The Dictator andnthe Scoundrelnby Alan J. LevinenThe Crisis Years: Kennedy andnKhrushchev, 1960-1963nby Michael R. BeschlossnNew York: HarperCollins;n816 pp., $29.95nTo anyone old enough to recall thenearly 1960’s, the names Kennedynand Khrushchev will provoke a wealthnof emotional associations far strongernthan those evoked by the names of mostnlater Presidents, or of the colorless charactersnwho followed Klimshchev as rulersnof the Soviet Union. Unfortunately,nboth men have been much misunderstoodnduring the subsequent threendecades. Michael Beschloss has notncleared up all misunderstandings,nespecially those concerning NikitanKhrushchev and his policies, but aboutnJohn F. Kennedy, we now know toonmuch—too much, at least, for his fantasticallynglamorized image to survivenintact. The Crisis Years, which disclosesna fair amount of new information, is anwell-written book of exceptional interest,ndespite some severe flaws.nBeschloss’ treatment of the 1961nBerlin crisis displays his virtues andnfaults as a historian: the revelation ofnnew details in a skillful narrative marriednto an unconvincing interpretationnof history. Kennedy, he argues, was successivelynboth provocative and weak,nwhile managing affairs of state in a shoddynand careless fashion. He recklesslynbypassed the normal channels to dealnwith the Soviets through his brother andnan obscure Soviet agent. Overreactingnto Khrushchev’s speech of January 6,n1961, in favor of “wars of national liberation,”nhe then embarrassed the Sovietnleader by bluntly exposing then”missile gap” as a myth—somethingnEisenhower had allegedly carefullynavoided. Finally, he demonstrated whatnKhrushchev took to be weakness at thenBay of Pigs and the Vienna summit.nEven Kennedy’s court historians nevernmade his performance at Vienna lookngood, and Beschloss makes clear that itnwas a disaster. It may well be the case, asn34/CHRONICLESnREVIEWSnBeschloss (and before him RobertnSlusser) has suggested, that the Berlinncrisis was far more dangerous than hasnbeen generally realized. For Sovietnsources have indicated that Khrushchevnand the other Soviet leaders did not believenthat Kennedy would fight overnBerlin. Beschloss argues that, in his effortsnto defuse the crisis, Kennedy,nthrough the secret channel mentionednabove, actually encouraged Khrushchevnto seal off East Bedin with the wall (anviolation of the Potsdam Agreement) tonstop the flow of refugees and relievenwhat was allegedly the Soviets’ mainnmotive for pressure on West Bedin. Hisnevidence for this point, however, whilensuggestive, is not conclusive, althoughnthe rest of this book makes it clear thatnKennedy was morally capable of such annaction. Since the diagnosis of Sovietnmotives was wrong, the crisis did notnend, but rather climaxed in the famousnface-off of Soviet and U.S. tanks atnCheckpoint Charlie (an incident concludednby the exchange of messagesnthrough the same secret channel).nBeschloss argues, on several occasions,nthat Khrushchev aimed at creating onlynthe illusion of Soviet might, and thatnKennedy’s exposing of that illusion,nwhich Eisenhower allegedly refrainednfrom doing, forced Khrushchev to becomenmore aggressive in compensation,nthus ultimately provoking an escalationnof the arms race as the Soviets built tonmatch their earlier billing. Beschloss’nargument here becomes unreal.nThroughout the period from 1957-1960,nEisenhower repeatedly, even angrily, insistednthat the United States was currentlynsuperior militarily. His assertionnwas widely doubted in Western Europe,nbut not in the United States; whatnAmericans worried about was what thensituation would be in a few years. Thennotion of a “missile gap” that caused anfuror in 1959-60 was based upon the administration’snown estimate that betweenn1960-1964 the Soviets would leadnthe United States in the number of missilesnin its arsenal. In 1960, after intelligencenhad been unable to verify the existencenof the expected Soviet missiles,nthe administration.cut back its own estimates,nand openly doubted the realitynof a “gap” at all. Wise or not, Kennedy’snpolicy of disclosure did not differ fromnnnwhat Eisenhower had tried to do. Thennotion that any administration couldnhave connived at Khrushchev’s pretensenof superiority, a pretense he was trying tonuse for blackmail, is self-evidently absurd.nDespite new information uncoverednby Beschloss, the other great confrontationnof the era still eludes satisfactorynexplanation. Beschloss argues thatnKhrushchev genuinely feared an Americanninvasion of Cuba and believed thatnbasing Soviet missiles there would deternit. Contrary to what has been widelynsupposed, he probably did not plan ton”trade” the missiles for something else;nthese were to be permanent installations.nAgain Kennedy, according to Beschloss,nhelped to produce the crisis: first, bynhounding the Cuban regime with covertnactions and inspiring fear of an invasion;nand second, by never specifically warningnKhrushchev against placing offensivenmissiles in Cuba. That, and the factnthat he remained unimpressed bynKennedy, led Krushchev to believe thatnthe President would accept the missilenbases or at least try to conceal their existence,nattempting to negotiate oncenagain through a secret channel.nKhrushchev never expected the explosivenreaction he got.nThe problem with this explanation isnthat everyone else did. Soviet sourcesn(which are oral recollections, not contemporaryndocuments) indicate thatnGromyko and Mikoyan, and the Cubansnthemselves, warned that the Americansnwould react violently. The generalnAmerican stance over many years madenit clear that, specific warning or no,nWashington would never accept an offensivenSoviet base in Cuba. And therenis, of course, an unresolved contradictionnbetween Khrushchev’s assumption—ornsupposed assumption—thatnKennedy was bothered enough by Cubanto invade it, and the idea that JFK couldnaccept Soviet missiles there.nDespite glasnost and the thick smokenscreen generated by the Kennedys andntheir admirers, we still know more aboutnthe American side of the story thannabout the Soviet one. And whilenBeschloss’ excessive focus on personalitiesncan be tiresome (it is hard to getnworked up about Frol Kozlov’s bad tablenmanners or LBJ’s aesthetic deficiencies).n