Backchannel Negotiations

Posted on July 13, 2017


The most famous back-channel negotiations in modern history occurred in October 1962. They far surpassed in importance the recent hoopla on Jared Kushner and the Russians, and, furthermore, underscore the commonplace of it all.

Kushner was just following some tried and true trails blazed over the centuries by others who got involved in diplomacy. To hold him accountable for all sorts of crazy crimes simply boggles the imagination and calls into question the political motivation, and sanity, of his critics.

In October 1962, the Soviet Union, especially prodded on by the new socialist ruler of Cuba, Fidel Castro, decided to place some ballistic nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Soviets and Americans were locked in the middle of the Cold War, and each was trying to get the edge on the other. Why not missiles in Cuba that could almost instantly reach a huge portion of the North American continent?

It seemed like a good idea, especially in the light of a monumental, CIA-led failure to invade Cuba and depose Castro at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.
President John F. Kennedy, only inaugurated in 1961, inherited the plan to overthrow Castro cooked up by the CIA in the waning months of the Dwight Eisenhower presidential administration.

But Kennedy was also embarking on a sweeping new policy toward Latin America that eventually evolved into the Alliance for Progress. It rejected old-style American interventionism and military meddling in Latin America.

The upshot was that Kennedy pulled back on needed air cover during the Bay of Pigs invasion since he didn’t want a big “American footprint” on the invasion. It would make a mockery of his evolving non-interventionist, reformist Alliance for Progress.

Both Castro and the Russians interpreted Kennedy’s action, or, more exactly, inaction, at the Bay of Pigs as a weakness in the American president’s will, a chink in his armor.

The stage was set. The Russians started sending offensive missiles to Cuba and by early October the Americans discovered the missiles.

An ABC reporter, John Scali, was contacted in Washington, D.C., on the 11th day of the building crisis (Oct. 26, 1962) by Alexander Fomin, a diplomatic counselor at the Soviet embassy in Washington. His real job was KGB station chief, and his real name was Alexander Feklisov. He wanted to talk. Scali smelled a good story. Little did he know he would soon be moving messages between the president of the United States and the Soviet premier.

Over lunch, Fomin came to the point: “War seems about to break out; something must be done to save the situation.”

Scali, not to be pushed into a defensive mode, shot back, “Well, you should have thought of that before you introduced the missiles.”

Fomin asked what if the Russians withdrew their missiles and promised never to put offensive missiles in Cuba again? Would the Americans promise publicly never again to invade Cuba, a direct reference to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961?

Scali said he would find out. He got the message through connections in the Department of State to Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Rusk passed it on to President Kennedy. Desperate to forestall a possible U. S. invasion of Cuba, being prompted by war hawks in his cabinet, Kennedy told Rusk to tell Fomin through Scali that “the highest officials in the United States Government” saw some possibilities in this offer.

Scali immediately got in touch with Fomin and they met in the coffee shop at the Statler Hotel, a short distance from the Soviet embassy. After a quick cup of coffee, Fomin left with the message delivered by Scali.

In the meantime, at the same time, actually, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had sent a letter with a similar overture to Washington. Kennedy and his advisers thought the Fomin overture and the Khrushchev letter were part of a coordinated effort to defuse the quickening march of events to a thermonuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union — and the end of the world as we know it.

Fomin had been acting through a different channel, perhaps on his own initiative, but the result was the same. Just as Kennedy and Khrushchev began to stand down, however, the next day, a Saturday, another event almost brought the two giants into battle. But that’s another story.

Back-channeling is a long and honorable way to talk and negotiate. To accuse Kushner of doing something extraordinary and illegal is politics as usual in this country today.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday June 4, 2017 as Back-Channel Negotiations Nothing New

Posted in: Cuba, Foreign Affairs, War