Journalists live for scoops. Being the first to break major news is the ticket to journalistic fame and fortune. But what if you are a journalist covering the biggest story of your lifetime and suddenly you become a participant? Do you tell the world what you have learned, or do you sit on it? ABC News diplomatic correspondent John Scali found himself in just such a predicament on Friday, October 26, 1962, the eleventh day of the Cuban missile crisis.
Scali got a call shortly after noontime from Alexander Fomin. Fomin was officially a diplomatic counselor at the Soviet embassy in Washington. His real job, though, was KGB station chief in Washington. His given name was Alexander Feklisov, and he had run Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenberg spy ring. Fomin wanted to have lunch. Scali was just finishing a baloney sandwich and was not inclined to eat more. But the urgency he detected in Fomin’s voice persuaded him that food wasn’t the point of the phone call. So he agreed to meet at the Occidental Restaurant, located just two blocks from the White House.
Scali soon discovered that he was right. As he later told the story:
After the waiter had taken our order, he [Fomin] came right to the point and said, "War seems about to break out; something must be done to save the situation."
And I said, "Well, you should have thought of that before you introduced the missiles."
He then said, "There might be a way out; what would you think of a proposition whereby we would promise to remove our missiles under United Nations inspection, where Mr. Khrushchev would promise never to introduce such offensive missiles into Cuba again? Would the President of the United States be willing to promise publicly not to invade Cuba?"
I said I didn’t know, but I would be willing to try and find out.
The rest of the meal was eaten in silence, and incidentally he got my crab cakes and I wound up with his pork chop, but he didn’t notice it.
Scali immediately returned to his office in the State Department press room and jotted off a short memo summarizing what Fomin had told him. He gave his memo to Roger Hilsman, the director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Hilsman immediately recognized its significance and passed it along to Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The secretary in turn passed it on to President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Fomin’s offer to Scali came as JFK was becoming increasingly pessimistic about the direction the crisis was headed. The Soviet ships carrying missile parts had turned back, but there were still missiles in Cuba. More would become operational every day. At the morning meeting of the ExCom, he told his advisers that the missiles would come out only if the United States invaded Cuba or offered to trade removal of the missiles for something the Soviets wanted. Now, with Fomin’s overture, he had a possible way out of the crisis.
After Scali finished his appearance on ABC News’s 6:00 p.m. network broadcast—he didn’t mention anything about his lunch with Fomin—he was summoned to the State Department and ushered into Rusk’s office. The secretary pulled a sheet of yellow, legal-sized paper out of his pocket and began reading. The gist of the message was that Scali should tell Fomin that he had been told by “the highest officials in the United States Government” that the administration saw possibilities in his offer.
Scali immediately arranged to meet Fomin in the coffee shop of the Statler Hotel, a half-block away from the Soviet embassy. He passed along the message. After being convinced that Scali was leveling with him, Fomin picked up the thirty-cent tab for the two cups of coffee they had ordered. When the cashier continued talking to a friend rather than take the payment, the Soviet spy chief slapped a five dollar bill on the counter and disappeared into the night.
As Scali was relaying his message to Fomin, the White House was receiving a long and emotional letter from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that looked to confirm the proposal Fomin had floated. The letter had been delivered to the U.S. embassy in Moscow at 9:43 a.m. that morning Washington time. It had taken more than eleven hours to translate the letter, transmit it to the State Department, and deliver it to the White House. The letter began with Khrushchev’s indignant defense of why the Soviet Union had sided with Cuba. Khrushchev then shifted gears and put an offer on the table:
Let us therefore show statesmanlike wisdom. I propose: We, for our part, will declare that our ships, bound for Cuba, will not carry any kind of armaments. You would declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its forces and will not support any sort of forces which might intend to carry out an invasion of Cuba. Then the necessity for the presence of our military specialists in Cuba would disappear.
He went on to add:
Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose.
Consequently, if there is no intention to tighten that knot and thereby to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.
JFK and his advisers inferred from Khrushchev’s letter and Fomin’s overture that the Soviets were making a coordinated effort to extend an olive branch. (In fact, Fomin was floating a trial balloon on his own initiative and the two developments were serendipitous rather than coordinated.) The break they had been hoping for had finally arrived.
As JFK and his advisers were becoming more hopeful that a peaceful resolution to the crisis was possible, Cuban leader Fidel Castro was becoming increasingly convinced that a U.S. invasion was imminent. El Comandante had no intention of going down to defeat at the hands of the “imperialists” without inflicting pain in return. Late that night he sent “Comrade Khrushchev” a telegram urging him to launch a preemptive nuclear first strike on the United States if it attacked Cuba—“However harsh and terrible the solution, there would be no other.” Castro also ordered Cuban forces to fire on any U.S. aircraft that entered Cuba’s airspace.
JFK knew nothing of Castro’s telegram. As far as he could tell that Friday night, he now had a way out of the crisis on terms that served U.S. interests. What he would discover when he awoke the next morning, however, was that the crisis had entered its most dangerous day: “Black Saturday.” The decisions he and Khrushchev made—and more importantly, the events neither man anticipated nor controlled—would determine whether the world would go over the nuclear brink.
For other posts in this series or more information on the Cuban missile crisis, click here.