JFK’s Russian Conspiracy

Roundup
tags: Russia, JFK, back channel



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.

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.

John F. Kennedy was not only less hawkish than his public rhetoric, he was less hawkish than the American people.

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. ...





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