The Dictator and the Scoundrel

To anyone old enough to recall the early 1960's, the names Kennedy and Khrushchev will provoke a wealth of emotional associations far stronger than those evoked by the names of most later Presidents, or of the colorless characters who followed Khrushchev as rulers of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, both men have been much misunderstood during the subsequent three decades. Michael Beschloss has not cleared up all misunderstandings, especially those concerning Nikita Khrushchev and his policies, but about John F. Kennedy, we now know too much—too much, at least, for his fantastically glamorized image to survive intact. The Crisis Years, which discloses a fair amount of new information, is a well-written book of exceptional interest, despite some severe flaws.

Beschloss' treatment of the 1961 Berlin crisis displays his virtues and faults as a historian: the revelation of new details in a skillful narrative married to an unconvincing interpretation of history. Kennedy, he argues, was successively both provocative and weak, while managing affairs of state in a shoddy and careless fashion. He recklessly bypassed the normal channels to deal with the Soviets through his brother and an obscure Soviet agent. Overreacting to Khrushchev's speech of January 6, 1961, in favor of "wars of national liberation," he then embarrassed the Soviet leader by bluntly exposing the "missile gap" as a myth—something...

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