The Vault

The CIA’s 1961 “Personality Sketch” of Nikita Khrushchev

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In this 15-page document, shared with John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Central Intelligence Agency summed up their view of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s personality. (Click on the image below, or on this link, to reach the PDF of the full document.)

The document was part of a 155-page dossier JFK’s staff gave him before his meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in June of that year. (The whole folder is visible online through the JFK Library’s digital archives.) The “personality sketch” accompanied notes from President Eisenhower’s conversations with Khrushchev, memoranda from the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor, and other background material on the Soviet leader and his previous relationship with the United States.

The CIA “personality sketch” presented the agency’s view of Khrushchev as a proud, possibly vain self-made man, a namedropper who was paradoxically pragmatic and irascible. The anonymous author of the document thought that Khrushchev had become increasingly refined in shaping his public image, having “given up his public drinking bouts,” and even the “raucous performance at the UN last fall” showed “the mark of calculation, in contrast to some of his earlier headlong indiscretions.”

The personality sketch referred to varying reports on Khrushchev’s ability in debates, noting that he was rapier-sharp in some conversations, but dull in others, and seemed to over-rely on his staff to brief him. Regardless of lapses, the document summed up: “[Khrushchev] has the uncanny ability of making people depart evaluating their own performance rather than describing his.”

By all accounts—including Kennedy’s own—the summit in Vienna was a disaster, with the more-experienced Soviet leader steamrolling the new president. “He savaged me,” the president told the New York Times columnist James Reston after the meetings were over.

At the summit, Khrushchev made threats to isolate West Berlin. In August of that year, construction on the Berlin Wall began.

Click on image to reach full 15-pp PDF.

John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.