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Must We Ever "Fear to Negotiate"?

At the height of the Cold War in 1961, President Kennedy suggested to fellow Americans in his inaugural address that the time had come to lessen the tension then existing between the Soviet Union and the United States: "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate." Had Kennedy made that statement in 2008, it would surely have brought down upon him the wrath of George W. Bush and John McCain.

The president and the likely Republican Party presidential nominee have made it clear in the last two weeks that they believe that Barack Obama's willingness to meet with Cuba's Raul Castro and Iran's Mahmud Ahmadinejad threatens America's security. "Some seem to think that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals," Bush told Israel's Knesset, with an implied reference to Obama's earlier indication that he would meet with Iranian leaders. Bush equated such a meeting with appeasement.

"He also wants to sit down unconditionally for a presidential meeting with Raul Castro. [This] would send the worst possible signal to Cuba's dictators," McCain told an applauding crowd of Cuban exiles in Miami, referring to Obama's announced intention of meeting with the Cuban head of state.

While Bush and McCain seem unmoving in their opposition to meetings between an American president and those they consider terrorists who head foreign governments, it is inconceivable that they would rule out lower echelon diplomatic contact. But their uncompromising position on high-level meetings was not held by several of their Republican predecessors. Instead, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and even George H. W. Bush met with foreign leaders whom many Americans considered to be terrorists, radicals or just plain evil dictators

The most glaring instance in which a president refused to meet with the head of a potentially threatening nation occurred not under a Republican conservative but a Democrat. In 1941 Franklin Roosevelt ignored pleas from Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoye for an urgent meeting to resolve differences between the two nations. Konoye felt that his civilian government could best be strengthened by talks between himself and Roosevelt. Throughout the summer and fall, 1941, American insistence upon detailed agreements prior to a conference aroused Japanese fears about delays that would bring a crisis before diplomats could meet. Roosevelt held firm and, with their oil supplies running low, the Japanese moved into the Dutch East Indies and simultaneously attacked American possessions in the Pacific.

Republican Cold War presidents, on the other hand, blustered publicly about "evil empires," but went to the conference table, sometimes in secret. Dwight Eisenhower, proponent of massive retaliation and rolling back the Iron Curtain, held a crucial summit meeting with Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin at Geneva in 1955. This effort to relieve the tension that had developed between East and West over the previous decade proved more symbolic than substantive. Still, the Geneva meeting set a precedent for more productive meetings in subsequent years.

Perhaps what Bush and McCain have in mind is the danger inherent in meeting with a powerful and potentially threatening head of state without a proper awareness of your opponent's ability and toughness in such negotiations. That situation faced an unprepared diplomatic novice, not unlike Obama, when a recently inaugurated Kennedy engaged a summit-hardened Khrushchev at Vienna in 1961. Kennedy later admitted: "He beat the hell out of me."

By the time staunch anti-communist Richard Nixon, a critic of Democratic foreign policy for having "lost" China, made his surprising trip to that country in 1972, he was already a seasoned diplomat. At the time the United States did not even recognize the Chinese People's Republic, our major foe during most of the Korean war. The Shanghai Communique, formalized by a meeting between Nixon and Chairman Mao, signaled American acceptance of a policy that recognized Taiwan as part of China and affirmed the ultimate objective of withdrawing all American military forces from Taiwan. It also called for normalization of relations between the United States and China, and urged expansion of cultural exchanges and trade.

In 1987 Reagan and the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev signed an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in Washington, D.C. Despite serious conservative opposition, the Senate ratified the treaty the following year. Members of the Reagan administration also negotiated a complicated arrangement with an Iranian government whom we had previously denounced for taking American hostages. Under that agreement, the United States secretly sold arms to Iran and used some of the proceeds to finance anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua in the mid-1980s.

History is on the side of Obama. Negotiations are not appeasement. While Bush may equate any discussion with a foe as a sell-out, his conservative Republican predecessors were wise enough to see it differently.

Related Links

  • Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins: Kennedy Talked, Khrushchev Triumphed
  • David R. Stokes: The Appeasement Chronicles
  • Glenn Greenwald: Ronald Reagan ... Chamberlainian appeaser of the 1980s

  • This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.