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Michael Beschloss
Michael Beschloss
The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963
ISBN: 0060164549
The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963
Mr. Beschloss provided a history of the relations between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and its impact on the Cold War. Beschloss, a Chicago native, did his undergraduate work at Williams College and received his graduate degree from Harvard University. He was allowed to obtain new information about the years 1960-1963 due to the reforms in the Soviet Union as well as the Freedom of Information Act. Beschloss explained the parallels in the Kennedy and Khruschev administrations, particularly in the roles of Robert F. Kennedy and the son-in-law of Khruschev. Beschloss stated that his most valuable sources of information came from interviews conducted in the Soviet Union. He also mentioned the importance of his new findings about the Bay of Pigs and the Berlin Wall operations of the early 1960s.
The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963
Program Air Date: July 14, 1991

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Michael Beschloss, author of the new book "The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev 1960-1963," let me read you just a fairly long paragraph here, page 702 of your book, and get your reaction to it. "But throughout his term, Kennedy rarely showed the magnanimity that should have been expected of a superior power. Instead, he aroused the Western world to an hour of imminent danger that did not exist, provoked the adversary by exposing Soviet nuclear weaknesses to the world, and unwittingly caused the Soviets to fear that he was on the verge of exploiting American nuclear strength to settle the Cold War on American terms, perhaps even in a preemptive strike."
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That was the dark side of John Kennedy as a master of foreign policy. The argument I'm making, Brian, is this. In 1960, when John Kennedy ran for president, over and over again he said, "The United States is in imminent danger of falling into second place behind the Russians." Now that the Cold War is over and we have a lot more information, we know that the Soviet Union in 1960 was actually a fourth-rate economic power, second-rate military power, had one-eighteenth the number of nuclear weapons that we had. So, given all that, when Kennedy came into power in 1961, he couldn't very well just say, "Sorry, folks, what I said during the campaign is now inoperative." He had to act on the assumption that not only was the Soviet Union an equal, but perhaps in danger of becoming a superior, and that was one of the reasons why these three years, 1960 to 1963, were so dangerous.
LAMB: Why did you pick those three years? Why not '60 to '64 or '59 to '65? What was it about these years?
BESCHLOSS: Well, the argument I make, Brian, is that 1960 to 1963 was a period that was absolutely unique. These were the only three years in all of our experience when Americans felt an imminent danger of dying in a nuclear war. I would argue that that was not true before 1960 and never happened again after 1963. So the question I really wanted to ask was, what was it about these three years that made this period so dangerous? Was it that the issues between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were greater, or was it something else? I found that it was something else.
LAMB: How old were you in 1960 and where were you?
BESCHLOSS: I was four years old. I was living in Illinois and I don't have much memory of the 1960 campaign, but I do have a memory of later parts of that period. The Cuban missile crisis, for instance, in the fall of '62, we had neighbors in Illinois -- this would have been about 40 miles south of Chicago -- who were building a bomb shelter, and we children were told not to eat the snow because the Russians had put radioactivity in it. So, as a child, I had a very intense experience of the crisis years. This was not something that was abstract.
LAMB: How did you go about finding out what happened in those years?
BESCHLOSS: The two things that any historian tries to do is, number one, turn up as much new information as you can and, number two, explain it and set it in context. New information. In the last couple of years, thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev, you can go to the Soviet Union and talk to Soviet officials quite candidly about their past. That wasn't possible before Gorbachev. So you have, for instance, the testimony of someone like Andrei Gromyko, the foreign minister, why he lied to President Kennedy in October of 1962 in saying there were no missiles in Cuba. It's also had an effect on the American side. Now that the Cold War is over, there are many people in the CIA -- for instance, Richard Helms, who I interviewed at great length -- who will talk a lot more freely then when these issues were more sensitive. As far as context, now that we're in a post-Cold War period, we know how the Cold War ended, we've had 30 years since the crisis years, it's a lot easier to set this period in perspective then when it was really an early chapter of current events.
LAMB: You've been on the tour for how long?
BESCHLOSS: Ten cities, three weeks.
LAMB: As you go about talking about this, what do people want to know?
BESCHLOSS: People are fascinated by John Kennedy, and this is something that's very unlike most other presidents. Usually when about 30 years pass, a president is sort of a figure in history and not really a live presence. John Kennedy is someone who to this day stirs up a great deal of controversy. People are very polarized. People who love John Kennedy don't see flaws in him, and also many people who hate him -- very few in the middle. That's one reason why in this book I've tried very much to walk down the middle and show both his strengths and also his weaknesses and present as three-dimensional a picture of John Kennedy as I possibly could.
LAMB: Have you gotten any sense from the call-in shows you've been on and other interviews whether or not President Kennedy is up or down in the eyes of most Americans?
BESCHLOSS: I think it's very polarized. You know, you have segments that feel very intensely. I think you saw a period, just in terms of the historiography of Kennedy. After his tragic death, needless to say, you saw many books written that were extremely reverential -- many people like McGeorge Bundy, who did not write a book but wrote an article at the time. Bundy was Kennedy's national security advisor. He says that those who were around Kennedy and who wrote books and articles in the years after the assassination were a little bit too reverential. Then, beginning in the middle of the 1970s, you had such things as the Church committee of the Senate that investigated John Kennedy's possible involvement in assassination plots and also the possible security risks that were caused by his private life. That caused the historiography, the things written on John Kennedy, to take another very sharp turn. I don't know of any president, Brian, where you've seen such enormous zig-zags in his reputation.
LAMB: How do you feel about him?
BESCHLOSS: I feel that I try to walk really down the middle. I think this is someone who was a tremendous crisis manager. I think you have to remember that given the fact that '61 and '62 and '63 were so dangerous, especially over Berlin and Cuba, if it were not for John Kennedy's very careful management of those crises, you might have seen 200,000,000 human beings die. I think he also was probably the most or one of the most intelligent presidents of this century. At the same time, on the down side, I don't rate him very high on crisis avoidance. As I show in the book, these crises, I think, did not have to happen and simply because that many people did not die does not mean that we can entirely forgive either Kennedy or Khrushchev for keeping the world on the brink for three years.
LAMB: One of the things that struck me as I read were the parallels between President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev and the one simple parallel was that President Kennedy, one of his chief aides was his brother Bobby, and one of Mr. Khrushchev's chief advisors was his son-in-law. Talk about the son-in-law or, frankly, you haven't told us what you thought of Mr. Khrushchev, and also about Bobby Kennedy. Those three men.
BESCHLOSS: Well, there was an enormous parallel between John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. These were two men who both distrusted the foreign service bureaucracy and, instead, relied on back channels. One of the stories that runs throughout the book is the relationship that Khrushchev had with a man named Georgi Bolshakov. Bolshakov was a Soviet military intelligence agent who was based in the embassy in Washington. He was under what they call shallow cover as a press attach‚. He was a friend of Khrushchev's son [-in-law], a man named Alexei Adzhubei. Bolshakov appeared in Robert Kennedy's office in May of 1961, said essentially, "You don't know me, but I can get secret messages to and from Khrushchev very quickly." The first message he sent in May of 1961 was Mr. Khrushchev wants a summit. That led to the summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna of June of 1961. So you see, Brian, a lot of the relationship between Kennedy and Khrushchev, two men both distrustful, in Kennedy's case of his State Department, both very eager to work through other channels.
LAMB: Let me just interrupt a second. This is Mr. Adzhubei?
BESCHLOSS: This is Adzhubei, who came to see John Kennedy in January of 1962, and that's what that is a picture of.
LAMB: Who's the woman with him?
BESCHLOSS: That is his wife. That is Nikita Khrushchev's daughter, and she is wearing a mink coat for which she got a lot of criticism at the time. She was the daughter of a leader who tried to live rather modestly.
LAMB: I'm sorry I interrupted your train of thought.
BESCHLOSS: Not a bit. John Kennedy, like Khrushchev, also wanted to work through a channel that he could depend on. Robert Kennedy, beginning about the same time, spring of 1961, began to act as John Kennedy's back channel to the CIA -- what Richard Helms of the CIA calls John Kennedy's wire brush man. So much of the history of this period you see Robert Kennedy calling second and third officials in the CIA, especially about Cuba, saying, "The president is very upset. He wants Castro out of Havana. Castro is still there. What are you going to do about it?"
LAMB: You mentioned early about looking for new information. What do you consider to be the most significant new information you've got in this book?
BESCHLOSS: I think the main new information is what the Soviets were doing through this period. For example, we have seen the Cuban missile crisis, and I saw it at the time as a child, as sort of a passion play -- that Nikita Khrushchev, for sinister reasons that we couldn't understand, out of the blue moved missiles into Cuba. John Kennedy demanded that he take them out. The missiles went out, and that was the end of it. What I found from my Soviet interviews was that the reality was a little bit more complex. The people who were around Khrushchev say that in early 1962, Khrushchev was very worried about something named Operation Mongoose. This was 33 different covert operations waged by the CIA against Cuba -- sabotage, poisoning of sugar exports, shooting from motorboats and also efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro. Castro and Khrushchev thought that Operation Mongoose was the forerunner to an American invasion of Cuba with full U.S. military force, probably in the fall of 1962. It turns out that Castro and Khrushchev put their heads together, asking the question, "What can we possibly do that will thwart this American invasion of Cuba?" The answer that they came up with was put in nuclear missiles.
LAMB: Picture here of Mr. Khrushchev and Dean Rusk. You paint a picture of Dean Rusk in this book that I'll let you describe.
BESCHLOSS: Dean Rusk was not a very happy secretary of State during the crisis years. This is someone who did not know John Kennedy really before he was appointed in December of 1960. John Kennedy wanted to act very much as his own secretary of State, and what you see through this period, and we've seen it certainly in other administrations, is John Kennedy and others in the White House making an effort to circumvent Rusk, but use other channels such as Robert Kennedy, McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser and other people who were more Kennedy men. What really happened, particularly to Rusk, was that he fell afoul of Robert Kennedy. Robert Kennedy thought that Rusk was more loyal to the State Department then to John Kennedy. There was very fierce tension between Robert Kennedy and Dean Rusk throughout these years.
LAMB: A line in your epilogue: "Returning from a Saigon trip in March" -- and this was in 1964, I believe -- "McNamara recommended new assistance to South Vietnam." That brought up the name of Robert McNamara. What do you think of him and what role did he play in the Vietnam War?
BESCHLOSS: Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense, absolutely captivated Kennedy. Kennedy was very taken by him, and, in fact, one of the things I show in the book is that John Kennedy very seriously considered naming Robert McNamara as his successor as president, assuming that he served two terms and was able to name his successor at the Democratic convention of 1968. McNamara was a businessman, very hard to get those for Democratic administrations in those days, was extremely articulate, very sharp, dominated almost any meeting he entered. Kennedy's people were a little bit worried about McNamara. They felt that sometimes he was so forceful, so persuasive, that he was able to get John Kennedy to do things that he shouldn't have. On the question of Vietnam, what this particularly raises, as you suggest, is the question of what John Kennedy might have done had he lived and had to make the same decision on Vietnam that Lyndon Johnson did.

Many have said that John Kennedy said in 1963 privately, "I want to get reelected first. Then when I come back to power I'll get our troops out of Vietnam." I tend to find that not very persuasive for two reasons. Number one is Kennedy would have been advised by exactly the same people, especially Robert McNamara, who advised Lyndon Johnson in 1965 to plunge deeply into Vietnam. The other reason, Brian, is that I think it takes some cynicism to assume that John Kennedy would have kept thousands of Americans in South Vietnam in harm's way getting killed, only to pull them out in 1965, after allowing them to be killed for essentially domestic reasons, the winning of the 1964 election.
LAMB: Was it Robert McNamara that asked President Kennedy or somebody, "Did you really write Profiles in Courage?" before he took the job?
BESCHLOSS: He did. He met with John Kennedy, whom he did not know, in Georgetown at John Kennedy's house in 1960 and McNamara, I think, a, because he's a forceful person, and, b, because perhaps he knew that Kennedy would be impressed said, "Before I agree to be your secretary of defense, I want two things. Number one, I'd like to know if you really wrote Profiles in Courage." Kennedy said that he did. "And number two, I'd like written assurance that you're going to give me full independence as secretary of defense that I can name my own people." Kennedy gave him that.
LAMB: You say you grew up in Illinois. Where?
BESCHLOSS: Born in Chicago, lived in Chicago for my first five years, and then lived in a town called Flossmoor, which is at the south end of Cook County -- in fact, the county that John Kennedy credited with giving him the 1960 election.
LAMB: What did your parents do?
BESCHLOSS: My father is a businessman. My mother was a homemaker, I guess one would say. Not terribly politically involved, although my father was the president of the school board in town.
LAMB: And where did you go to school, meaning college?
BESCHLOSS: I went to college in Massachusetts at Williams College and went to graduate school at Harvard.
LAMB: What got you interested in history?
BESCHLOSS: I was interested in history from the time I was a small boy, and, in fact, the first serious book of all things I ever read was Arthur Schlesinger's A Thousand Days at the age of 10. I never thought it would be useful later on having read it. But I think one thing, Brian, and you're from the Midwest, too, unlike people who live in the East, I think people who grow up in the Midwest to some extent have the sense that historical events are somewhat detached from them. I, for instance, had never met someone who had written a book until I was probably 15 years old; had not met people who were in political life until I was about that age. That is an experience I think someone who lives in the East would be less likely to have. So I think reading about these events made me very interested in how they take place and want to write about them later on.
LAMB: What got you interested in 'A Thousand Days" and Arthur Schlesinger? Why did you read that book? Do you have any idea?
BESCHLOSS: Yes, I do. I was very interested in John Kennedy and, as a matter of fact, he was one of my childhood heros. When he died, I wrote a letter to President Johnson asking him to hire a large carving firm to carve President Kennedy's head in Mount Rushmore, and I got a reply from Johnson's secretary saying, "Thank you for the advice." I can remember taking the reply to my friends at the ice skating rink in town. They all thought it was a forgery. Years later, when I was doing work in the Johnson Library, I said, "I'm sure you won't have this, but maybe you keep some children's letters." In about five minutes, they were able to pull it out, so I have a Xerox of the original letter.
LAMB: Your first book "Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance," 1980, was about what?
BESCHLOSS: That was on the relationship between John Kennedy's father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., and Franklin Roosevelt, which was actually my original undergraduate honors thesis at Williams College in Massachusetts. I was interested in those two characters because I was very interested in political leadership. Joseph Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt were people who were about the same age and in the 1920s had had business careers during that period in American business that was not terribly unlike the 1950s and the 1980s, periods in which business was very dominant in our culture, and then were in politics, of course, in the 30s and 40s. Kennedy was wonderful in business, made a great fortune. Roosevelt went through a number of schemes to make money and almost always lost money in every one. Yet, of course, when Roosevelt went back into politics in the 1930s, was one of our greatest presidents and had this very strange relationship with Joseph Kennedy that culminated in Joseph Kennedy's ambassadorship in the early period of World War II.
LAMB: Your second book "MAYDAY: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair," 1986. Why did you do that one?
BESCHLOSS: That was a book that was really dealing with the late years of the Eisenhower period. As a diplomatic historian, you really want to work with fresh material. That was a book that was written in the early 1980s, and the most recent documents that were being unsealed under the Freedom of Information Act were documents from the late Eisenhower period, so that was a situation in which I was able to take fresh material and interpret it for perhaps the first time.
LAMB: What do you do besides write books?
BESCHLOSS: I write books about 95 percent of the time. I've been a treasurer of a small foundation, the Penn Faulkner Foundation here in Washington, and also the director of a program funded by the Annenberg Foundation on the impact of television on American foreign policy.
LAMB: When did you start writing or gathering information for this current book?
BESCHLOSS: Started "The Crisis Years" in 1985, and that was a time when you simply assumed that you were not able to get Soviet sources. When I was writing "MAYDAY," I would write to various Soviet figures quite dutifully and I would get letters back saying, "Mrs. Khrushchev has been consulted and does not wish to be interviewed at this time." Well, that was not unusual because Mrs. Khrushchev never wished to be interviewed. She wasn't allowed to be. I sometimes joke that things have changed so much that if Mrs. Khrushchev were still alive, I would get a letter back from her lecture agent saying that her hotel suite had to be equipped with guava juice and that she would demand a very high price.
LAMB: This book has 816 pages. I can't find the page where the number of pages of notes and indexes and all that count up to about 100 pages. When do you decide how big a book is going to be? This book sells for $29.95. I assume there's a lot you left out.
BESCHLOSS: There is. I think that the largest responsibility I had on this book, Brian, was to write a book that really could accommodate the new information. I think if there hadn't been that new information I referred to from the Soviet Union, from the CIA on this side, and from a lot of other American, German and Soviet figures who were willing to speak quite candidly these days, it would have been a much shorter book. Since I was turning up a lot of new information that was not yet in the public domain, I wanted to write a book that was as consistently surprising and fresh as possible. It really took 800 pages to do it.
LAMB: The most valuable source?
BESCHLOSS: The most valuable source was, I think, as a body, these interviews in the Soviet Union because this really increased entirely by a hundred percent the amount of information we had on the Soviet side. You could find out, for instance, what Khrushchev was saying to his son during the months before the Cuban missile crisis, what he and the East Germans were telling each other during the weeks leading up to the Berlin wall, how he greeted the news of John Kennedy's Bay of Pigs invasion. It turned out that it happened on Khrushchev's birthday. He was sitting in his indoor-outdoor pool on his estate in the Black Sea and he said, "This is a very surprising birthday present."
LAMB: I don't want you to give away any of your secret techniques, but when you want to go look for information in the Soviet Union, how do you do it?
BESCHLOSS: Well, you do it in a number of ways. One is you simply write to people and interview them. For instance, I talked to Sergei Khrushchev, who is Nikita Khrushchev's son and who came to the United States for the first time in 1989, the first time since the famous trip he took with his father in 1959 when they toured this country and went to Hollywood and finally Nikita Khrushchev met with Eisenhower at Camp David. The other source that's very important is that these people now are very eager to write memoirs in magazines, newspapers and also in book form. Sergei Khrushchev, for instance, published a volume of memoirs last year. Alexei Adzhubei, the son-in-law of Khrushchev, has been serially publishing his memoirs in Izvestia, which in the early 1960s was the paper of which he was editor.
LAMB: Do you speak Russian?
BESCHLOSS: I don't, and as a matter of fact, before a couple of years ago, it probably wouldn't have hurt me because you were dealing mainly with reading between the lines of Pravda and that you could get translated. As it turns out, it hasn't hurt me that much with this because most of the people I would have wanted to interview have a pretty good command of English. But I think any historian who wants to write American-Soviet history in the future, I think, will have a very good command of Russian.
LAMB: What is Sergei Khrushchev like and how old is he and where does he live?
BESCHLOSS: He is in his late 50s. He is living in Moscow. He looks actually not unlike his father, although he's a little bit thinner. He had a very poignant experience. This is someone who during his father's reign, until 1974, was treated something like a crown prince -- lived in a way that was very lavish, although he's a somewhat modest person, was treated extremely well. One of the stories that I have in the book is the story of the fact that in the fall of 1964, he was given information that there was a coup d'etat plot against Nikita Khrushchev and that Chairman Khrushchev had better watch out. That put Sergei into a little bit of a dilemma because he and his father had an arrangement they would never talk about business. He would not presume to advise his father about matters of state. Finally he swallowed his doubts, told Khrushchev that there was this plot afoot -- this was September of 1964 -- Khrushchev checked into it and said, "This is absurd, Sergei. The people that you're talking about all hate each other. They're not going to deal with each other in a coup d'etat. I'm not going to take it seriously." A month later those people actually did combine. They threw Khrushchev out of power.
LAMB: This is who you dedicate the book to in the front. Who is this and how do you pronounce it?
BESCHLOSS: It's Afsaneh Mashayekhi. She is a distinguished Iranian economist at the World Bank and a very close friend of mine and put up with me during the years of writing this book.
LAMB: How do you write? Where do you write? What's the system that you use? One of the things that I noticed in reading is -- and this is probably not a fair comparison -- but in reading "The Commanders" by Bob Woodward, you saw all the quote marks, and in order to find out where these quote marks come from, you have to go all the way to the back here and look in the notes. Tell us about that technique. How does a historian do that?
BESCHLOSS: I think, first of all, Brian, a work of history -- and Bob Woodward's book would be contemporary journalism -- but a book of history 30 years later has to really be able to stand up to the test of sources. I think if you don't have a very clear idea as a reader where the material in the book comes from, you don't know whether to take it seriously or not, so every sentence in the book is documented. I say where it comes from -- usually from documents. I try not to rely on interviews. I much prefer to rely on, for instance, the contemporary record of the Kennedy and Khrushchev summit. The transcript that is made, that is something that was sealed for all these years until about seven months ago. It was unsealed just in time to put into this book. So I think what you try to do, or at least what I try to do, is take as much new material as you possibly can and, in my case -- I'm a narrative historian -- I tell this in terms of the story, to some extent using fictional techniques, although every syllable in the book is fact. I think that you can take great personalities, such as the cast of characters in this book, people like Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and Andrei Gromyko and others, and give it almost the texture of a story with a great theme -- in this case the three years during which the world was almost incinerated -- yet at the same time cause this all to remain within the constraints of very documentable fact.
LAMB: Page 615: "By pursuing women whose full backgrounds he evidently could not know, Kennedy caused his presidency to be a potential hostage to any resourceful group in American society that might have wished to bring him down -- the Teamsters, the Mafia, the radical right and every hostile intelligence service in the world." What is that all about?
BESCHLOSS: Any historian has to deal with the question of John Kennedy's private life. As an historian, I'm not particularly fascinated by what he did in his bedroom, but as someone who's writing about his diplomacy, I have to deal with the question of whether this ever threatened to affect him as a world leader, and the answer, I think, has to be yes. Every piece of information we have suggests that the women that John Kennedy was involved with were not subjected to some kind of a background investigation. What that meant was that he was very vulnerable to getting involved with women who might have been involved with some kind of an organization that might wish to blackmail him for its own purposes. We know from the Senate investigation of the mid 1970s, for instance, that John Kennedy was involved with a woman named Judith Exner who was at the same time involved with Sam Giancana, who was an underworld organized crime leader in Chicago. At the same time during this period, we know that Soviet intelligence was trying very hard to sexually compromise Western leaders. We know as a fact, for instance, that they succeeded during this period with the French ambassador to Moscow; also the British defense minister in 1963, John Profumo, who shared a woman, Christine Keeler, with a member of the Soviet embassy. He had to resign. So the point I would make here, Brian, is that was not just a free-floating anxiety. This is something that could have happened, and I think, as a diplomatic historian, John Kennedy should have been more careful.
LAMB: Let me pursue this is a little more because you suggest that at any time any of these people could have blackmailed him. Why didn't they?
BESCHLOSS: That's one of the great $64,000 questions. They didn't, I think, perhaps because there wasn't a motive. I mean, it's hard to get into the head of someone like Giancana or the Soviet intelligence service. But I think for a diplomatic historian, all you have to do is establish the risk. As long as that risk remained, then really the country was at risk, because I would argue that if John Kennedy, for instance, had been revealed to have been involved with someone who was linked to Soviet intelligence, and this may have been true, not only would he probably have had to resign amid a sex and security scandal very much like the Christine Keeler scandal in Great Britain in 1963, but it would have had a very poisonous effect on the politics of this country. Other leaders would have been suspect. People would have said, "Did John Kennedy, for instance, pull his punches at the Bay of Pigs because he was under some kind of compromise by Soviet intelligence?" It would have been a very ugly atmosphere.
LAMB: Did you discover any new information related to the Judith Campbell affair that he had and Sam Giancana?
BESCHLOSS: I cover it, and the tricky part of this here is that Judith Campbell, at the time that she was involved with Kennedy, was involved with Giancana, who had been hired by the CIA to try to murder Fidel Castro. The question is whether there was a link between Kennedy and Giancana on the murder of Castro. I've not found evidence of this, and I've tried to be as absolutely careful as I could in separating the wheat from the chaff -- what we can be sure of, what we cannot be sure of.
LAMB: All right. Let me see if I can understand this. Sam Giancana was the leader of the Mafia in Chicago, had been hired by the CIA to take out Fidel Castro.
BESCHLOSS: That is a story that we do know for certain. In 1960, he was approached by officials of the CIA who essentially said, "We know that you have associates in Cuba," because the Mafia was very involved in Cuba before Castro. It was estimated that the Mafia was taking in $1 billion a year from their concessions in Havana and elsewhere on the island. The Mafia said, "We would like you to use your acquaintances to kill Castro." This plot went on through 1961 and 1962. I interviewed Richard Helms, who was in charge of it for the CIA. He says that by the end of 1962, he did not have very much more hope that the Mafia was able to kill Castro. He felt that if they hadn't succeeded by then, they never would, and, in fact, some of the teams that were sent in, he felt were probably captured by the Castro regime. He felt that it was worthwhile pursuing the plot, however, because he wanted to see what kind of assets the mob might have in Cuba that might be useful to the CIA.
LAMB: All right. Sam Giancana and Judy Campbell, soon to become Exner, were lovers at the same time that President Kennedy and Judy Campbell were together?
BESCHLOSS: By the evidence that came up during the Senate investigations of the mid-1970s.
LAMB: What I'm getting at, though, that behind all this, were at the time Bobby Kennedy and the Justice Department pursuing the mob?
BESCHLOSS: He was. In fact, he pursued the mob much more energetically than any previous attorney general, and so what this raises, of course, is whether the mob expected to get better treatment from the Kennedy administration because they felt themselves to be doing these favors for the CIA which was under President Kennedy and whether they were outraged at the fact that many Mafia leaders were being very energetically sent to jail by Robert Kennedy.
LAMB: Another liaison you'd write about here is Ellen Fimmel Rometsch. The reason I bring that one up is that she was a 27-year-old wife of a West German airman attached to the West German military mission in Washington. But later on, you get into the fact that Senators Mansfield and Dirksen got into this act. Tell us that story.
BESCHLOSS: This comes from FBI files that have been opened only in the last several years. I might parenthetically say that FBI files turn out to be a very interesting source for the historian. You have to be very careful because in some cases, FBI files will have reports that are from unreliable sources, and you've got to take those with a grain of salt. In other cases, you have a situation where there are wire taps on telephones, and you get an exact account of a conversation. None of us historians ever expected that J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, would turn out to be so useful to us. Of course, that was not his purpose.

In the summer of 1963, Hoover went to Robert Kennedy and said, "We have information that not only your brother, the president, but others in Washington have been involved with a woman whom we suspect as a Soviet intelligence agent, someone who is linked to East German intelligence." Robert Kennedy took it seriously enough that he acted very quickly to control the damage. He spoke with the two leaders of the Senate, Dirksen and Mansfield, the Republican and Democrat, asked them to keep to themselves whatever knowledge they had of this. He also had the woman expelled from this country within a week, flown to West Germany. She was put in a house that was surrounded by guards to keep people away, and so whatever scandal might have occurred did not occur. This was a crisis that was basically kept under control. But the historian, once again, has to say that that very well could have become public. It very nearly did. Had it done so, you could very well have had a Red scare in this country that would have dwarfed the Joseph McCarthy period.
LAMB: Were you also saying here that J. Edgar Hoover had an enormous amount of power because he had this information that he could use against the president at any time?
BESCHLOSS: Absolutely, and we know from history that J. Edgar Hoover was not loathe to use negative files against presidents and senators and others for his own purposes.
LAMB: One more. "Once before, a romance had threatened Kennedy's career. It was in early 1942 as a naval intelligence officer that he was involved with Inga Arvad Fejos, a married woman and a reputed recent mistress of Alex Wennergren, a Swede blacklisted by the State Department for his close association with Hermann Goering." What's that about?
BESCHLOSS: The reason why I found John Kennedy's failure to be a little bit more careful about women he saw while president was because once before, during World War II, he had come very near to having his career ended by a liaison with someone who was under suspicion of being an agent. This is a woman who at the time was under suspicion by the FBI and Franklin Roosevelt's attorney general of being a Nazi agent in Washington. FBI files recently unsealed, which I use in the book, show that she went around Washington declaiming what she referred to as the "damn, dirty Jews," that she had been involved with Hitler's circle in the mid 1930s. John Kennedy, at the time, was a lieutenant in naval intelligence. This was after Pearl Harbor. It's hard to say that a 25-year-old man did not know what it meant to be in intelligence and have an affair with a woman who was suspected of being a Nazi spy. The FBI files demonstrate that he was aware of this. He wrote letters, which appear in the files, referring to her as a spy in a sort of joking fashion.
LAMB: If all this were known during or before the Kennedy election years, would it have damaged him back then and do you think he would have still been elected president?
BESCHLOSS: I think it would be very unlikely that John Kennedy would have become president in 1960 had this information become known.
LAMB: And what is the reaction on the part of the public -- and some of this is new information, as I understand, in your book?
BESCHLOSS: Yes. Part of it's prurient, Brian. For instance when the book came out, there were two Associated Press stories about the book. One was on this material; the other was on my new findings on the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall and the Cuban missile crisis. The first article was picked up by about 1,200 newspapers; the second article by a number that was radically less than that. I think the more serious reaction is that it has to come into our assessment of John Kennedy. This is someone, who as I've said, has had enormous strengths, did a great deal for this country during these years, yet at the same time there was a side of him that caused him to do things that really he shouldn't have and could have threatened the political system.
LAMB: These are odds and ends, things I wanted to ask you about as I read the book. Nikita Khrushchev spent 25 days in this country at one point?
BESCHLOSS: Yes. That was during the campaign of 1960. Nikita Khrushchev felt that he could have some influence over who became president in 1960. He took a boat over to New York and spent that many days in New York, in this country and at the UN. That was when he had the famous incident when he beat his shoe on the table. As a matter of fact, one of things I found out from Soviet sources, this has always been taken as an example of what a buffoon and crude person Khrushchev was. It turns out that it was a planned gesture. Khrushchev at the UN was trying to create a sense of solidarity with many Third World nations, the proletariat of these nations. He felt that a gesture like this that was somewhat peasant-like would win him a few friends. As it turns out, much of the 1960 campaign was fought over the issue, as Kennedy and Nixon said, of who could stand up to Khrushchev. That was very unlike 1952. You did not have Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson competing on the basis of who could stand up to Stalin.
LAMB: You reference a lot about John Kennedy's back pain. What kind of effect did that have on him?
BESCHLOSS: In May of 1961, John Kennedy re-injured his bad back in a tree-planting ceremony in Canada. It put him in a very difficult situation because he was planning to meet Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna at the beginning of June. He said, privately, as I have in the book, "I don't want to go see Khrushchev as a cripple on crutches." He had to act fast. As it turns out, in order to fix his back trouble, he resorted to a doctor in New York called Max Jacobson, who we now look on as a not very serious or responsible doctor -- someone who experimented with amphetamines, put a lot of things in his hypodermic needles that most doctors would not consider to be a very good thing. As it turns out, Kennedy had this doctor flown to Vienna. He injected Kennedy, on some occasions during the intermissions between his meetings with Khrushchev. I was interested, as a historian, whether this affected Kennedy's performance. Amphetamines can make you go up and down, can make you garrulous or sometimes make you sometimes very low. From the transcripts of the Vienna meetings, there is no sense that Kennedy was affected by these amphetamines. This was a gamble that he took and won.
LAMB: Was President Kennedy fatalistic?
BESCHLOSS: He was fatalistic in certain ways. In managing, for instance, the Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile crisis, you will see no president who was more responsible. The Cuban missile crisis, for instance, we know because he made secret tapes of the meetings in the Cabinet room and you can listen to them as I did, and I put a lot of the dialogue in this book. This is someone who asked excellent questions, was very much hands-on. There was no question who was in charge. But John Kennedy was fatalistic in two ways, as I write in the book. One was with women. As I say, he took chances that could have had national security implications -- chances I think he shouldn't have taken.

Another way he was fatalistic was he was very interested in death. George Smathers, the senator from Florida and a great friend of Kennedy, told me in an interview that 20 times or more John Kennedy would say to him, "What do you think is the best way to die? Is it better to get shot? Is it better to drown? Is it better to die slowly so that you can have some time to think about it?" I think both of these forms of fatalism had to do with the fact that in John Kennedy's early life, he was under the impression that he would die at an early age from Addison's disease. This is something that he suffered from. Until about 1950, it was almost always fatal, and that was a time when he formed essentially this personal policy of living for the moment because tomorrow you die.
LAMB: You talk about two newsmen in here that were deeply involved in Americanism in a liaison. One of them, John Scalli with ABC News, was our UN ambassador. The story's fairly well-known, although you suggest that you found out that maybe he didn't play as big a role as we think he played.
BESCHLOSS: Yes. I think John Scalli is absolutely right in what he's said all these years, which is that during the Cuban missile crisis he met with a Soviet intelligence official named Alexander Fomin. Those meetings, I am certain, took place.
LAMB: At the Occidental Restaurant?
BESCHLOSS: At the Occidental Restaurant, the predecessor of the Occidental Restaurant that is now here in Washington. But at the same time what Scalli could not know was who authorized Fomin to have these meetings, if anyone, and what importance they had in Moscow. What we now know from Soviet sources, as I write in the book, is that far from being authorized by Khrushchev, which is the impression that Scalli had of Fomin and also the Americans who knew about these meetings, Fomin was freelancing. People in the Soviet embassy during the Cuban missile crisis in Washington had been told, basically, to try to get as much information as you possibly can and Fomin was an example of this, and it turns out that the information he sent back to Moscow arrived at times that would not have influenced important decisions. So it turns out to be an interesting vignette, but I think not one that really changed the course of history.
LAMB: Frank Holeman, New York Daily News. Who was he and why did you write so much about him?
BESCHLOSS: Frank Holeman is still living, as far as I know. He was a White House correspondent for the New York Daily News in the early '60s. He was approached by the gentleman I referred to earlier, Georgi Bolshakov, this Soviet intelligence agent in Washington whom he knew. He was on the board of the National Press Club; knew Bolshakov through the Press Club. Bolshakov came to Holeman and said, "I want to meet with Robert Kennedy. I know that you know him and you've covered him. Perhaps you can introduce me," and it was Holeman who made the introduction that led to the first meeting between Robert Kennedy and Bolshakov in May of 1961.
LAMB: Were you surprised at how active a role a newsperson would have played in the process?
BESCHLOSS: Yes, and to use newspeople as intermediaries, Holeman and Scalli and others, I think shows really how different the crisis years were from our own time. Nowadays, President Bush can pick up a telephone and call Mr. Gorbachev. In the early '60s, Kennedy and Khrushchev were reduced to sending secret messages through newsmen, through intelligence agents. In fact, Bolshakov would sometimes meet members of the Kennedy administration on street corners or in saloons. He would pass them a newspaper. Inside the newspaper was a secret, private message from Khrushchev to Kennedy. This was a very dicey way to conduct international relations.
LAMB: Odds and ends continuing. Somewhere I read, had quote marks around it, that Adlai Stevenson couldn't control the smile on his face at the notice of the death of John Kennedy?
BESCHLOSS: That's poignant. The night of the death of John Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger says he saw Stevenson at the White House and he said Stevenson had a smile on his face. Schlesinger, who had worked for Stevenson in his campaigns in the 1950s said, "I never felt the same way about Stevenson after that." The relationship between John Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson is something I go into a great deal in this book. Stevenson, of course, had been the nominee of the Democratic Party in the '50s, was still in 1961 when John Kennedy became president probably the most popular Democrat in the country -- more popular among Democrats then Kennedy was. Kennedy was very eager to cut Stevenson down to size. He didn't want him as a rival. He also knew that Stevenson could be very dangerous if Stevenson, whom he had appointed ambassador to the United Nations, should ever decide to resign in protest over a Kennedy policy. I think another part of this was that Kennedy felt very emotionally about Stevenson. Kennedy was not someone who was without a streak of cruelty, and he did a number of things to make Stevenson feel small and essentially, as I say, cut him down to size.
LAMB: What did you think of Governor Stevenson?
BESCHLOSS: As an Illinoisan, I would be a great Stevenson fan and Stevenson's name is almost holy in Illinois. I would say that his years in the Kennedy administration were very poignant, very sad -- a time in which someone who is used to being the center of attention with a great deal of influence was a member of an administration that did not like him, did not consult him, played cruel tricks on him.
LAMB: Who were some of the people that you got to know in your research for this book that were around the Kennedy administration that surprised you as to how interesting they were -- some people we haven't talked about?
BESCHLOSS: One example was McGeorge Bundy who was Kennedy's national security adviser and is now a writer and scholar on the history of nuclear weapons. He is someone who has a wonderful sense of humor, very smart, a very useful instrument of Kennedy's diplomacy. Another one that I've interviewed is Richard Helms who, as I've suggested earlier, now that the Cold War is over will speak very freely about many subjects that would have been very sensitive during this period -- not least his involvement in the assassination attempts against Castro.

That raises sort of a very sensitive and interesting problem, Brian, and that is that for all these years, there's been an effort by people to establish whether or not John Kennedy knew of and approved of the assassination attempts by the CIA against Castro. Helms has always in a very difficult position because he prides himself on being the man who kept the secrets, as a biography of him was once entitled -- someone who has not betrayed the faith that he feels that he had as a CIA official. At the same time, many people around John Kennedy have made the argument Kennedy would never have approved of this murder attempts against Castro; the CIA was going off on its own on a rogue operation. Helms will not say that Kennedy approved them, yet at the same time I would say that he is at least, to some extent, justifiably irritated with the fact that the Kennedy people blame him for something that he feels John Kennedy authorized. One thing I found in my interviews ... George Smathers told me that month before the Bay of Pigs invasion, in the spring of '61, Kennedy told him, "There is an effort to murder Castro that I know about. This is to take place just before a thousand Cuban exiles trained by the CIA hit the beaches of Cuba trying to overthrow the Cuban government. If Castro is killed just before those men hit the beaches, there will be chaos and pandemonium. They will have a good chance of succeeding." That, to some extent, answers the question of why Kennedy authorized this very small, ragtag group of invaders that otherwise would seem to have been impossible to succeed in invading Cuba.
LAMB: How close did we come to nuclear war?
BESCHLOSS: We came very close throughout the whole period, especially in 1961 over Berlin. Nikita Khrushchev threatened a number of times to take over Berlin. We, the United States and the West, had promised that we would go to the point of nuclear war to resist that. We were very close then. Second time was during the Cuban missile crisis, October of '62. The joint chiefs of staff had resolved if an American plane were downed in Cuba during that crisis, we would automatically bomb the Soviet missile sites. It took John Kennedy to stand up against the joint chiefs and say no. Had he not stood up, those sites would have been bombed, Russians would have been killed, Nikita Khrushchev would have been under enormous pressure to retaliate against the United States.
LAMB: Another interesting scene was when Mr. Khrushchev got bounced from being the chairman of the party in the Soviet Union. Can you build that little scenario around? You touched on what his son had told him, that there was a threat against him, but what actually happened and how did he find out that his days were over?
BESCHLOSS: I think it starts really with the whole history of his last year, which began with John Kennedy's assassination. When Kennedy was killed in Dallas, the CIA tried to locate Khrushchev. They couldn't find him. There was some worry that Khrushchev was in a bomb shelter somewhere outside Moscow, bracing for American retaliation for Soviet involvement in Kennedy's murder. Khrushchev, in fact, rushed the next day, the day after the assassination, to the U.S. ambassador in Moscow and said, "You must believe me. I was not behind this."

Kennedy's death removed the argument that Khrushchev had made with his own people that "you must keep me in power. I'm indispensable because I have this wonderful relationship with the American president." Once John Kennedy died, he could no longer say that, and there was a coup d'etat in 1964 led by Leonid Brezhnev, and this we only now know from Soviet sources. Not only did Brezhnev want to take Khrushchev out of power and replace him, he also wanted to kill him. He went to the director of the KGB during that period and said, "Khrushchev is scheduled to fly from Cairo to Moscow. Why don't you put a bomb aboard the plane?" Then Brezhnev thought better of the idea, not because he felt any more sentimental about Khrushchev, but because Andrei Gromyko, the foreign minister, was on that plane. Brezhnev figured that he would need Gromyko when he came to power.

The result was that in October of 1964, Brezhnev and other people who Khrushchev thought to be his closest allies, joined together. Khrushchev flew from the Black Sea to Moscow, appeared at a meeting in the Kremlin. They told him he was out. He begged to be appointed at least minister of agriculture. He did not want to give up power. They told him, essentially, forget it, and that was the end of Khrushchev. He lived until 1971 in a small house he was given outside Moscow. He was massively depressed. This was a man who was very used to power. To isolate him for seven years was almost the worst thing you could do.
LAMB: The picture that you paint, though, is Mr. Khrushchev being at his dacha or wherever he was and getting a phone call from the Politburo?
BESCHLOSS: That's right.
LAMB: And saying, "You come to Moscow."
BESCHLOSS: He was told to come to Moscow and Khrushchev, in his normally high-handed way, said, "Can't you deal with this when I get back to Moscow next month. Nothing should be so important that I have to interrupt my vacation." They told him that he'd better come now. He was flown to Moscow. He got off the plane. Rather than the usual welcoming delegation, the only one who was there was the chairman of the KGB, and he had Khrushchev driven to this meeting in Moscow.
LAMB: Today with Mr. Gorbachev, could that same thing happen?
BESCHLOSS: No. This coup d'etat depended on the fact that leaders of the Soviet Union in the early 1960s were selected by a very small group. If that small group turned against you, you were out. A small group of the same kind tried to throw Khrushchev out once before in 1957 and almost succeeded. These coups were not very unusual in those days. Nowadays, as the Soviet Union becomes more pluralistic and more people have a say in who becomes not only the leader of the Soviet Union but leaders of the republics, it's going to be a lot harder for a group of six men to come together and simply say, "You are no longer employed in the Kremlin."
LAMB: Is there any new information to still find out about Nikita Khrushchev ?
BESCHLOSS: There is. It is said that Khrushchev's papers were destroyed just after Khrushchev was taken out of power by the order of Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev knew that Khrushchev was still very popular among the Soviet people. He wanted to wipe out any trace of Khrushchev and, therefore, had not only apparently his papers destroyed, but also had the Soviet press and Soviet publishing and other officials refuse ever to mention the name Khrushchev in public. Therefore, between 1964 and recent years, you've had a whole generation of Soviet citizens growing up who have never heard Khrushchev's name mentioned.
LAMB: Is Sergei Khrushchev's, the son, book credible?
BESCHLOSS: Yes, it was written about two years ago and it was translated and edited by an eminent American scholar of Soviet affairs.
LAMB: Are the Khrushchev memoirs credible?
BESCHLOSS: The Khrushchev memoirs, there was some talk when they were published -- this was Khrushchev talking into a tape recorder, the tapes were smuggled to the West and published in 1970 and 1974. There was rarely any doubt that this was Khrushchev's voice. There was some talk at the time that as the price of getting the memoirs out he was forced to put in some disinformation that would throw off Western intelligence. My take on them now is that he told the truth as he knew it, but Khrushchev's view, in many cases, was very distorted. He also didn't have access to his own records.
LAMB: Your next book?
BESCHLOSS: My next book is on Bush and Gorbachev, which I am writing in collaboration with a journalist, Strobe Talbott of Time magazine. We are aspiring to write an account of how this relationship has developed between these two leaders between 1989 and 1992 based on interviews with Soviets and Americans. We're expecting it to come out in the fall of 1992.
LAMB: And last question: Are you happy with the way this book's played out and the way it's being bought and read?
BESCHLOSS: I have. This is a book that in many ways very much disagrees with much of what has been written about the history of the crisis years over the last 30 years. Many of the people who have reviewed it have been people whose work I have, to some extent, revised based on both new information and also additional perspective. They have treated it respectfully, and for that I'm grateful.
LAMB: Michael Beschloss, author of "The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev 1960-1963." Thank you for joining us.
BESCHLOSS: Thank you, Brian.
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