Book Review: The 1961 Vienna Summit

Drawing on previously inaccessible sources, a monumental anthology sheds important new light on Cold War diplomacy.

Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy meeting in Vienna, 1961 | Photo: U.S. National Archives

In a meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the Soviet Embassy in Vienna on June 4, 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy referred to Vienna as “a city that is symbolic of the possibility of finding equitable solutions.”

The events on June 3 and 4 would prove how true this was. The Cold War took a short “breather” following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and before the Berlin Crisis to follow just two months later in August and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of the following year. Managing to organize a summit and bring the leaders of the two superpowers together with less than two weeks’ notice was a tribute to the flexibility, diplomatic talent, and organizational ability of the Austrians, who accepted the challenge as hosts.

From June 30 to July 8, 1960, Nikita Khrushchev had had made a state visit to Austria and toured the country at the invitation of Austrian Federal Chancellor Julius Raab. Khrushchev was so taken with Austria and the Austrians’ hospitality that he suggested Vienna as the location for the first bi-lateral superpower meeting. The Vienna Summit established Austria’s reputation as a neutral state and led to further summits in the city in 1975 between U.S. President Gerald R. Ford and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, the Vienna Disarmament Talks, and the 1979 summit for signing the SALT II Treaty.

In Der Wiener Gipfel 1961, a group of distinguished Austrian and Russian authors attempt a broad study not only of the summit itself, but also of the events of 1961, especially the later Berlin Crisis that culminated in the building of the Wall in August. Drawing widely from previously inaccessible sources and eyewitness accounts, it brings new weight to the literature on Cold War diplomacy and U.S.-Soviet relations as well as the foreign policy perspectives of these two nations. At the same time, it also does justice to the role of Austria as a neutral state and to how the Soviets and Americans viewed the crisis spots in the world in 1961-1962.

At 1,055 pages, this is a monumental work, and it will certainly be the standard reference on the Vienna Summit in German for many years to come.  Well written and a pleasure to read, even with its daunting size, the various perspectives of the authors are well integrated to make the final product more than worth the €39 purchase price.

In a sense, the title of the book is misleading since Der Wiener Gipfel 1961 also includes four further sections on the meaning of the Vienna Summit for international politics; on the context of the summit; on the Berlin Crisis; and finally on the Soviet Union and Austria. The book itself is well organized and detailed, including a look at the influence of Peking on the Khrushchev-Kennedy meeting as well as the Laos question, precursor to the Vietnam War, and Khrushchev’s engagement within the context of the 1960-1961 Congo Crisis.

In fact, as becomes clear from the book and its depiction of the events preceding and following the summit, the world in the summer of 1961 was an extremely unstable and dangerous place. A Paris Summit scheduled for May 16, 1960, had collapsed due to the shoot down of a U.S. U2 reconnaissance plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers over Soviet airspace on May 1. The United States’ cover up of the incident and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s refusal to apologize led to Soviet Premier Khrushchev leaving the Summit, which was thus a failure. Relations between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. worsened to the point of paralysis in the intervening year.

The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and his inauguration as president in 1961 provided a chance to schedule a new summit and to show off Kennedy’s new diplomacy to the world. Kennedy was worried that he would not be able to show his strength in foreign policy and would be viewed as a foreign policy “lightweight,” but the Vienna Summit laid these fears to rest, and Kennedy’s wife Jacqueline wowed the world with her style and grace at the so-called Ladies’ Summit.

Despite the precarious political situation in 1961, the Vienna Summit provided an opportunity for the leaders of the world’s two superpowers to meet face to face and to better understand one another before the impending, critical crises of 1961 and 1962 when knowing the other side would prove advantageous to defusing armed conflict and restoring a state of mutual tolerance, the “peaceful coexistence” that characterized Soviet-Western politics under Khrushchev.

 

Der Wiener Gipfel 1961
Stefan Karner, Barbara Stelzl-Marx,
Günter Bischof, et al., eds.
StudienVerlag, Innsbruck/Vienna/Bozen (2011)
www.studienverlag.at

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