JFK’s Russian Conspiracy: How a ‘secret back-channel’ may have saved the world

On a day in early December, one of Moscow’s agents in the United States, working undercover as a journalist for Izvestia, reported a private meeting with the president-elect’s “closest adviser.” The adviser, who met privately with the Russian spy, was frank and hopeful about a significant improvement in relations from the previous administration. He “stressed that was not merely expressing his personal opinion but the position of the future president.” The two men met alone, and there was no American record made of the encounter.

This is not a report about Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, whose activities during the transition are now being investigated. Nor it is about Jared Kushner, who, the Washington Post reported on Friday, approached Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last December to propose a secret communications channel. The meeting described above took place in 1960, and the “close adviser” was the incoming president’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy. It is not unusual for the Russians to want to establish contacts with an incoming presidential administration, especially when there is tension between the two countries. It is also not unusual for an American administration to use back channels to probe the intentions of adversarial powers. But December 1960 was not December 2016. The RFK meeting likely came at the request of the Russians, not the Americans. It was not held in secret—it was noted on RFK’s telephone log. And Robert Kennedy, despite general encouraging words, made no promises, suggested no follow-up, and was in no way working against the outgoing Eisenhower administration. The Russians were smart in focusing attention on the president-elect’s brother. He would eventually be involved in historic back channel activity, but well after the inauguration. And all these years later, such communications have been revealed as a canny and patriotic initiative by the Kennedy administration.

This Monday John F. Kennedy would have turned 100, and it has taken nearly this long to develop a full picture of his presidency: The more we learn about it, the more impressive he becomes. Much of the biographical work until recently has been filling in the gaps created by censors—mainly close allies and family members—who did not want the public image of the fallen leader to be tarnished by his addiction to sex and his physical frailties. But what should most dramatically change how we view his presidency is the flood of new information (and some of it not new but underappreciated from Russian records) about how he did his job. JFK had a taping system installed in the White House a decade before Nixon, and these recordings have only been fully opened since late 2012. Unlike the technophobic Nixon, whose taping system would turn on at the literal drop of a hat, Kennedy’s was controlled by a button usually pressed by him alone. The Kennedy tapes, and the increasing release of that era’s national security documents, are revising the picture of a very creative moment in U.S. foreign policy.

JFK’s Russian conspiracy did not begin during his campaign. In the summer of 1960, the Soviet Foreign Ministry and the KGB relied mainly on publicly available information to imagine what Kennedy would be like as president if he won. They had no informants near the young leader’s circle, the “New Frontiersmen.” Soviet diplomats were more dismissive than the KGB of Kennedy, thinking him “unlikely to possess the qualities of an outstanding person.” Both institutions worried he was overly influenced by his father, Joseph, the conservative multimillionaire and former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Soviet intelligence initially suspected Kennedy might be more welcomingly inventive in U.S. – Soviet relations. But neither side apparently got any help in testing their theories from the Kennedys or their advisers until November. After Kennedy’s very close election, Soviet diplomats and the KGB made separate approaches to Kennedy insiders to get a read on the future leader of the free world. The meeting of the undercover spy with RFK on Dec. 1, 1960, seemed to be the KGB’s effort to contrive a summit invitation from the president-elect and deliver it on a silver platter to the Kremlin.

Although the Kennedys were new at the White House business, they were not easily impressed by Soviet attention, and they played these approaches carefully, being encouraging only under the right circumstances. The president-elect refused to promise an early summit, though he would not rule one out. “In principle,” the KGB reported RFK as saying in that December meeting:

  • Kennedy would like to meet with you [Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev] and hopes that his relations with the Soviet leader will be better than Eisenhower had. However, he will not agree to a summit if he doubts that positive results will ensue. In the first three or four months of his presidency, before he has presented his domestic program to Congress, Kennedy would not be able to participate in a summit.

And the Kennedys mixed spice with the sugar. The KGB reported that RFK also warned Moscow not to test the incoming administration over Berlin, a symbol of the administration’s commitment to defending the West. JFK would wait until he had taken office and then used the formal channels of the State Department to schedule a summit with Khrushchev.

After the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs in April, however, coupled with Kennedy’s deep concern about the stability of the Southeast Asian country of Laos in the face of a Soviet-backed insurgency, the Kennedy brothers decided to explore the Russian love for secret back channels. Starting in late May 1961, Robert would meet at least 35 times—an extraordinary number—over the next 19 months with a Soviet intelligence officer named Georgi Bolshakov (of the military intelligence service, then as now called the GRU) to voice his brother’s hope for a lessening of tensions between the superpowers. Unsurprisingly, the press and public knew nothing about these meetings. But Kennedy also kept most of them a secret from the rest of his administration. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy would not know the extent of these meetings until three decades later. Kennedy’s most influential biographer, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and his close aide and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen knew little of these contacts at the time. Robert often met with the Soviet agent in his office at DOJ; the FBI might have caught whiff of these tête-à-têtes, but the CIA was in the dark.

What we now know from these efforts is that John F. Kennedy was not only far less hawkish than his public rhetoric, but he was far less hawkish than the American people. He was certainly anti-communist and mistrusted pro-Kremlin revolutionaries, but he believed, as he would reveal publicly in his American University address in June 1963, that Americans had an irrational fear of Russians and that both peoples shared an aversion to nuclear war. It would take public acclaim of his leadership after the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 for Kennedy to feel he had the political capital to tell the American people what they were not prepared to hear before. But long before then, the historical record now shows, he was willing to let the Soviets know his private views and explore a possible détente to lower the level of nuclear danger, while holding firm to American global security obligations.

The Kennedys loved keeping secrets, and they were good at it. They kept these meetings secret because JFK was trying to advance negotiating positions as trial balloons that he knew would be shot down if revealed prematurely in Washington. On the important matter of the number of on-site inspections of suspicious seismic events in seismically active USSR—an issue that kept the two sides from seriously negotiating a nuclear test ban in the Eisenhower years—Kennedy revealed to Moscow a private position of 10 inspections when the U.S. government’s public position was 20 inspections. “The USA could compromise,” RFK told his Soviet contact, “if this were in response to a Soviet proposal.” At the same time, the president’s brother underscored that an arms-control agreement would only come if the Soviets stopped underestimating U.S. power and causing trouble in divided Berlin and Southeast Asia. The Kennedys also refused to soften their hard line on Fidel Castro or even discuss it with Moscow. “Cuba is a dead issue,” explained RFK.

Some of this was naïve—Khrushchev did not want an arms-control agreement as much as Kennedy did and was suspicious of the president’s gesture—and all of it was politically dangerous at home for JFK. Had these secret discussions ever become public, RFK, let alone his brother, might well have been charged with being pro-Soviet. They weren’t, but in Washington at the time there was no acceptable difference between seeking compromise and being perceived as soft on the Soviets. In retrospect, however, it is hard to argue that these risks were not worth taking at the height of the Cold War. Robert’s secret meetings may not have made a major arms-control agreement more likely, but they certainly helped to make an accidental war less likely. At their one and only summit in Vienna in June 1961, Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to a neutral Laos, a new status for the war-torn country that JFK had proposed earlier via the back channel. A few months later during the Berlin Crisis, when Soviet and American tanks were in a standoff at Checkpoint Charlie, RFK’s back-channeling may have been the reason the Kremlin withdrew its 30 tanks without incident. In the fall of 1962, when the Kennedy brothers suspected RFK’s interlocutor of having become a source of disinformation about Soviet missile activities in Cuba, they switched the back channel from Bolshakov to the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. This secret contact, as many now know, would be influential in securing a peaceful end to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Kennedy brothers’ Russian conspiracy was designed not for personal benefit, and at personal risk, to test the limits of Soviet desire in avoiding the mutual annihilation that seemed so plausible at the time.

JFK has long been something of a puzzle. He was a liberal who dragged his feet on civil rights until his third year in office and then embraced the struggle as a moral imperative—consciously forsaking the Democratic Party’s base in the segregationist South. In the mosaic of new information about his presidency, we can see patterns. Kennedy sought liberal outcomes while abhorring instability and uncertainty. But, in the end, he could and would take risks. He assumed his Russian outreach would have to remain secret, not only to satisfy the Soviets that it was not a publicity trick, but to give him time to sway American public opinion for whatever agreement that would follow.

Six decades later the FBI believes there is probable cause to investigate the potential relationship, and denial thereof, between Russia and the winner of the most recent presidential election. It is very human—and sometimes politically useful—to see parallels in history. But any comparison between these two cases requires first asking the simple question: Who benefits? Given the financial entanglements and conflicts of interests surrounding this president, and the activities of the Russian government in trying to bring him into office, such a relationship, if it exists, is likely to be revealed as very different from the one encouraged by the Kennedys years ago. In the 1960s, we know now, a president and his closest adviser took creative and audacious steps to make the world a safer place. Happy 100th birthday, JFK.

JFK’s funeral. Over the span of 18 hours, 250,000 people, some waiting for as long as 10 hours in a line that stretched over 10 miles personally paid their respects to the President.

Tim Naftali, the co-author with Aleksandr Fursenko of One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy 1958-1964 and Khrushchev’s Cold War, is writing a new study of the Kennedy presidency.