Many Americans remember Robert Frost reciting his poem “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration in 1960. Few know the story of their later estrangement or its remarkable epilogue.
The estrangement began two years later, when Frost was serving as a consultant to the Library of Congress. I was an Arizona congressman at the time and invited the poet to an after-dinner dialogue at our home with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. After Frost engaged the ambassador in a piquant exchange about the need for more constructive forms of rivalry between our two countries, I impulsively proposed that Frost accompany me on an upcoming trip to the Soviet Union and explore his ideas with Soviet poets and writers. Dobrynin liked the idea, but the evening ended with Frost, then in his 88th year, wondering whether he was “up to it.”
The poet advised me a few days later that he would make the trip if the President wanted him to go. Kennedy promptly sent a note endorsing the mission--and plans were soon under way. When we left Washington, however, I did not envision that either of us would be invited to confer with Nikita Khrushchev. On the plane I said as much to Frost and was dismayed to learn that he had his mind set on a “big conversation” with the Soviet leader. Frost saw himself as an emissary of mankind, not as an ambassador on another cultural mission. His yearning for an exchange with Khrushchev grew out of a conviction that his tie with Kennedy put him in a position to make a contribution to peace.
Through a quirk of cold-war history, Frost’s wish was fulfilled and both of us, on succeeding days, had long audiences with Premier Khrushchev. We didn’t know it at the time, but our host had given us walk-on roles in a prologue to the impending Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962.
Robert Frost had been escorted to the Crimea, where he was to visit with Khrushchev at the premier’s summer retreat on the Black Sea, by Alexei Surkov, a poet who headed the Soviet Writers Union. Frost had a fever when he arrived in the Crimea and announced from his bed that he could not make the drive to keep his appointment with the premier. Advised by Surkov of Frost’s illness, Khrushchev sent his personal physician to treat the poet and then came to his bedside for a talk that lasted for nearly an hour and a half.
After a few minutes of get-acquainted conversation, Khrushchev asked the poet if he “had something special in mind.” Frost was ready--and a dramatic photograph of this bedside meeting shows the ailing poet making a vigorous presentation to his host.
Frost defined a code of conduct that would enable two nations “laid out for noble rivalry” to steer clear of mistakes and misjudgments that would inexorably produce catastrophes. He argued that the leaders had a duty to resolve conflicts before they became inflamed and to create a climate of understanding in which wide-ranging contact and competition could thrive. If there was mutual restraint, both sides would soon recognize “that petty squabbles and blackguarding propaganda” had to be avoided. “Great nations admire each other and don’t take pleasure in belittling each other,” the poet asserted.
Frost then told Premier Khrushchev that the “high-minded” rivalry he had in mind would encompass sports, science, art, democracy. The great test, he said, would be “Which democracy is going to win?” The premier agreed, but added that the “fundamental conflict between the two countries was peaceful economic competition.” The discussion then touched on the Berlin impasse, the perils of nuclear war, the implications of economic competition--and the common cultural traditions of the United States and the Soviet Union. And both men, before their final handshake, expressed confidence in the future and in the capacity of their two countries to meet the challenge of what Frost called “a hundred years of grand rivalry.”
When Khrushchev left the room, the poet fell back on his bed exhausted. He said to Frank Reeve, “Well we did it, didn’t we? He’s a great man all right.” Robert was elated by his performance, and by the situation. At the time I was puzzled by the long hours Nikita Khrushchev spent visiting with the two of us.
Six weeks later, when President Kennedy informed a trembling world that the Russians were building launching sites for missiles in Cuba, I realized that the poet and I, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, had innocently walked onto a stage where a great struggle would soon occur. It was clear then that Premier Khrushchev’s high-risk missile decision had been made many weeks before our arrival--and that our appearance offered him an opportunity to reassure President Kennedy that he was rational by talking earnestly about peaceful competition with his friends.
Khrushchev was using a Russian version of poetry-and-power to push his program of political reform. There is ample evidence that the very week we saw him, Khrushchev approved a new round of de-Stalinization involving the publication of works by controversial Soviet writers to help him consolidate his base of political power. En route to the Black Sea, Surkov, the cultural commissar, had informed Frank Reeve that he was on a “business” trip, and he was seen later having an intense discussion with Khrushchev.
That business, history tells us, resulted in a fascinating coincidence. Oct. 21, 1962, the day on which President Kennedy alerted the world to the Cuban gambit that produced this century’s first nuclear confrontation, was also the day on which Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s daring new poem, “The Heirs of Stalin"--an emotional appeal for vigilance to “stop Stalin from rising again"--appeared in Pravda. And the same week, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” a searing expose of Stalin’s prison camps by a then-obscure novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, was published.
But as we flew homeward, we knew nothing about Cuban missiles or Alexander Solzhenitsyn. And Frost unfortunately was not aware that, while we were aboard, a senator had put President Kennedy on tenterhooks by charging that Khrushchev was sending troops to Cuba and was demanding an immediate invasion of that island.
When we arrived in New York on Sept. 9, Frost had been awake for 18 hours and was utterly exhausted. I should have prevented press interviews, but his visit with Khrushchev was a front-page story that day, and many reporters were at the airport for more information about Frost’s impressions of the premier. Suddenly, near the end of the questioning, Frost wearily blurted out: “Khrushchev said . . . he thought that we’re too liberal to fight--he thinks we will sit on one hand and then the other.”
I was appalled. Reeve and I both knew that Khrushchev had never said this. The phrase “too liberal to fight” was a cliche Robert had used for many years to tease his dovish friends at Harvard. Frost had misrepresented Khrushchev’s position, violated his own rules for “magnanimous conduct” and embarrassed his friend, the President. The damage was done--the headline in the Washington Post the next morning read, “Frost Says Khrushchev Sees U.S. as Too Liberal to Defend Itself.”
Kennedy was stung by Frost’s statement. The first question he fired at me was “Why did he have to say that?” The depth of the President’s resentment was manifest during the weeks that followed. There was no follow-up on Frost’s trip: The poet was not invited to Washington either for a debriefing or to convey the “personal message” from Premier Khrushchev to Kennedy.
Frost, hypersensitive himself to slights, knew he had “crossed” Kennedy. I got the impression, however, that he anticipated all along that Kennedy would mellow and put aside his grievance once the Cuban confrontation was resolved. But this was not to be. The day the crisis was officially ended, Frost sent me this wire: “Will you tell the President from me today quote Great Going unquote. All the situation needed was his decision on our part. You and I saw that Khrushchev was tipping westward with all his heart. His be some of the praise.” I passed it along, but it did not evoke a reply.
When headlines in early December informed the country that Robert Frost was seriously ill in a Boston hospital, his room was showered with wires and flowers from Ambassador Dobrynin and from Americans in all walks of life. Ethel and Robert Kennedy sent flowers, but no message came from the President.
A month later the poet was dead. Ten months later the President was dead as well. But during that time, Kennedy had experienced a change of heart where Frost was concerned. At Amherst College, on Oct. 26, 1963, he delivered a eulogy of Frost that I consider the most majestic speech of his public career.