Most scholarly work on America’s approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis emphasizes the decision-making process within the White House – and for good reason. President John F. Kennedy maintained an exceptionally close-knit group of advisors, who participated in highly secretive yet frenzied debate between October 16 and 28, 1962. But what about the diplomats and U.S. Foreign Service Officers? What was the role of America’s chief negotiators and Soviet experts during the world’s closest brush with nuclear war? Furthermore, how did the American embassy in Moscow participate in this U.S.-Soviet confrontation?
After examining a wealth of primary source documents – including State Department cables, Executive Committee (ExComm) conversation transcripts, White House memoranda, Foy Kohler’s personal account, and more – I have made several key determinations. Firstly, White House transcripts reveal that President Kennedy severely limited the role of acting State Department diplomats from the outset; rather, he chose former U.S. Ambassadors to the Soviet Union Charles Bohlen and Llewellyn Thompson as his main sources of diplomatic perspective. Their participation on the ExComm is readily apparent from other accounts of the crisis, but a brief discussion of their role provides a well-rounded picture of their diplomatic influence.
It was striking to learn that America’s then-Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Foy D. Kohler, and his embassy staff were ignorant of the unfolding crisis for nearly half of the infamous “thirteen days.” Thereafter, between October 22 and October 28, Kohler and the U.S. embassy in Moscow (Embassy Moscow) performed two main responsibilities: exchanging messages between the Kremlin and White House and, at least as importantly, serving on the frontlines of an international public opinion contest between the superpowers. In other words, Kohler and his Foreign Service Officers served as an extension of Kennedy’s public opinion management rather than as substantive negotiators and advisors. State Department cables, among other sources, depict an embassy fervently monitoring Kremlin propaganda and fighting to positively influence public perceptions, both in the USSR and around the globe, of U.S. actions vis-à-vis Cuba. This public relations contest included Soviet signal jamming, media manipulation, and staged demonstrations.
Furthermore, the secretive nature of the crisis – where adversaries sparred behind the scenes through a series of chess-like moves and gestures of force – undermined the role of diplomacy on both sides of the crisis. Perhaps a different approach, with more emphasis given to transparent negotiations and a utilization of diplomatic corps, could have prevented the world from reaching the nuclear precipice.
The Limits of Diplomatic Influence: Bohlen and Thompson
From the outset, President Kennedy vastly limited the circle of government officials with knowledge of the unfolding Cuban Missile Crisis. This inherently reduced the role of the State Department and, consequently, the diplomats with closest access to the Kremlin leadership – those of Embassy Moscow. During an initial meeting on the crisis, at 11:50 am EST on October 16, 1962, President Kennedy discussed the need for utmost secrecy and designated which individuals would be involved in the decision-making process:
We ought to just decide who we talk to and how long ahead and how many people, really, in the government. There’s going to be a difference between those who know that…there are these, uh, uh, bases, until we say or the Pentagon or State won’t be harsh.
President Kennedy continues, with respect to State Department involvement: “Nobody, it seems to me, in the State Department. I discussed the matter with, uh, Bohlen of the Soviet bloc and told him he could talk to Thompson. So that’s those two. It seems to me that there’s no one else in the State Department that ought to be talked to about it…”. Kennedy is referring to all civil service officials other than his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, and Under Secretary of State for Economic and Agricultural Affairs, George Ball. He also excludes current and former members of the U.S. Foreign Service, with the exception of former Ambassadors Thompson and Bohlen.
Due to Kennedy’s desire for secrecy because of the sensitivity of the crisis, diplomats and Soviet experts stationed in Moscow were excluded from the decision-making process. Charles Bohlen and Llewellyn Thompson served as the chief sources of diplomatic perspective for Kennedy during ExComm debates. Yet their expertise had a limited influence on ExComm’s conclusions. A memo from Bohlen to Secretary of State Rusk, dated October 17, illustrates his diplomatic approach to the crisis: “No one can guarantee that this can be achieved by diplomatic action – but it seems to me essential that this channel should be tested out before military action is employed. If our decision is firm (and it must be) I can see no danger in communicating with Khrushchev privately worded in such a way that he realized that we mean business. […] This I consider an essential first step no matter what military course we determine on [sic] if the reply is unsatisfactory.”
The Bohlen Plan is mentioned in an October 18 memo which outlines various policy options and their respective supporters. The idea of sending a “prompt letter to Khrushchev” and “deciding after the response whether we use air strike[s] or [a] blockade” was supported by all blockade advocates and some of the air strike advocates, but was opposed by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor. Despite gaining an initial degree of support, the plan was ultimately rejected when the president’s Special Counsel, adviser, and primary speechwriter Theodore Sorenson determined that it would be impossible to compose such a letter without Khrushchev completely outmaneuvering the ExComm. For example, a public response to the letter by Khrushchev could prove politically embarrassing for Kennedy, who had promised to remain tough on the Kremlin during his campaign. They considered another diplomatic approach as well – contacting Fidel Castro directly and suggesting, based on previous Soviet statements, that the USSR would use Cuba as a bargaining tool for concessions in Berlin or other parts of the world. Ultimately, Kennedy set this approach aside because he felt the crisis would and should remain a solely U.S.-Soviet issue.
Llewellyn Thompson’s contributions to ExComm’s decision-making process have been celebrated in several accounts of the crisis. David Mayer’s The Ambassadors and America’s Soviet Policy describes Thompson’s role as one “closely questioned about Khrushchev’s motives, probable state of mind, immunity to coup d’état, and likely response to one or another type of U.S. action.” Most accounts of the crisis credit either Thompson or Robert Kennedy with advising JFK to respond to the first of two letters that Khrushchev cabled to the White House between the evening of October 26 and the morning of October 27. Post-crisis mythology holds that Kennedy ignored the second letter, which was more demanding in tone and suggested the U.S. remove its missiles in Turkey in return for a removal of missiles in Cuba, and instead chose to respond to the more conciliatory letter. But authors such as Michael Dobbs have debunked this fabled two-letter maneuver. Utilizing primary sources, such as transcripts from ExComm meetings, he shows that Kennedy actually preferred the negotiated route and did not want to risk nuclear war over the obsolete Jupiter missiles. Kennedy’s response to the first letter actually concealed the backchannel discussions regarding Turkey- and Cuba-based missiles that took place between Robert Kennedy and Soviet Ambassador the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin. President Kennedy directed Robert Kennedy to meet with Dobrynin and inform him that the Jupiters would be withdrawn from Turkey soon, showing that the missiles in Turkey would not remain an obstacle to an agreement. Knowledge of the arrangement was limited to President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. Additionally, the Soviets were required to keep the arrangement secret or else President Kennedy would nullify the deal.
It should be noted that Thompson indeed played a significant role in ExComm deliberations. His comments appear in far more ExComm transcripts than do Charles Bohlen’s, and he was consistently consulted about Soviet intentions. In fact, Kennedy had appointed Bohlen as America’s Ambassador to France toward the beginning of the crisis, which accounts for his limited role. However, the inclusion of only two diplomats with Soviet expertise on the ExComm highlights the significant limitations of diplomatic perspective during the crisis.
Left in the Dark within “United States Target No. 1”
Then U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Foy D. Kohler and his staff of Soviet-focused Foreign Service Officers did not participate in the policymaking process. Between the revelation of Soviet intentions on October 16 (via U-2 photoreconnaissance) and the evening before Kennedy’s October 22 speech regarding a naval quarantine of Cuba, Embassy Moscow remained uninformed regarding what would become one of the greatest crises in Soviet-American relations; that is, Embassy Moscow remained ignorant of the unfolding crisis for six of the “thirteen days.” Such a limited use of diplomatic officials understandably resulted from the White House’s desire to decrease the potential for leaks and misunderstandings during such a sensitive evolving crisis. Yet the lack of East-West transparency regarding intentions, goals, and decisions may have brought the world closer to nuclear war.
One of the few documented meetings between Kohler and Khrushchev occurred at the beginning of the crisis, on October 16, when Khrushchev continued to disguise his intentions regarding Cuba. In his report back to Kennedy about the meeting, Kohler wrote that “Khrushchev said he wished to assure president that port regarding which Soviets had signed agreement was just fishing port.” Kohler also mentions this meeting within his personal account of the crisis. Importantly, he goes on to explain how this was the first and last he heard about developments in Cuba until the eve of Kennedy’s October 22 speech:
When as Ambassador I paid my first call on him in early October, Khrushchev…had been at some pains to assure me that a fishing port the Soviets were building in Havana was just that and not something else. The real import of Khrushchev’s tactics in that conversation became clear to me a few days later, on Sunday, October 21, when the embassy received an advance text of the speech which the President would deliver at 7 P.M. the following evening over American television, revealing the Soviet attempt to smuggle missiles into Cuba and demanding their withdrawal.
Kohler somewhat downplays the length of time during which he was unaware of both Soviet actions and Washington’s chosen response when he says “a few days later.” As discussed above, he and his staff were uninformed for nearly a week and were only told via cable the night before Kennedy’s speech.
Thereafter the role of Embassy Moscow remained secondary in terms of influence on decision making in Washington. Despite proximity to and knowledge of the Kremlin leadership, Kohler and his diplomatic staff mainly passed messages between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Priscilla Roberts, author of Cuban Missile Crisis: The Essential Reference Guide, comments thusly on the limited role of Embassy Moscow: “Kohler was not close to President John F. Kennedy, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis the U.S. Embassy in Moscow functioned largely as a conduit and translation bureau for urgent messages between Khrushchev and U.S. officials in Washington.”
Kohler’s account of the crisis after October 22 corroborates this view. He writes, “This was the opening of a tense and hectically busy week for us in the embassy, delivering and receiving, translating, encoding and dispatching a dozen major communications between the two capitals. We did not even have time to think about the fact – of which Secretary Rusk reminded me later – that we were sitting in the middle of United States target No. 1.” Kohler did not mention much else about his involvement in the crisis besides that of receiving the Soviet note on Friday, October 26, which contained Khrushchev’s agreement to withdraw missiles from Cuba.
Embassy Moscow in the Battle for Hearts and Minds
Curious about Kohler’s actions during the gap in his personal account, I sifted through cables sent from Moscow to Washington between October 22 and 26to try to discover more about his role in the crisis. I have concluded that Kohler and his staff lacked major influence on policy making and instead focused on monitoring and shaping Soviet popular perceptions of U.S. actions vis-à-vis Cuba.
A cable that Kohler sent to Washington on October 23 detailed “initial Sov[iet] public reaction” to Kennedy’s quarantine speech. He explained that the “Sov[iet] gov[ernment’s] statement on Cuba has completely and deliberately, of course, passed over basic cause of trouble: offensive repeat offensive character of Soviet missile installations.” Kohler suggests that the State Department project Voice of America broadcasts in an “all-out effort get this basic fact into Sov[iet] Union in Russian and other languages but primarily in Russian.”
Kohler’s memoirs also briefly refer to meetings with “a number of Soviet ministers” after October 22, but he does not provide much detail about the content of these meetings. Yet an October 25 cable titled “Meeting with Soviet Official on Media and the Cuban Crisis” provides more specifics. Within the cable, Kohler describes a conversation with a Soviet official – whose name remains excised – where Kohler expressed “in strong terms our belief [that] Soviet media [is] not correctly informing Soviet people of [the] facts in [the] current Cuba crisis.” Based on details within the conversation, one can infer that this unnamed official may have been involved with the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS) – the entity that controlled news coverage within the Soviet Union. Kohler refers to a TASS statement from September 11 regarding the “defensive nature of Soviet arms assistance”, and then tells the official that “there had been [a] breakdown in communications or else [the] Soviets had chosen [to] deliberately ignore [the] limits of our position” by misleading their people. The cable continues, “I remarked that Soviet workers who are reported to be condemning [the] President’s speech in factory meetings and students who [are] demonstrating in front [of the U.S.] Embassy could hardly know what they condemning since they have neither read it [n]or heard it.”
Throughout the discussion, Kohler speaks as if the Soviet official in question can influence the content of Soviet media, further reinforcing my belief that the individual was involved with TASS. He even asks “whether [the] people had been informed on Stevenson[’s] UN speech or U Thant[’s] letter to Khrushchev”, and argues that the “Soviet public should be told what [the] real nature [of] our complaint is, even if at [the] same time [they are] informed [of the] Soviet version. With this in mind, and after considering other cables exchanged between the State Department and Embassy Moscow during the second half of the crisis, it becomes clear that Kohler and his staff had joined the frontlines in the battle for the Soviet people’s hearts and minds. The Kennedy Administration seems to have used its Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Embassy staff not only to exchange messages, but also to monitor and combat slanted Soviet media in order to manage public opinion within the USSR.
An examination of messages from the State Department to embassies both in the USSR and around the world between October 22 and 26 reinforces this finding. Cables from Washington frequently emphasized the public line diplomats should take when discussing the crisis, with the goal of subverting Soviet statements. An October 24, 13-page cable from Secretary Rusk to all embassies stated firm guidelines for battling Soviet portrayals of the crisis:
There is [an] urgent need for clarity and consistency in our statements explaining our action against Soviet bases in Cuba…We can expect a massive effort at distortion from Moscow and it must be countered at every opportunity to explain our position rather than waiting to react to Communist or Cuban accusations. […] It is likely that in their propaganda – and in any possible future discussions – [the] Soviets will try to draw parallels between their missile bases in Cuba and our establishments in allied countries…it should be noted, and underlined, that any indication on our part that we accept this suggest[ed] analogy or that we might be considering a ‘trade’ on this basis could have disastrous political effects in the countries concerned.
It seems safe to assume that Kennedy, a shrewd politician with a keen awareness of the media’s impact on public opinion, directed Rusk to give such instructions. Within this context, Kohler’s suggestion to utilize Voice of America broadcasts and his October 25 conversation emphasizing the role of media with an unnamed official make more sense. Kohler and Embassy Moscow had become an extended arm of Kennedy’s campaign to manage media, popular opinion, and interpretations of U.S. actions vis-à-vis Cuba.
The battle for Soviet public opinion took many forms and presented significant challenges to the officials in Embassy Moscow. Kohler highlights one of those difficulties in the October 25 cable reporting his meeting with an unnamed official. He tells the official that “Soviet jamming, which at [its] high point, was [the] most shocking thing I had found on my return to [the] USSR.” Further research clarifies what Kohler meant. An account of military attaches stationed in Embassy Moscow released through the CIA Historical Review Program in 1995 reveals that “the first information about Soviet missiles in Cuba came to the attaches in the newscasts of the Voice of America and BBC.” The report continues, “When these were in Russian they were totally jammed, but the jamming of the English was less severe and a part of it could be understood.” This sheds light on another aspect of the Cuban Missile Crisis – a direct Soviet-American confrontation through the airwaves and media, aimed at defining the crisis in terms acceptable to one side or the other.
In addition to using signal jamming to prevent the Soviet populace from knowing about the existence of offensive weapons in Cuba, the Kremlin also used media manipulation to draw attention to particular incidents it wished to emphasize. The military attaches of Embassy Moscow documented one such occurrence where, on October 25, “the Soviet new media gave unexpected publicity to a telegram that Aleksey, the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, had sent to U Thant… It warned that mankind was threatened by the outbreak of a world war as a result of actions taken by the U.S. administration against the Republic of Cuba. The United States was violating Christian teachings.” Kremlin leadership also organized student demonstrations to bring negative attention to the U.S.; one took place on October 24 and another occurred on October 27. The CIA account claims that “the youthful protesters had no notion that the Soviet leaders were squirming under a virtual ultimatum to remove their strategic weapons from Cuba; they had been told only that the imperialistic capitalists of the United States were planning to invade the homeland of the peace-loving Cubans.” Embassy Moscow was indeed engaged in a multi-faceted public opinion struggle with the Soviet Union.
Paradoxically, the Americans close to the Kremlin leadership with valuable diplomatic perspectives were left mostly in the dark and relegated to a role of secondary influence. In fact, Foy Kohler and Embassy Moscow remained unaware of the unfolding crisis for the first half of those hectic thirteen days. Kennedy’s choice to include Charles Bohlen and Llewellyn Thompson indeed provided a degree of diplomatic perspective within ExComm discussions, but diplomatic methods (such as the Bohlen Plan, for example) remained underutilized and were never formally implemented. For the second half of the crisis, following President Kennedy’s October 22 address, Embassy Moscow assumed the function of messenger between Washington and Moscow. Yet even this objective was undercut by alternate channels, such as public radio transmissions (for example, public announcements made by Khrushchev or Kennedy) and notes given to the Soviet Union’s ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin. The state of communications technology made these forms of message exchange quicker, further marginalizing Embassy Moscow’s already limited role. In lieu of their diminished role, Kohler and his staff instead focused on a public opinion contest aimed at favorably defining the nature of U.S. actions regarding Cuba and combatting propaganda within the Soviet Union during the crisis. Overall, this adds a valuable dimension to the crisis – illustrating how a psychological media war was waged by Washington through Embassy Moscow and other foreign posts in the hopes of favorably representing U.S. actions with respect to Cuba.
Furthermore, the limited role of diplomats and Foreign Service Officers in mediating the Cuban Missile Crisis raises the unanswerable question of whether the use of transparent bilateral negotiations, rather than opaque signaling techniques and bluffs and counter-bluffs, could have deescalated the crisis and brought the world back from the brink of nuclear war sooner. Yet a close reading of the crisis shows that coercive diplomacy and gesturing, through actions taken or words said, pushed the world very close to the precipice before a resolution could be found. In fact, the ultimate resolution involved the negotiated removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey, albeit through last-minute cables and backchannels.
Jason Mullins is an M.A. candidate in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.
 “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963,” U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, vol. XI, Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath, Document 18: Transcript of a Meeting at the White House, Washington, DC, October 16, 1962, 11:50 am.
 “Recommendations by Bohlen for Handling the Missile Crisis – Handwritten and Typed Copy,” Digital National Security Archive, Top Secret Memorandum, October 17, 1962, 5; Cuban Missile Crisis, CC0645.
 “Outline of Options Identified by the ExComm and Their Supporters,” Digital National Security Archive, Non-Classified Memorandum, October 18, 1962, 2; Cuban Missile Crisis, CC00671.
 Gabrielle S. Brussel, The Cuban Missile Crisis: United States Deliberations and Negotiations at the Edge of the Precipice (Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, 1988), 7.
 David Mayers, The Ambassadors and America’s Soviet Policy (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995), 209.
 Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2008), 270.
 Ibid, 307.
 “Report on Khrushchev-Kohler Meeting, October 16 (part IV: discussion of U-2, Cuban fishing Port, Nuclear Test Ban and U.S. Elections) – in Two Sections,” Digital National Security Archive, Secret Cable Moscow, October 16, 1962, 6; Cuban Missile Crisis, CC00628.
 Foy D. Kohler, Understanding the Russians: A Citizen’s Primer (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1970), 341.
 Priscilla Roberts, Cuban Missile Crisis: The Essential Reference Guide (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2012), 104.
 Kohler, 341-42.
 “Recommendation to Broadcast Information on the Offensive Nature of the Missiles in Cuba into the Soviet Union via Voice of America,” Digital National Security Archive, Confidential Cable, Moscow, October 23, 1962, 1; Cuban Missile Crisis, CC01067.
 Kohler, 342.
 “Meeting with Soviet Official on Soviet Media and the Cuban Crisis,” Digital National Security Archive, Confidential Cable, Moscow, October 25, 1962, 2; Cuban Missile Crisis, CC01368.
 Ibid, 1.
 Ibid, 1-2.
 “Guidance for U.S. Officials at Home and Abroad in Explaining U.S. Actions against Soviet Bases in Cuba,” Digital National Security Archive, Confidential Cable, October 24, 1962, 13; Cuban Missile Crisis, CC01150, 1.
 Ibid, 10-13.
 “Meeting with Soviet Official on Soviet Media and the Cuban Crisis,” Digital National Security Archive, 1.
 William F. Scott, “The Face of the Moscow Crisis,” Central Intelligence Agency: CIA Historical Review Program, September 18, 1995, https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol10no2/html/v10i2a03p_0001.htm.