Twenty-seventh Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Bobby Kennedy Grills a Soviet Spy
On June 3, 1962, Attorney General Robert Kennedy invited Georgi Bolshakov to lunch. Though he appeared to be an accredited Soviet diplomat, Bolshakov was really a spy for the Soviet military intelligence agency (GRU). Kennedy and he had, improbably, become friends.
The Kennedy administration was deeply worried by recent Soviet hostility, particularly their harassment of Western land and air transport between West Germany and Berlin (Chapter 26: ).
At their meeting, Bobby asked Bolshakov point blank, “…is there anyone in the Soviet leadership who advocates a decisive clash with the United States?” According to Fursenko and Naftali, Bobby Kennedy “refused to believe that Khrushchev enjoyed complete control over the Soviet army.”
His concern is understandable. An out-of-control Soviet military might kick off World War III. Washington knew very well that the Kremlin had its hardliners—as did the United States military.
The United States government never seemed to understand, however, that Russia’s leaders, including its highest ranking military, were all survivors of the hideous devastation that Hitler’s forces had wrought in Russia. Hardliners though some of them were, none of them wanted to risk the even worse devastation a nuclear war would inflict.
The Spy Grills Bobby
Bolshakov had exactly the same question about the U.S. military: did “the advocates of war” in the Defense Department have any special influence in the American system? Bobby responded with what Fursenko and Naftali call a “truly astonishing” answer:
"In the government, no, [b]ut among the generals in the Pentagon…there are such people. Recently the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] offered the president a report in which they confirmed that the United States is currently ahead of the Soviet Union in military power and that in extremis it would be possible to probe the forces of the Soviet Union."
While Bobby did not define “probe,” he did tell Bolshakov that the president had “decisively rejected any attempt by zealous advocates of a clash between the United States and the Soviet Union to force [him]…to accept their point of view.”
Bobby’s words, which reached the Kremlin via Bolshakov and Ambassador Dobrynin, verified the Soviets’ growing suspicion that Pentagon warmongers were indeed “advocating a preemptive war with Moscow.” Perhaps “probe” meant a nuclear first strike! (See Chapter 10: )
On June 14, 1962, 50 years ago today, the Presidium (chaired by Khrushchev) approved a statement which Bolshakov would hand to Bobby. The statement accused the United States of worsening the relations
- By resuming nuclear tests in the atmosphere.
- By intervening militarily in Southeast Asia.
- By NATO military policies (particularly the possibiity that NATO might be ready to equip the German Army with nuclear weapons).
- By refusing to reach an agreement on West Berlin.
The Kremlin went even further—it denied Bobby a visa to visit the USSR with Bolshakov as his host. The Kremlin had already canceled (in March) a planned exchange of television addresses between President Kennedy and Khrushchev.
Why This Fresh Hostility? A Possible Explanation
By June 14, Castro had approved Soviet missile bases in Cuba. Ships were gathering to carry ANADYR’s men and rockets to Cuba. Deployment orders were being carried to the designated military units. The Soviets had crossed their Rubicon.
With ANADYR in the diplomatic bag, so to speak, Khrushchev might have felt he could risk becoming more confrontational with the U.S., thereby winning much-needed points with the Presidium’s hardliners.
There was a risk to that hardened stance, however. ANADYR’s success depended on absolute secrecy. Would a newly provoked U.S. become vigilant enough to penetrate that screen of secrecy?
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The main source for this chapter is Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble.” Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, 184-90. The authors found Bobby’s and Bolshakov’s words quoted above in a cable from Ambassador Dobrynin to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow dated 4 June 1962. Dobrynin’s source was, of course, Bolshakov. The cable resides in the Archives of the President of the Russian Federation.
Anatoly Dobrynin describes, very briefly, the Bobby Kennedy—Bolshakov meeting and subsequent exchanges in his memoir, In Confidence. Moscow’s Ambassador to America’s Six Cold War Presidents (1962-1986). New York: Times Books, 1995, 64-5. As always, remember to read anyone’s memoir with skepticism!
Fursenko and Naftali do not, regrettably, provide a footnote identifying the Joint Chiefs’ report “in which they confirmed that the United States is currently ahead of the Soviet Union in military power and that in extremis it would be possible to probe the forces of the Soviet Union.”
With regard to the Soviet accusations about nuclear testing: We must remember that it was the Soviets who first resumed atmospheric testing (on 1 September 1961), not the United States. The United States resumed its own tests only after the third Soviet round, and then underground and in the laboratory in order to avoid increasing radioactive fallout around the world.