Vienna 1961: when Cold War tensions came to the boil

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The charming young US president and the coarse Soviet leader, finally face to face: the Vienna Summit between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev kicked off a whole new Cold War game on June 3-4, 1961.

For the 44-year-old Kennedy, it was an initial contact with the leader of the rival superpower. For Khrushchev, 67, it was an opportunity to batter an opponent he saw as weak and inexperienced after just four months on the job.

Nothing came out of the talks except a 125-word general joint statement, and the subsequent erection of the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile Crisis underlined the deep distrust that remained between the two superpowers.

According to the State Department's official account of the talks, tensions were particularly acute over Berlin with Khrushchev at one stage telling his interlocutor: "If the US wants to start a war over Germany let it be so."

Kennedy famously warned of a "cold winter" ahead and later admitted to a New York Times journalist: "He just beat the hell out of me."

But for all the evidence of deep mutual distrust, some historians argue that the talks were crucial in averting ultimate catastrophe.

"The two sides got a vision of hell in Vienna, they saw the apocalypse of a nuclear war," said Stefan Karner, head of Austria's Ludwig Boltzmann Institute on the Consequences of War and co-author of a newly published book entitled "The Vienna Summit 1961" ("Der Wiener Gipfel 1961").

"What the Vienna Summit did achieve... was to drive home the danger of a nuclear confrontation, specifically that the danger was real, and that the two superpowers needed to confront it," US ambassador to Austria William Eacho noted at a recent conference on the historic meeting, which he described as a "mutual sizing-up" between Kennedy and Khrushchev.

Two months later, the Berlin Wall was erected and in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

But despite this escalation, the firing off of nuclear warheads was ultimately averted, thanks to the tentative ties that starting being built in June 1961, according to Karner.

"Without this confidence-building in Vienna, it is likely that (the missile crisis in) Cuba would have gone very differently," the historian told AFP.

"One can say the Cold War would probably have been much worse... so Vienna most likely contributed to the Cold War not becoming a hot one."

Having just taken office four months earlier and following the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba in April, Kennedy came to the summit in a position of weakness compared to Khrushchev, whose country had just put the first man in space.

However, he did not fold on the crucial issue of divided Berlin and some say Khrushchev revised his initial judgment of the US president.

In the end, the two-day meeting and the leaders' resulting perceptions of each other helped shape the rest of the Cold War.

"Something was set in motion here that survived throughout the whole Cold War: the possibility at times of serious tension to still communicate with one another," said Karner, even though Kennedy and Khrushchev never met again after June 1961.

For Austria, the grand spectacle - some 1,500 journalists were accredited to cover the summit - was also a recognition of its neutrality and central position between the two competing blocs.

Crowds lined the streets and stood on balconies as John F. Kennedy's motorcade drove by, accompanied by dozens of police officers on motorbikes, while Russian expatriates greeted Khrushchev as he stepped off the train from Moscow after a journey of several days.

"Had the atmosphere not been defined by tolerance but been disturbed by various protests, this would have thrown a shadow onto the summit," Bruno Kreisky, then Austrian foreign minister and later chancellor, told the Austria Press Agency after the historic event.

In the following years, Vienna became the seat of major international organisations, including the United Nations, for which many politicians and observers credit the June 1961 meeting.