In the controversy surrounding Jared Kushner’s efforts during the presidential transition to establish some sort of back channel with the Russian government, a veteran journalist, Evan Thomas, contributed an op-ed in the June 2 Washington Post arguing that “We may owe our lives to a back channel with Russia,” citing Robert Kennedy’s use of a back-channel to Moscow during the Cuban missile crisis. Thomas is a good historian too; his short biography on RFK is excellent. But this time he has the story wrong.
The Cuban missile crisis may not be so relevant to the Kushner controversy. That controversy is mainly about whether such private diplomacy was appropriate before he or the President-elect had actually taken office. But the story is interesting for the light it sheds on the risks and rewards of using diplomatic back channels.
The story is that on Tuesday, October 23, RFK first conveyed the idea of a trade to exchange removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey for withdrawal of Soviet missiles in Cuba in a back-channel with a GRU agent, Georgi Bolshakov, and that just such a deal—restated on the evening of Saturday, October 27—successfully resolved the crisis. This story is wrong on four counts:
- The October 23 exchanges with Bolshakov on the Jupiter deal, done by RFK’s surrogates and not by RFK himself, appear to have conveyed an offer that President Kennedy had not authorized. This apparent mistake may have contributed to the incredibly dangerous intensification of the crisis on October 27.
- The October 27 move on the Jupiters was in fact not quite the same as a “trade,” as all at the time understood; it was not conveyed through the back channel; and the idea for the move came from the State Department.
- This Jupiter move was not the main point of the October 27 private message to the Soviets. The main point, as the Soviets recognized, was that RFK conveyed the imminence of a U.S. attack on Cuba that would be authorized within the next 12 to 24 hours.
- Fearing the further escalation of the crisis, Khrushchev had made his basic decision to give in and announced it to his Presidium before the message from Washington had arrived, including the move on the Jupiters.
A few more details, then.
What Happened on October 23?
RFK did not talk to Bolshakov. Two meetings with Bolshakov on October 23 at RFK’s behest were done by journalists. The first was Frank Holeman, then working for the New York Daily News. The other was handled by Charles Bartlett, a nationally syndicated columnist. Based on evidence in Bolshakov’s reports to Moscow, both men floated the idea of a Jupiter trade. It is reasonable to assume they did so on a suggestion from RFK.
But when RFK debriefed his brother about this in a private conversation that evening that was secretly recorded, he made no mention of such a trial balloon. In fact it seems apparent that President Kennedy had not authorized his brother to cue Holeman and Bartlett to raise such an idea.
The idea of such a trade had repeatedly been discussed with President Kennedy. JFK was always sympathetic to it. But the day before (October 22) JFK had again made clear, this time in rebuffing a suggestion from Secretary of State Dean Rusk, that he was willing to negotiate the withdrawal of the Jupiters from Turkey only after the Soviets had agreed to withdraw their missiles from Cuba.
RFK may or may not have understood this. It is also possible that RFK explained the two-stage idea to Holeman and Bartlett, and they garbled the message or were misunderstood by Bolshakov. Bolshakov did report that Holeman said something that may have alluded to such a two-stage idea.
Further, JFK did ask RFK to do some diplomacy later that day—with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. The evidence of both RFK’s account and Dobrynin’s own report of that meeting agree: RFK made no mention of any sort of Jupiter deal.1
The Bolshakov report about the floated Jupiter deal from “RFK and his circle,” along with an October 24 column floating the idea by Walter Lippmann (probably inspired by State Department sources), probably had a major part inducing Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to present this proposed deal, publicly, on the morning of October 27. This could have led to a thermonuclear catastrophe.
The previous day the crisis had been on the road to resolution, probably with some face-saving assurance about the security of Cuba.2 By adding this new element, and doing so publicly so that the Turkish government would immediately denounce it, Khrushchev appeared to be digging in again for a long wrangle, during which time the missiles would become a fait accompli.
This was intolerable to the U.S. government. Hence the Soviet Jupiter offer that morning became a factor in making October 27, 1962, one of the most dangerous days in human history.
Was There a Jupiter Trade?
During hours of debate on October 27, the Kennedy Administration could not countenance a trade. Any negotiated exchange would present very difficult problems with other relevant systems, like nuclear-capable aircraft, and the obstacles thrown up by Turkey and by Cuba.
The solution was originally suggested in a cable by U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Raymond Hare and then pressed by Secretary of State Rusk. It was to simply say that the Jupiters should be taken off the table, not be discussed further at all, because they would be withdrawn some months in the future, in 1963. But those U.S. plans could not be revealed; there was no quid pro quo to discuss; and the Soviet missiles in Cuba had to come out now.3
RFK then made these points to Dobrynin on the night of Saturday, October 27, after JFK and his top advisers had discussed the plan. So RFK’s meeting was the front channel, not the back one, combined with a carefully crafted letter JFK had dispatched to Khrushchev at the same time, reiterating the readiness to offer the Cuba assurance.
Was the Jupiter Trade the Main Secret Message?
No. RFK led with the main secret message, which was that war was now imminent, that the United States would be making the critical decisions in the next 12 to 24 hours. All accounts agree on the earnestness and impact of this solemn warning.
Many historians have wondered if this was a bluff, whether President Kennedy actually intended to attack Cuba. In a secretly recorded meeting with the Chief of Naval Operations and the Marine Corps Commandant on Monday, October 29, to discuss Cuban invasion plans, Kennedy told them, “We had decided Saturday night [October 27] to begin this air strike on Tuesday [October 30]. And it may have been one of the reasons why the Russians finally desisted.”4
Did the Jupiter Offer Persuade Khrushchev to Give in?
No. Fearing further escalation for several reasons, including evidence of imminent U.S. preparations for war, Khrushchev had already decided to give in, and had introduced this to this colleagues in the ruling Presidium, before the cable arrived with Dobrynin’s report from Washington. That cable, including its warning of war, very much reinforced the Soviet decision and encouraged Moscow to move with haste to defuse the crisis.5
In sum, the record for back channel diplomacy in the Cuban missile crisis offers more warnings than encouragement.
1On all this, see the transcript and annotations for the JFK-RFK conversation of October 23 in Philip Zelikow & Ernest May, eds., The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy, volume 3 (W.W. Norton, 2001), pp. 178–82 and related notes.
2This “Cuba” deal also has a back-channel story associated with it. The KGB station chief in Washington, Aleksandr Feklisov, had floated such a deal with an American journalist, ABC News reporter John Scali, on October 26. Scali passed word to the State Department. That day Khrushchev was preparing to give in with a deal along these lines, and sent a message to JFK saying so. It has never been clear whether Feklisov was acting on instructions or was free-lancing in some way. See Aleksandr Fursenko & Timothy Naftali, Khrushchev’s Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary (W.W. Norton, 2006), pp. 484–6 and related notes.
3For more details see Graham Allison & Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Longman, rev. ed., 1999), pp. 241–2, 356–61 and related notes.
4David Coleman, ed., The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy, vol. 4 (W.W. Norton, 2016), p. 35.
5Good syntheses of the available evidence are in Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War (Knopf, 2008), pp. 321-24; Fursenko & Naftali, Khrushchev’s Cold War, pp. 489–91; and Allison & Zelikow, Essence of Decision, pp. 361–4.