developing countries -- Foreign relations -- United States.
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