by Patrick Sloyan
One of my goals in writing The Politics of Deception: JFK’S Secret Decisions on Vietnam, Cuba and Civil Rights, is to rehabilitate Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. History recalls Khrushchev as a dangerous buffoon who underestimated President John F. Kennedy in 1962 and was sent reeling in the international arena when he was forced to withdraw nuclear-tipped Soviet rockets from Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Time to forget that image of the untutored oaf pounding his shoe on the Soviet delegation desk during a debate at the United Nations. Think of the Cold War Russian leader at the chess table and thinking eight moves ahead of Kennedy. It is Khrushchev who shows the young American leader the path away from nuclear warfare and engineers the first nuclear disarmament agreement in world history. Kennedy, it turns out, was the one who underestimated the Russian in a miscalculation that raised the specter of fiery death for millions.
Khrushchev’s opening gambit was in Vienna in 1961 where he so humiliated the new American president that Kennedy detailed his diplomatic thrashing to a New York columnist who attended the summit. “Worst thing in my life,” Kennedy said. “He savaged me.” Khrushchev threatened Kennedy with war unless the United States gave up its share of Berlin—within six months.
Khrushchev also made clear that he was fed up with American rockets based in European countries that could drop hydrogen warheads on Moscow. At the time, Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had given 30 Jupiter rockets to Italy and 60 Thor missiles to the United Kingdom. Khrushchev knew of American plans to deploy 15 more Jupiters in Turkey. These were intermediate range rockets that could fly 2,800 miles. The Turkish base would be closest to Moscow, just a quick flight over the Black Sea.
“We must be reasonable and keep our forces within our national boundaries” he told Kennedy in Vienna. “This situation may cause miscalculation.”
The following year, Kennedy overrode objections from Congress and the Pentagon and ordered the Jupiters deployed in Turkey. The decision was partly based on the Soviet threat of war over Berlin. In public, Khrushchev ranted about the Turkish deployment. In secret, he ordered 30 nuclear warheads shipped to Cuba along with intermediate range rockets. They would become the leverage for forcing Kennedy’s retreat from Turkey.
On October 27, 1962, Kennedy was being urged to order the very next day a massive assault on Cuba. More than 140,000 American soldiers would be landed there after five days of aerial bombardment. Castro’s Havana would have been turned into a smoking ruin in the Caribbean. But at 10AM that day, Khrushchev revealed his end game. In a public statement, the Soviet leader offered a swap: Russian rockets in Cuba would be removed if Kennedy pulled the Jupiters out of Turkey. Almost all of Kennedy’s advisers—including his brother Robert—urged a dramatic rejection. The political blow-back would be ruinous.
But Kennedy was the first to realize he was checkmated. “This trade has appeal,” Kennedy told his advisers. “He’s got us in a pretty good spot here. Because most people will regard this as not an unreasonable proposal. I just tell you that.” Later that night, he sent his brother to negotiate a secret deal: The swap was accepted providing Khrushchev never reveals the agreement. The deal remained secret for 34 years. The Soviet leader went to his grave without a hint of his triumphal reduction of American and Russian nuclear warheads. He was the only modern Russian leader not honored by burial in the Kremlin wall. Almost a non-person until reformer Mikhail Gorbachev set the record straight. “Khrushchev’s achievements were remarkable,” Gorbachev wrote in 2007.
Another figure I aim to rehabilitate with my book is Lyndon Baines Johnson who—according to Bobby Kennedy—contributed nothing to the Cuban missile crisis. But long hidden tape recordings by the president show his Vice President was the first adviser to endorse the swap. “What not trade?” Johnson said after hearing Kennedy warm to the Russian offer. Later that day, Johnson lobbied the Joint Chiefs of Staff to accept the missile swap.
After Kennedy’s assassination, Bobby and other senior administration officials, in gossip and books, treated Johnson as a political urinal. But at crucial moments, Johnson was clearly the president’s best adviser. When Kennedy opposed the civil rights crusade and its leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., it was Johnson who counseled Kennedy to embrace the movement as its moral leader. At the time, Kennedy wanted to hang on to southern electoral votes that helped win him the White House in 1960. “I know the risks are great and it might cost us the South,” Johnson counseled. “But those sort of states may be lost anyway.”
Kennedy’s legacy to Johnson was the war in Vietnam. In his last month in office, Kennedy ordered the certain overthrow and likely assassination of the president of South Vietnam. The death of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 resulted in the collapse of the Saigon government and its American-trained army. Kennedy was killed three weeks after he devised the coup that killed Diem. As president, Johnson was confronted with withdrawal or using American combat troops in the Indochina jungle. Before the coup, Johnson opposed Diem’s overthrow.
“If you want to play cops and robbers, why don’t you get on television,” Johnson said angrily at one crucial meeting. “But goddam it, let’s don’t go doing it with our allies.”
Both Johnson and Khrushchev were ridiculed and rejected in their day, but in my writing I may burnish their reputations.
PATRICK J. SLOYAN is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered national and international affairs since 1960. He has been awarded journalism’s most distinguished prizes for domestic and foreign reporting, including the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting and Spot News Reporting, the George Polk Award for War Reporting, and the Deadline Writing prize. Sloyan has written for Rolling Stone, The New Republic, The Nation, and The London Guardian. He lives in Virginia. His latest work The Politics of Deception.