- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Rumblings of war against Iraq, a deadly sniper loose around Washington and nuclear missiles in North Korea each cause for alarm, each frightening for all, and, for those who lived through the Cuba missile crisis, chilly memories of how we teetered on the brink of nuclear disaster back then, exactly 40 years ago this week.
As a Washington correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, covering military and foreign affairs, I was acutely involved in that closest call of the Cold War. My job, like that of all reporters before TV's heyday, was to observe, record and report the world's great events, not to participate in them, much less determine their outcome. Heaven knows, it was a privilege, and fulfilling enough, to be covering the Vietnam War, the civil rights confrontations down South, the White House, Pentagon, State Department and presidential politics in those hectic days.
But apparently I did play a role in the Cuba Missile Crisis of October 1962, and, willy nilly, helped avoid a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union that threatened far more than we realized at the time.
I was surprised to learn, more than 30 years afterward, that what I regarded as everyday journalism had helped change the course of history. Or at least that is what was said in a book about the confrontation, "One Hell of a Gamble," by two historians, American Timothy Naftali and Russian Alexander Fursenko. They wrote their book primarily from just-opened, secret Kremlin archives, such as Nikita Khrushchev's papers and official Soviet files, including those of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Central Committee, the Armed Forces General Staff and GRU military intelligence. The current issue of American Heritage magazine features an article by Nikita Khrushchev's son Sergei confirming the account in more detail.
The Naftali-Fursenko book, published by W.W. Norton & Co. in 1997, noted that my story in the New York Herald Tribune of Oct. 22, 1962, was the first to substantiate rumors that Soviet Premier Khrushchev was putting offensive nuclear missiles into Cuba. President Kennedy went on television that evening, threatening U.S. nuclear retaliation against Moscow not Havana if any Cuba-based missiles struck the United States.
The Soviet Embassy in Washington learned Oct. 25 that I was one of eight reporters assigned to land with the U.S. Marines in an assault on Cuba if the missiles were not removed. Embassy officials contacted me and asked if I thought Kennedy meant what he said. The book quoted my reply as: "You're damn right he does. He will do what he says he will do." That deliberate warning was relayed in detail to Khrushchev at a special Kremlin meeting. It became what the authors called "the KGB's best indicator of Kennedy's intentions the star of Khrushchev's intelligence folder." It was then that Khrushchev recalled the ships carrying missiles to Cuba and ordered dismantling of missile launchers already installed on site.
Kennedy and Khrushchev struck a deal that Khrushchev would remove the missiles in return for a U.S. commitment not to invade Cuba, and, as an extra but officially unassociated gesture, withdraw U.S. missiles targeted on the Soviet Union from Turkey. (I learned the other day, incidentally, that the missiles are still in Turkey, but virtually useless, as they were even back in 1962.)
To this day, though, I am convinced Khrushchev had a lot more to go on than my article and warnings. My great colleague, the late John A. Scali, then with ABC News and later U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was eloquently impressing upon his Soviet contacts how serious the situation was. And Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy quietly met several times with Georgi Bolshakov of the Soviets' Tass news agency, passing along messages to Khrushchev through him. It was Kennedy who provided the key to the puzzle when he advised his brother to ignore a threatening Khrushchev cable, as if he had never received it, and respond to a milder, more reasoned one. The president did, and that, indeed, led to agreement.
How I found that the missiles actually were in Cuba and how the Soviets learned of my assignment to a Marine landing party are stories worth retelling.
Throughout 1961 and 1962, one assignment after the other, in Germany, Vietnam and elsewhere, kept me away from home. To try to atone for neglecting my family, I grandly invited my wife and children on October 21 to Sunday dinner at Billy Martin's Carriage House in Washington's Georgetown. As soon as we got seated, I saw across the room six or eight fellows I knew from the State Department and Pentagon, specialists in Soviet and in Caribbean affairs. I went over and said, in my best nerd manner, "Hi, guys. What are you all doing working on a Sunday?"
They seemed to turn green, muttering incomprehensibly, and I went back to my table. My wife, experienced in disappointment, said, "I guess we're going home." I said yes and we piled into the car for the silent trip back to the Maryland suburbs. I drove past the State Department and saw lights burning in what I knew was the Soviet Desk area. At home, I made a few phone calls and, satisfied with what I then learned, called New York and dictated my story. It ran Oct. 22 with a picture of President Kennedy wearing a fedora which he never-ever did because he looked gawky in a hat to back up his story that he had cut short his Midwest speaking tour due to a bad cold. Magically recovered, he went on TV that night with his missile speech.
A couple of evenings later, Bureau Chief Robert J. Donovan and I went upstairs from our National Press Building office to the National Press Club, to compare notes on where we were on the missile story. In the tap room, bartender Johnny Prokoff, a Lithuanian emigre who hated the Russians, overheard me arranging with Mr. Donovan for $400 expense money to go to Florida for the Marines' jumpoff. Johnny went down the bar to a Tass reporter and taunted him with the story. The Tass man, a KGB operative, as were all the Russians I knew, immediately reported to the Soviet Embassy, which sent its first secretary to invite me to lunch the next day. I assured him Kennedy meant what he said and that the missiles had to come out or we faced war. He dispatched a cable to the Kremlin, and the rest is history.
My granddaughter Margot Cerutti, attending Boston University in 1997, called me to say she had read a review of the Naftali-Fursenko book in the New York Times, and she asked, "Is it true that you helped save the world from nuclear destruction?" I said modestly, "Yes." She said, "Thanks, Grandpa."

Warren Rogers has covered the White House, national politics and military and foreign affairs since Harry Truman's administration.


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