Chivalry in despair is the spirit of this letter written by Jackie Kennedy on one of her last nights in the White House, about a week after the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy. The president and his adversary, the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, were opposites: Kennedy a handsome, cultured, millionaire Lothario; Khrushchev a warty, brutal Communist peasant. They had had bruising negotiations—and only narrowly avoided launching the world into nuclear war. There were many in the C.I.A. who feared the Russians might have played a role in planning the assassination. Khrushchev, for his part, was terrified of being blamed for it. Perhaps the letter that follows is written to calm the Russian—it is certainly supremely elegant and touching in its literary simplicity, its presidential grandeur, and its theory of Big Men and Little Men.

Khrushchev getting the white-glove treatment from Jackie in Vienna, June 3, 1961.

Jacqueline Kennedy to Nikita Khrushchev, December 1, 1963

Dear Mr. Chairman President,

I would like to thank you for sending Mr. Mikoyan as your representative to my husband’s funeral. He looked so upset when he came through the line, and I was very moved.

I tried to give him a message for you that day—but as it was such a terrible day for me, I do not know if my words came out as I meant them to.

So now, on one of the last nights I will spend in the White House, in one of the last letters I will write on this paper in the White House, I would like to write you my message.

I send it only because I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this care in his mind. He used to quote your words in some of his speeches—“in the next war the survivors will envy the dead.”

You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. You respected each other and could deal with each other. I know that President Johnson will make every effort to establish the same relationship with you.

The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones.

While big men know the needs for self­control and restraint—little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk, before they start to fight.

I know that President Johnson will continue the policy in which my husband so deeply believed—a policy of control and restraint—and he will need your help.

I send this letter because I know so deeply of the importance of the relationship which existed between you and my husband, and also because of your kindness, and that of Mrs. Khrushchev in Vienna.

I read that she had tears in her eyes when she left the American Embassy in Moscow, after signing the book of mourning. Please thank her for that.


Jacqueline Kennedy