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On the morning of Tuesday October 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy was reading the Tuesday morning newspapers in his bed at the Whitehouse. Not twenty fours hours before, McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security adviser, received the results of Major Richard S. Heyser’s U-2 mission over San Cristobal Cuba. In light of recent mysterious Soviet and Cuban activities developing in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, the president’s administration had given the order to conduct reconnaissance missions over the island of Cuba. In particular a fifty-mile trapezoidal swath of territory in western Cuba was to be looked upon under intense scrutiny. A CIA agent reported in the second week of September that this stretch of land was being guarded closely by Peruvian, Colombian, and actual Soviet soldiers. There was a real reason to be suspicious of the activity in western Cuba. The first of this U-2 reconnaissance mission would reveal a shocking discovery.(Chang & William p.33-47)
The U-2 reconnaissance reports that Bundy received in full detail two 70-foot-long MRBMs at San Cristobal. The news that Bundy would eventually have to expose to President Kennedy would sound alarms not just in his administration or in the United States of America, but throughout the entire world. Bundy did not tell the president that night. He opted to allow him a good night’s rest, the last he would have for some time, as it turned out. Bundy felt there was nothing the president could do about the missiles that night anyway, and he would need to be sharp the next morning.(Brugioni p.68) Besides Bundy and the leadership of the U.S. intelligence community, Dean Rusk and his team at State, as well as McNamara and the deputy secretary of defense, Roswell Gilpatric, received word of the U-2’s discovery before going to bed on October 15. Kennedy’s discovery of the missiles could wait till the next morning.(May & Zelikow p.24)
Thus on the morning of October 16, while Kennedy was lying in bed, Bundy informed that the U-2 mission that flew over Cuba had spotted two nuclear missiles and six missile transports southwest of Havana. Before the summer of that same year had ended, Khrushchev had made the twin promise that “nothing will be undertaken before the American Congressional elections that could complicate the international situation or aggravate the tension in the relations between our two countries,” and ensured the president through his own brother Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney general of the United States and the president’s closet advisor by means of a back channel, that only defensive weapons were to be placed in Cuba.(Brugioni p56) This last and final statement left the young attorney general and the entire administration to believe that no offensive nuclear missiles, and certainly no weapons that were capable of hitting any target in the continental United States were being placed in Cuba at this time.(Chang & William p67)
The news brought to the Kennedy administration in the form of the U-2’s telltale photographs made nonsense of both of Khrushchev’s pledges. But most importantly the Soviet Union had equipped Cuba with an arsenal of Soviet nuclear missiles despite a presidential statement only a month early that the United States would not tolerate such a situation in the Western Hemisphere. Kennedy felt personally insulted by the deployment of these missiles.(Fursenko & Naftali p.193) He thought that he had done everything possible to defuse and smooth over tense relations with the Soviet Union even before he took office in 1960. This devastating news from Cuba would result in the tense period in Cold War history to date and perhaps its tensest period in the entire history of the war.
Kennedy decided limit the information regarding the devastating news from Cuba to as small a group as possible. This group would come to be known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or as it would later be known and shortened to simply Ex Comm.(Brugioni p.45) This would be the group of Washington’s sharpest and most influential minds that would more or less decide the fate of the nation and the world. A heavy responsibility would be carried on their shoulders. If they failed they we would take the entire nation with them.
The group would come to include Charles Bohlen, the old Kremlin hand who was recently named U.S. ambassador to France. Beside Bohlen it would include Secretary of State Dean Rusk, as well as Undersecretary of State George Ball and Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Edwin M. Martin, as well as Ambassador at Large Llewellyn Thompson. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his deputies Roswell Gilpatric and Paul Nitze represented the Defense Department. John McCone, head of the CIA, away on an urgent family matter, was replaced by his deputy Marshall “Pat” Carter, and the CIA was also represented by the head of the NPIC, Arthur Lundahl, whose analysts had found the missile sites on the U-2 photographs. General Maxwell Taylor came as chairman of the JCS. Rounding out the group were McGeorge Bundy and the Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, as well as Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon. Last but not least this group of Washington’s sharpest minds was joined and highly influenced by the President’s brother and closest advisor, the Attorney General of the United States, Robert F. Kennedy.(May & Zelikow p.8-12)
Robert F. Kennedy would prove to be one of the most, if not the most important person responsible in deciding the fate of the two world superpowers and essentially the entire world next to Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Premier of the Soviet Union, and his own brother, John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States. Even before the crisis reached a head when the American government finally discovered the nuclear missiles in western Cuba, Bobby Kennedy played a key role in attempting to guarantee America’s worst nightmare would never come to being.
Through his own personal back channel to the Kremlin, a Soviet intelligence officer and member of the KGB, Georgi Bolshakov, Kennedy attempted to shape and relay messages and negotiations between the two superpowers in question.(Brugioni p.157) When Kennedy was deceived through these private and often personal channels, there was no question that Robert F. Kennedy felt a degree of personal insult and damage to his own pride.
Kennedy would play a key role throughout all of the Ex Comm meetings, and while his brother was away, there was no question that was in charge of these meetings. Throughout these meetings, Bobby’s own views on how to deal with this dramatic situation evolved from a rather hawkish and indignant position; a wish to get even, to a much more moderate and sensible, even dovish position on how to deal with the situation in question. Kennedy would play an important role in shaping the final course of action in handling the drama at hand.
Finally Kennedy would play the role of messenger and negotiator with the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, in negotiating the final deal and trade off to defuse the conflict and end it once and for all. Involved in this secret negotiating, the knowledge of which was possessed by less then ten men in both the United States and the Soviet Union at this time is also laden with controversy, involving classified documents and different accounts of the true story revealed on both the American and Soviet side of the conflict, including the memoirs of Nikita S. Khrushchev himself.(Chang & Kornbluh p.237)
Kennedy was one of the most important shapers of the entire conflict. Without his presence it is unknown which direction this conflict would have taken. It would be Robert F. Kennedy whom the president would rely on and trust the most in this situation. He was one of the most vocal in dealing with the conflict and certainly one of the most rational. He helped keep control of the situation and staved off the continued assaults of the war hawks in congress who truly looked to attain the upper hand in the method of dealing with this conflict. His great and important role in this conflict that will be discussed, from his secret back channels to the Kremlin in the months before the crisis, to the deals he would eventually present and make to the Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin.
Back Channels to the Kremlin
Robert F. Kennedy first met Georgi Bolshakov through Frank Holeman, an American journalist for the New York Daily News. Bolshakov was a soviet intelligence agent. He had been working for the Soviet intelligence agency GRU. The GRU, who began his grueling training process in 1943, while the war with Hitler, was still very much in full swing. Despite the war going on around him, Bolshakov was trained in a vigorous apprenticeship for seven years to become a Soviet intelligence officer, and then attended a three-year course at the High Intelligence School of the General Staff. In all his training lasted until 1950 during which time he acquired some impressive English language skills. As a result of his impressive English skills, Bolshakov was assigned to the TASS Soviet news agency in Washington where he would be an editor whose main role in the office would be to cultivate sources.(Brugioni p.157)
After dedicating four years to this assignment aboard in Washington, Bolshakov was recalled back to Moscow where he was to work under Soviet Defense Minister Marshal Georgi Zhukov. When Zhukov was dismissed in 1957, a temporary halt was brought to Bolshakov’s career. However his career would see a rival by the end of the 1950’s through his friendship with the new son-in-law of Soviet Premier Khrushchev, Aleksei Adzhubei, the husband of Rada Khrushchev. By 1960 Bolshakov was back in Washington working once again for GRU.(Brugioni p. 157-9)
Frank Holeman had first met Bolshakov in 1951 at a Soviet held lunch-in in Holeman’s honor. The two hit it off rather well and met infrequently and exchanged information. Soviets soon began to value Holeman as a useful informant and encouraged this budding relationship until Bolshakov was transferred back to Moscow in 1955.(Brugioni p.159) Upon Bolshakov’s return to Washington in 1960, Holeman was quick to reestablish ties with his former acquaintance from Moscow. Soon after Holeman and Bolshakov began there correspondence again, Holeman dropped the prospect to Bolshakov of possible meeting in person to discuss national interests with the attorney general of the United States, the brother of the President himself, Robert F. Kennedy. Bolshakov was taken off guard by the suggestion, but was quite tempted and excited about possible taking face to face with someone in such a position of American power as Kennedy. Despite his hidden enthusiasm, Bolshakov replied to the journalist that he needed approval from his “embassy before such a meeting could be proposed.(Brugioni p.160-4) What Bolshakov really needed was permission for his boss in the GRU, whose identity is still unknown, who initially upon hearing the proposal was rather surprised that one of his assistance would of interest to the Attorney General of the United States and rejected the proposition. Why would some one of such importance wish to speak to one of his assistants?
Despite the rejection by his superior and despite relaying the message back to Holeman that he would be unable to meet with the attorney general, Bolshakov decided to risk it anyway and meet up with Holeman on May 9th of 1961, just ten days after Holeman made his initial proposal. Bolshakov chose the date of May 9th for the meeting with Bobby Kennedy because it was a Soviet holiday in celebration of the defeat of fascism in 1945, and his office with the GRU would be understaffed as most of his colleagues would be home enjoying the holiday. Thus Bolshakov would be able to move around much easier.(Brugioni p.166)
Holeman met Bolshakov at roughly 4:30 at a nearby restaurant in Georgetown. Bolshakov had barely sat down to eat when Holeman asked him if he would be ready to meet Kennedy at 8:30 in front of the Justice Department office in Washington. Bolshakov was once again caught off guard by the abruptness of the scheduling of the meeting, but agreed non-the less to meet with Kennedy at this time. At 8:30 sharp Kennedy was waiting with one of his aides on the steps of the Justice Department building. Holeman introduced the Soviet intelligence officer to the Attorney General of the United States. With that Both Holeman and the Kennedy aide left the two gentlemen to themselves to talk.(Brugioni p.167-8) The groundwork was unofficially laid. From then on Robert F. Kennedy had his own personal connection to the Kremlin, via a Soviet intelligence officer.
Khrushchev did not entirely condone Georgi Bolshakov’s meetings with Bobby Kennedy. He even wrote to President Kennedy himself that his ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin in Washington enjoyed his “complete trust,” to encourage the use of regular diplomatic communications.(Blight & Welch p.189) But the personal rapport between the president’s brother and the Soviet military intelligence officer was too great for the Kremlin or the White House to wish to close down the Kennedy-Bolshakov back channel.
Khruschev also had no problem using this back channel as the means for an initiative. The channel had already been used in negotiations involving a nuclear test ban treaty and the continuing stalemate in Berlin. Khruschev also saw a way in which he could take advantage of the channel in an attempt to keep the Cuban Missile operation, codenamed Anadyr a covert operation.(Brugioni p.175) Khrushchev new he couldn’t possible prevent American U-2 pilots from flying over the island of Cuba, but perhaps he could prevent them from flying over Soviet ships delivering missiles and supplies necessary to make missile sites operational whose destination was Castro’s Caribbean communist paradise.
Khrushchev instructions for Bolshakov were to convey to Bobby Kennedy that the Soviets and Premier Khrushchev felt that reconnaissance missions via U-2 spy planes over the open ocean were acts of harassment on the part of the United States and the ceasing of these activities might lead to more friendly US-Soviet relations and a brighter opportunity for peaceful coexistence. Bolshakov relayed his instructions and the Kennedy’s agreed only under the condition that the Berlin issue be iced. Khrushchev was reluctant to agree on such a volatile issue as Berlin, but did promise not to do anything until after the American elections in November and the Americans did cease to send spy planes over the Atlantic.(Blight & Welch p.188-9)
However Bolshakov was left in the dark about the entire missile situation. On repeated occasions Kennedy questioned Bolshakov on the weapons and materials being sent to Cuba by the Soviet Union and Bolshakov repeatedly assured RFK that these weapons and materials were purely of a defensive nature. The weapons were merely a means for Cuba to defend itself against any possible aggregations.(Brugioni p. 175-6)
As recently as two weeks before the Kennedy administration became aware of the actual missile situation in Cuba, Bolshakov came to Bobby with an important message. Kennedy’s at this point knew that the Cubans had already received state of the art SA-2 missiles from the Soviets, which were designed as high-tech antiaircraft defensive missiles.(Cook p.92) Robert Kennedy made time to see Bolshakov on October 5 because Bolshakov said he had received and important message from Khrushchev. Kennedy usually affected a casual, unbuttoned look with his Russian friend, but Bolshakov noticed that this day the attorney general’s shirt was meticulously buttoned. There was no small talk about Bolshakov’s vacation, which months before the men had considered taking together. Kennedy listened and took notes as Bolshakov conveyed a pledge from Khrushchev that the Soviet Union was sending only defensive weapons to Cuba.(Blight and Welch p.193) To be sure he had not missed any nuance, Kennedy asked him to repeat the key phrase in the message. “The weapons that the USSR is sending to Cuba will only be of a defensive character,” said Bolshakov.(Brugioni p.178)
“In a short while,” Kennedy explained, “I will have to report this to the president.” Indeed, from what Bolshakov new of Soviet intentions, what he was instructed to tell Robert F. Kennedy was the truth? Bolshakov really believed that the Soviets had know intention of placing offensive nuclear missiles capable of targeting any region in the continental United States, at least without first informing the United States and the Kennedy administration. Bolshakov was left in the dark. Bolshakov lived to see the end of the Cold War; but he never got over his bitterness towards the Soviet Premier at having been used to deceive the Kennedy’s. Bolshakov was not informed about operation Anadyr.(Blight & Welch p.197)
The deception that the Soviets employed through Bolshakov insulted the pride of both Kennedy’s but in particular that of Bobby, who was Bolshakov’s friend. Perhaps that’s why Bolshakov was not informed of the operation. When it was brought to the attention that the American government was well aware of the Soviet missiles in Cuban territory, Bolshakov was dumbfounded and even a little confused. Bolshakov was not aware of the missiles in Cuba until John F. Kennedy’s administration itself had informed him that the missiles were there and even showed him photographs. When he did view the photographs he denied any expertise in rocketry. “I have never seen anything like these photographs,” complained Bolshakov, “and cannot understand what is on them.” He even suggested that they just might be baseball diamonds. The Americans however were not pleased with these results.(Blight & Welch p.197)
Bolshakov however did not prove to be totally useless to the Kennedy administration in resolving the missile crisis. On October 23, Frank Holeman revealed to Bolshakov, that the United States was willing to make a swap, Soviet nuclear ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba, in exchange for American ballistic nuclear missiles in the NATO State of Turkey on the borders of the Soviet Union. Kennedy was looking to remove the missiles in Turkey anyway for they had become obsolete upon the development of a larger quantity of higher quality missiles.(Cheney p.94) However GRU office in Washington chose to sit on the information and not reveal it to Khrushchev and the Soviet presidium just yet. Through Kennedy’s Bolshakov connection, it was first revealed that the Kennedy administration was willing to make a swap of missile installation in respective Soviet and American allied states.(Brugioni p.224)
Bolshakov proved valuable in the months before the missile crisis to both the White House and the Kremlin. Both used him as a source of intelligence regarding the other superpower’s plans. Bolshakov was Bobby Kennedy’s initative in dealing with the Soviet Union.
Ultimately, however, Khrushchev and the Soviet Union used the Kennedy-Bolshakov channel in a deceitful manner, deceiving the intelligence agent himself. Bolshakov was used to cover Soviet-Cuban covert operations in the Atlantic Ocean and to reassure the Kennedy administration that the Soviets had no plans to install offensive nuclear weapons capable of wiping out the entire continental United States on the island of Cuba.
To the contrary, the Soviets had planned for months to turn the small island nation of Cuba and its six million people into a Soviet Island fortress only 90 miles off the coast of Florida. This fortress would be fully equipped with not just medium range, but intercontinental nuclear missiles, as well as a submarine base capable of supporting nuclear submarines. In addition an entire Soviet garrison of 50,000 troops would be stationed on the island equipped with the weapons and the defense systems required to keep this fortress operational and eventually impregnable.(Cheney p.102) Bolshakov was left completely in the dark about this situation, and intern so was the Kennedy administration.
The situation infuriated both Kennedy’s and as the missile crisis progressed, the brothers relied less on the channel as a means to reach Moscow. It appeared obvious that Bolshakov had no idea what kinds of weapons were being installed in Cuba. The Soviet deception through Bolshakov helped to set the tone for Bobby Kennedy at the first Ex Comm meetings in deciding exactly what to do about this devastating situation in Cuba. Bolshakov was Bobby Kennedy’s personal channel to Moscow and his friend. Moscow’s use of Bolshakov as a means of deceit and deception truly infuriated the younger Kennedy.
Kennedy was looking to get even. It was no surprise that when Kennedy entered the very first Ex Comm meeting on October 16, 1962 Kennedy sat in his chair ready to act as a hawk. (Fursenko & Naftali p.234) He was prepared to do what ever was necessary to remove those missiles from Cuba. If it meant an air strike followed by an invasion, so be it.
Bobby Kennedy and the Ex Comm Meetings
The beginning of the Ex Comm talks for Robert F. Kennedy were marked by humiliation. The humiliation that he was directly lied to by the Soviet Union through one of his closest contacts and the humiliation that Castro had once again made the United States look like a bunch of fools. He struggled in the early part of these Ex Comm meetings with that humiliation on his shoulders.
Robert Kennedy believed that the missiles in Cuba represented an extremely valuable bargaining chip for both the Soviets and the Cubans. His opinion was also shared by his brother the president of the United States.
Kennedy wondered whether Castro might not make new threats against Cuba’s neighbors, saying, “You move troops down into that part of Venezuela, we’re going to fire these missiles.”(Fursenko & Naftali p.235) The attorney general in the first meeting of Ex Comm was by far the strongest advocate for invasion. He understood his brother’s sensitivity toward the political impact of a U.S. reaction that was not considered commensurate to the crime. But Robert Kennedy also expected Khrushchev simply to reload his missiles if he lost his first group of missiles to an American air strike. The odds of destroying every missile cleanly and efficiently with just one simple air strike were next to impossible.(Fursenko & Naftali p.247)
Perhaps as a way of showing how an invasion could be made internationally acceptable, Robert Kennedy brought up the quick fix that he had been advocating off and on since the Bay of Pigs disaster. “We should also think of . . . whether there is some other way we can get involved in this through . . . Guantanamo Bay, or something, . . . or whether there’s some ship that, you know, sink the Maine again or something.”(Hinckle & William p. 278) Kennedy was indeed grasping for straws suggesting such farfetched and outlandish excuses for invading Cuba, under pretexts of questionable morality. However Kennedy was confused and extremely frustrated by the current situation. Much of what Kennedy suggests early on in the Ex Comm meetings were the venting of great frustration over the crisis. None the less his brother, the president of the United States took Bobby Kennedy’s lamentations very seriously. Bobby was still his closest advisor and John F. Kennedy felt the same frustration and confusion that his brother felt.
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