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How My Father And President Kennedy Saved The World
The Cuban Missile Crisis as seen from the Kremlin
October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
Father was very much alarmed. He decided not to complicate negotiations, so he deleted from the letter any mention of American missiles in Europe. The offer was now that if America pledged not to attack Cuba, the U.S.S.R. would remove its missiles from the island. The revised letter was sent to members of the Central Committee Presidium, Father made last-minute corrections by hand, and a courier took it to the U.S. embassy in Moscow. It got there just before 5:00 P.M. Moscow time—or around 10:00 in the morning Washington time—on Friday, October 26. It was quickly translated into English and sent to the Central Moscow Telegraph Office, where everything came to a halt. Technical problems piled up, one after another. The letter that might decide the fate of the world could not reach Washington for at least six hours.
That same Friday, October 26, the KGB station chief in Washington, Aleksandr Fomin, left on his daily hunt for news. He invited a well-informed correspondent for ABC television, John Scali, to lunch in hopes of extracting something interesting from him. Scali reported the invitation to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who in turn mentioned it to the President. Kennedy decided to bring pressure to bear on the Russians through Fomin. The man was not a big shot, but every contact had to be exploited.
Fomin has described how Scali, during the lunch, began to to press him, threatening that if Moscow didn’t remove its missiles, the administration would be more and more inclined to accept the military option and invade Cuba without further delay. The Pentagon, he said, was arguing that it could get rid of both the missiles and the Castro regime in 48 hours.
An indignant Fomin decided to frighten Scali in turn, without, he claims, any instructions from above. “John,” he maliciously said, “you should know that ... a landing in Cuba would untie Khrushchev’s hands completely. If you attack, the Soviet Union would be free to retaliate in another part of the world...”
“You’re thinking about West Berlin?”
“As a countermove, it’s highly probable.”
That put an end to the exchange. The two finished their coffee in silence and left, Fomin to report to Ambassador Dobrynin, Scali to the White House.
Fomin and Scali were not the only ones to lunch together in Washington that day. Georgi Kornienko, an official of the Soviet embassy, was instructed to confirm the intelligence report that the invasion was about to begin. That morning the embassy called Rogers, the reporter behind the story, and invited him to lunch with Kornienko. There Rogers flaunted his “inside knowledge” that the invasion had been put off. Kornienko sighed with relief and quickly concluded the conversation. This information had to be sent without delay, and by the time Kornienko could get back to the embassy, it would already be Friday night in Moscow.
Father stayed in the Kremlin that night, turning restlessly on the couch in his office, half-asleep, waiting for the telephone to ring with news of trouble. But nothing happened. On Saturday morning, the twenty-seventh, he followed his usual routine, without haste or fuss. He took a shower and shaved. After breakfast he turned to official papers and saw the report of Kornienko’s meeting with Rogers. It vexed him. Apparently he had given way to nerves yesterday, had been too hasty when he sent the President a letter that made no mention of the American missiles in Italy and Turkey.
While Father had been dozing on his couch, President Kennedy had been very much awake—and alarmed. Scali had hurried to the White House after his meeting with Fomin and had been taken at once to Kennedy, to whom he repeated Fomin’s threat. Kennedy was extremely disturbed, and by around four o’clock that afternoon Scali had already called Fomin at the Soviet embassy and asked for another meeting. The time of that second meeting is known almost precisely: minutes after 7:30 P.M. on Friday, October 26.
Scali arrived with a clearly formulated proposal: The U.S.S.R. would dismantle the missiles and remove them from Cuba under United Nations auspices; the United States would end the blockade and promise not to invade Cuba.
Fomin inquired, “Who authorized this proposal?”
“The highest authority,” replied Scali.
“And what does ‘the highest authority’ mean?”
“John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States of America.”
Fomin assured him that he would send the proposal to Moscow immediately.
If Rogers’s tale of impending invasion had upset Father, Fomin’s threat to attack West Berlin had unnerved Kennedy. It is noteworthy that their reactions to danger were identical. Kennedy’s proposal duplicated almost word for word the conditions for resolving the crisis that Father had set forth in his letter the previous evening. That message, having been delayed at the Moscow telegraph office, began to arrive in Washington only after 6:00 P.M. , Friday, October 26 (1:00 A.M. , October 27 in Moscow). By then Scali had already left for his second meeting with Fomin, and Father had long been asleep.
When White House officials read the letter to the end, they realized they had been in too much of a hurry. It was far better to agree to Father’s proposal than to have proposed a deal themselves. They told Scali to maintain that not he but Fomin, sent by Khrushchev, had come up with the compromise. (As a result, a plaque later appeared on the wall of the Occidental Restaurant, where the two men had had lunch, with this inscription: “At a tense moment of the Cuban crisis (October 1962) a mysterious Russian, Mr. X, advanced a proposal here to John Scali, a newsman at ABC News. That meeting averted the threat of nuclear war....” So is history made.)