Robert Frost’s Disastrous Gaffe in Foreign Policy

Ryan Fan

On John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1960, poet Robert Frost was invited to speak and be the first poet to read. According to historian Tim Ott, Kennedy asked Frost, then 85, if could compose a new poem for the ceremony, but Frost refused. Kennedy then asked Frost if he would change a line in the poem he did agree to recite, “The Gift Outright,” to which Frost agreed.

JFK said that he wanted Frost to speak at his inauguration because, as a fellow New Englander, he had “courage, the towering skill and daring.”

However, despite his earlier misgivings, Robert Frost composed a new poem called “Dedication” which was an ode to America. Inspired by the mood of the inauguration, Frost would reference many contemporary events with the line that JFK’s election was:

“The greatest vote a person ever cast,/So close yet sure to be abided by”

Frost would be introduced by the incoming Secretary of the Interior, Stewart L. Udall, and Udall typed up a new copy of “Dedication” as a preamble to read before reading “The Gift Outright”.

The actual reading of the poem, however, went wrong.

On the morning of January 20, 1961, it was extremely cold but also extremely sunny. While Frost was reading “Dedication,” he stopped. He couldn’t see the poem. The sun’s glare, reflecting off a snowy ground would make it too hard to see. Lyndon B. Johnson tried to block the sun with his hat, but that effort was unsuccessful too.

Robert Frost then recited “The Gift Outright” from memory, and added an addendum to the final line as per JFK’s request:

“Such as she was, such as she would become, has become, and I — and for this occasion let me change that to — what she will become.”

As the audience cheered, very few people noticed that Robert Frost, when thanking Kennedy, called him “president-elect, Mr. John Finley.” According to Ott, The Washington Post the next day would call the reading one of the highlights of the ceremony.

Robert Frost himself was actually very embarrassed by the ceremony, but it would not be his first taste of politics and public life. Perhaps as a way to make up for his embarrassment on the occasion of the inauguration, Frost would have one last traverse into politics, this time in international relations as he negotiated between the Cold War heavyweights in 1962: Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy.

Frost’s meeting with Khrushchev would be nothing short of a disaster.

The context behind Frost’s 1962 meeting with Khrushchev meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in the Oval Office, October 18, 1962 — Public Domain

Udall would write in the New York Times in 1972 an article titled “Robert Frost’s Last Adventure” that chronicled the visit, as a participant in the meeting between Khrushchev and Frost. Udall would say that Frost and Kennedy would become great friends, “each one a great stylist in his own way and each clearly fond of the other’s style.” Robert Frost felt tied to Kennedy, a President and politician who was sympathetic to the world of poetry and art.

“Frost went because he felt he could make a contribution to peace if given the opportunity to talk man to man with Khrushchev. His determination was fierce,” Udall said.

At the time, it was the early summer of 1962 and the threat of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States was sky-high. The U.S.S.R. was preparing to install 60 offensive intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. Kennedy agreed and endorsed sending Frost to Moscow, which Udall would call “the old man’s last adventure.”

On the flight to Moscow, Frost kept asking Udall “will we get to see him?” Udall would respond that it was highly unlikely that either of them would see Khrushchev, and Frost became downcast and frustrated.

“What the hell am I going to do here anyway if I don’t get to see Khrushchev?” He asked.

Udall observed that Frost had gone a long way to be able to understand Khrushchev’s situation, and was actually quite sympathetic about Khrushchev in the past, having said that Khrushchev must have been fearful, of what was in front of him as well as the Politburo behind him.

“Frost became convinced that human survival depended on the gradual social and political convergence of the two systems.”

On the plane, Frost told Udall that he was planning to say that he saw Russian and American democracies drawing together, and that he wanted to tell Khrushchev that he was a courageous leader who made a lot of humanizing reforms in the Soviet Union. Udall would comment that Frost was ready to speak “as an emissary of mankind” as opposed to just a U.S. ambassador.

Despite Udall’s doubts, however, the two of them did get to meet Khrushchev. At the time the Soviet premier was on vacation in the Black Sea and Frost and Udall were invited to Gagra to conference with him.

Not only would they get to meet Khrushchev, but they would spend five and a half hours with Khrushchev in two days. The man not only talked with them, but wanted them to give explicit messages for Kennedy. Khrushchev at the time had ulterior motives to make a “personal decision” to install missiles in Cuba, which could either greatly backfire if Kennedy escalated the situation (and put the world in a nuclear holocaust) or be a huge political success for the Kremlin.

“Kennedy’s reaction was crucial — and we were Kennedy’s friends.”

As they arrived in the U.S.S.R., apparently Soviet technicians were already planning launch sites in Cuba and missiles were being shipped. Washington’s intelligence reports were uncertain and JFK was on the defensive to do something. The day before they met with Khrushchev, JFK had a press conference where he warned that nuclear weapons would not be tolerated.

I find it amusing that in the midst of potentially world-ending nuclear war, Robert Frost was one of JFK’s diplomats.

The meeting itself

At the time, the meeting was almost aborted — Robert Frost was very sick, tired, and running a 101-degree fever. He told the interpreter that he was too sick to make the 20-minute drive, but Khrushchev insisted. When Khrushchev learned that Frost was sick, he sent his personal physician and then went to Frost’s room himself. A photo that Udall has shows a relaxed and confident looking Khrushchev sitting right up, with Robert Frost looking “all of his 80 years” with a “deathbed pallor”, but alert.

The talk was easy since both were good conversationalists. Khrushchev chided Frost for not taking good care of himself, especially if he was going to live to 100. Robert Frost replied that he was “half as old as his country” and that he didn’t trust physicians. He praised Khrushchev for what he’d done for the poets of Russia and then the two talked about the relationships of artists to society, and then after testing each other, the two started to talk about if Frost had “anything special in mind.”

Frost started talking about a modus vivendi (agreement) for the two countries to survive and prosper. Frost started to admire Khrushchev’s brand of leadership and told him that a “constructive rivalry” would lead to a convergence of the two systems eventually. However, Frost said that that kind of understanding between the East and the West was only possible if both leaders were high-minded.

The two of them started talking more about the arts, then, and Frost started talking about how “a great nation makes great poetry, and great poetry makes a great nation.” Khrushchev studied Frost’s face and then said: “you have the soul of a poet!”

Frost talked about establishing a “code of conduct”. where leaders agreed to steer clear of senseless wars and have more restraint. Both sides would have to agree that “petty squabbles and blackguarding propaganda” would be avoided and that great nations should admire each other instead of belittling each other.

The two of them expressed confidence for the future to meet the challenge, in Frost’s words, to have “a hundred years of grand rivalry.” After about half an hour, Khrushchev asked if he hadn’t overstayed his time, and then thanked Frost. They shook hands, and then Khrushchev asked Frost to tell JFK about their conversation. Frost gave him a book of his poems inscribed “To Premier Khrushchev, from his rival in friendship, Robert Frost.”

The aftermath

At the time, Frost was elated that he had performed to the peak of his mental abilities, and told the press that “there was nothing common or mean” about their conversation. Frost had no way of knowing how Khrushchev interpreted the conversation, but he hoped that he would take restraint. Frost was just elated they could talk so much about poetry and power.

The purpose of the conversation, according to Udall, was for Khrushchev to show the Americans, and especially Kennedy, that he was still in power and that he was still sane as he was going to gauge Kennedy’s response to the nuclear lunge. Although he only mentioned Cuba once,

“He was trying, with deceptive twists and turns, to keep Washington guessing, to present a peaceful face one day and a tough stance the next.”

In the conversation, Khrushchev was a reasonable man who went out of his way to provide hospitality and admiration for the Americans. He wanted to give Udall a “secret message” that he would do nothing to “heat up” the Berlin crisis until after the election. In six weeks, the intention was clear:

“He was preparing — literally — to use poetry to consolidate his own political power: readying a new round of de-Stalinization to exploit the gains in power and prestige that would result from his Cuban coup.”

When Frost and Udall got home, Frost talked to the press and reporters that his adventure concluded on a positive note. They would have a layover at the Paris airport and then go to New York, and Frost had been awake for 18 hours and was bone-tired and mellow. At a press conference in New York, Frost surprised everyone by blurting out the following:

“Khrushchev said he feared for us because of our lot of liberals. He thought that we’re too liberal to fight — he thinks we will sit on one hand and then the other.”

I am a huge Robert Frost fan and I know that he’s used that phrase many times, including variations of it in poems, but at that point, Frost put words into Khrushchev’s mouth and the damage was done. Udall, too, was shocked and embarrassed:

“With one stroke, the poet had violated his own rules for ‘magnanimous conduct,’ had misrepresented Khrushchev’s position, and had embarrassed President Kennedy. In a thoughtless moment, he had indulged in the very propagandizing he personally deplored in his conversation at Gagra.”

Kennedy, for lack of a better term, was pissed. He was already under a lot of pressure with the Cuban situation and asked Udall: “why did he have to say that?” In the next couple of weeks, Kennedy made his anger at Frost known — Frost wasn’t invited to Washington for a debriefing, and JFK gave no opportunity for Frost to tell him about the conversation.

“As the poet brooded over his blunder at home in Boston, I’m certain he realized he had ‘crossed’ Kennedy, had lost a valuable friendship.”

Udall would see Frost again the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he was bitter about the White House ghosting him but was optimistic that the Cuban Missile Crisis would be resolved optimistically. He admired the mutual restraint of the leaders.

In the last few weeks of Frost’s life, he made one indirect attempt to contact JFK, telling him that he’d done a great job with the crisis. When Robert Frost was admitted to a hospital with a serious condition, many friends from all walks of life came to see him and sent messages, but there was nothing from Kennedy. Although Robert and Ethel Kennedy sent flowers, JFK sent nothing.

When Udall went to visit him, Frost talked about the Russia trip and meeting Khrushchev, hopefully meeting with Khrushchev again. He lamented “those guys around the President” but never the President himself, and said these parting words to Udall:

“The only trouble with dying is not knowing how it will all turn out.”

Udall speculates and thinks about the friendship between Kennedy and Frost. Both were reserved men who didn’t talk openly about their problems. Frost likely felt hurt about Kennedy ghosting him, but rarely showed it. Clearly, Frost was deeply wounded by the President’s coldness to him. JFK, too, was an extremely private person who “chose to ignore his critics and was slow to either praise or blame his associates.”

Kennedy would only acknowledge his friendship with Frost once after he died, in an apology to Frost’s secretary, Kay Morrison: “we didn’t know he was so ill.”

Kennedy gave one last tribute to Frost, what Udall calls the “most noble speech of his career,” and “more than [just] a personal tribute to Frost”. Kennedy used Frost’s theme at the inauguration and gave an ode to poetry and power in commemoration of America’s most famous poet:

“In honoring Robert Frost, we therefore can pay to…the men who question power [who] make a contribution just as indispensable [as the men who create power], especially when that questioning is disinterested…
For they determine whether we use power or power uses us. Our national strength matters; but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost

Originally published on July 12, 2020 on History of Yesterday.

Photographic Portrait of Robert Frost from the Public Domain

Comments / 0

Published by

Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me:

Baltimore, MD

More from Ryan Fan

Comments / 0