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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
As can happen even with important papers, Kennedy’s proposals handed to Fomin about exchanging Soviet missiles for an American promise not to invade Cuba fell victim to Fomin’s own embassy’s bureaucratic intrigues. When Fomin returned to the embassy after his lunch with Scali, he wrote out a telegram to Moscow with a description of the proposal he had received and gave it to Ambassador Dobrynin to sign. It was growing late on Friday, but Dobrynin said nothing to him for more than three hours and then returned the telegram unsigned, explaining that no one had authorized him to carry on such negotiations. Fomin then sent his report to the head of KGB intelligence, Lt. Gen. Alexander Sakharovsky, but Sakharovsky had it sent back to Dobrynin for his signature the next day. No one knows for sure whether Dobrynin signed it or not, but I think it highly unlikely.
Why would he have been so obstructive? Because still,another important meeting had taken place on that fifth day of the crisis, October 26. The vast official historiography of the missile crisis that has accumulated in the United States contains almost no mention of it, and Ambassador Dobrynin himself told the story publicly only once, at a Cuban Missile Crisis conference in Moscow in 1989.
President Kennedy, afraid to make a mistake and with no great faith in the Scali-Fomin connection, decided to ask his brother Robert to talk to the ambassador. The Attorney General called Dobrynin. They met at the Soviet embassy before Father’s letter was read at the White House. Robert Kennedy repeated the same proposal to Ambassador Dobrynin: no attack on Cuba in exchange for the removal of the missiles. However, Dobrynin pressed him hard on the question of the Turkish missiles. Kennedy asked to make a private phone call from the next room. Upon returning, he reported: “The President said we are prepared to examine the question of Turkey. Favorably.”
In this situation Moscow’s receiving Fomin’s conflicting proposal with no mention of missiles in Europe would have complicated Dobrynin’s own game. So he did not sign it but instead sent a coded message about his meeting with Robert Kennedy.
The ambassador’s report, coming on top of Kornienko’s that Saturday morning, wholly convinced Father he had been in too much of a hurry with his letter to Kennedy proposing the removal of missiles for a mere ending of the blockade. He knew there were delays at the telegraph office. Perhaps he could remedy the situation if he hurried. An urgent message must be sent to the White House—a new version of the letter that made the missiles in Turkey part of the deal. Father would transmit it by radio so that it was sure to be received before the other one, which was already out of his hands. This would compromise the secrecy of the negotiations, but it was the only chance to overtake the previous letter.
Father was too late. The White House received the new letter demanding a joint removal of missiles only after the first one. White House officials were astonished when they read the second letter. Who had written it? Had there been a coup and Khrushchev been deposed? Only the Kennedy brothers knew about the conversation with the Soviet ambassador, but they said nothing. Robert proposed that they simply ignore the second letter. Father wanted to pretend that there had been no first letter.
One more episode had almost irreparable consequences, and it also was due to a mutual incomprehension of the thinking on the other side. On the morning of Saturday, October 27, Capt. Rudolf Anderson took off in his U-2 for what had become a routine mission photographing Soviet missiles in Cuba. However, a great deal had changed there during the last few hours. As the U-2 was approaching the island, one of the newly constructed anti-aircraft missile batteries started the first test of its early-warning and guidance radar. Shortly after the radar was turned on, the mark of a plane at a very great altitude appeared on its screen. Only an American U-2 could fly so high.
The operators thought it must be a mistake. How was this possible? The first time you turn on the radar there’s a target? Then numbers appeared on the screen: azimuth, altitude, distance, speed. There could be no doubt. They’d detected a spy plane.
The operators called the head of Soviet air defenses in Cuba, Col. Georgy Voronkov. He in turn tried to contact the commander of all Soviet forces in Cuba, Gen. Issa Plivev, but no one knew where he was. Voronkov called again: “The target is leaving. We have two minutes left.” The generals had no orders from Moscow to shoot down single American planes. They were authorized to use missiles only in case of an assault on the island, a massive bomber attack. But there was no categorical prohibition either. Now only seconds were left.
“Fire,” one of Pliyev’s deputies, Maj. Gen. Leonid Gabruz, breathed softly into the telephone.
“Launching,” said Voronkov at the other end of the line.
Two SAM-2 anti-aircraft missiles broke from their launchers and tore into the clear blue sky. A small white puff of smoke appeared. The operator reported: “The target has been destroyed.”
Informed of this incident, Father sensed that he was losing control of the situation. Today one general fires an anti-aircraft missile; tomorrow another may launch a ballistic missile. As Father said later, it was at that moment that he understood intuitively that the missiles had to be removed, that real disaster was imminent.
In the meantime, a coded message went to Cuba: “We consider that you were in a hurry to shoot down a U-2 spy plane,” because an agreement on a peaceful way to deter an invasion of Cuba was already taking shape. From then on shooting down American planes without Moscow’s permission was forbidden.