John F. Kennedy’s most basic goal as president of the United States was to reach a political understanding with the Soviet Union. That understanding would be based on a simple principle: the United States and the Soviet Union were both very great powers and therefore needed to respect each other’s most basic interests. The US government was thus prepared, for its part, to recognize the USSR’s special position in Eastern Europe. The United States would, moreover, see to it that West Germany would not become a nuclear power. In exchange, the Soviets would also have to accept the status quo in Central Europe, especially in Berlin. If a settlement of that sort could be worked out, the situation in Central Europe would be stabilized. The great problem that lay at the heart of the Cold War would be resolved.
But to reach a settlement based on those principles, Kennedy had to get both the USSR and his own allies in Europe to accept this sort of arrangement. The Soviets, however, were not particularly receptive when it became clear to them, beginning in mid-1961, what the president had in mind. The Americans, in their view, were making concessions because they were afraid the Berlin crisis would lead to war. Why not see what more they might get by keeping the crisis going?