On June 4, 1961, John F. Kennedy held his last meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. The scheduled sessions had gone badly, both men playing a game of chicken as they moved from one contentious issue to another. After a final lunch in the Soviet embassy, Kennedy asked for one last private meeting in an effort to salvage some basic understanding between the two nations. He reminded the Soviet leader that each had the ability to destroy the other, then suggested that Khrushchev abandon his demands on Berlin, which the United States could not accept. Khrushchev countered by saying “force would be met by force” and that “if the US wants war, that’s its problem.” Kennedy was stunned. “Then, Mr. Chairman, there will be war,” Kennedy said. “It will be a cold winter.”
Ten minutes later, Kennedy entered the US Embassy and went straight to a room where James Reston, Washington bureau chief and columnist for the New York Times, was waiting with curtains drawn. By prior arrangement, Reston had managed to slip in unnoticed. How was it, Reston asked. “Worst thing in my life,” Kennedy responded honestly and without pretense. “He savaged me.” Kennedy seemed to be almost in shock as he proceeded, with astonishing candor, to give details of the meeting to the journalist. The United States would have to stand more firmly against Russian demands in Berlin and the escalating Communist insurgency in South Vietnam, Kennedy said. Reston was “speechless” at the mention of Vietnam. Reston later thought that marked the beginning of America’s slow slide into the Vietnam tragedy.
From the perspective of our own time, John Stacks writes, Reston’s encounter with Kennedy is “almost unimaginable,” because the relationship between journalists and politicians in America is often a distant and hostile one, marked by distrust and anger and cynicism. No reporter today would be trusted to hear an American President reacting honestly and without pretense to a frightening failure that could have presaged nuclear war. Nor is it likely that a reporter hearing such information without stated rules and restrictions would produce–as Reston did a day later–a carefully worded story putting the best positive construction on an unsuccessful summit without sacrificing its real implications and without compromising Kennedy’s confidences. But, as Stacks puts it, at the heart of Reston’s style of journalism was “a sense of common purpose with the government and political leaders.” The press and the government were seen by him as collaborators in one enterprise–the preservation of the United States.
For more than three decades Reston was the ultimate Washington insider. But first Vietnam, then Watergate, came along, and his unparalleled access to the high and mighty became a liability. His stellar career became sadly tarnished. His own colleagues turned on him in public, men whose careers he had nourished and supported. His analysis became suspect. He was seen as toadying during a tense and dramatic time. Once the very model of what young journalists wanted to be, he became the opposite: “a shill and an apologist.” Or as some of his Times colleagues said, Reston became “the personification of what the true journalist should not be.”