ST-C310-87-63Sometimes a storyteller misses the real meaning of the story.

By all accounts, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the most dangerous episode of the Cold War.  The United States and the Soviet Union came frighteningly close to launching nuclear attacks at each other.  Only fear, luck, and occasionally inspired negotiating moved them onto the path of resolving the crisis−via a humiliating Soviet withdrawal in the face of U.S. nuclear superiority.

Historians have identified many motives for the initial Soviet decision to place missiles in Cuba.  The Soviets wanted to rectify the imbalance of nuclear forces that favored the United States.  More viscerally, as Khrushchev later noted, “The Americans had surrounded our country with military bases and threatened us with nuclear weapons, and now they would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointed at you….”1  Deterring an American attack on Cuba, which aggressive U.S. maneuvers had made seem to be in the works, was a major goal, as were locking Cuba into the Soviet Bloc and giving an example to the rest of Latin America.  Gaining leverage over Berlin and asserting leadership of worldwide communism by heading off potential Chinese support of Castro may have also played their roles.

Still, contemporary observers and later historians agree that Khrushchev took a breathtakingly reckless risk−and one he ultimately had to back down from.  As a September 19, 1962 CIA assessment of the Soviet buildup in Cuba put it, deploying ballistic missiles or building a submarine base “would indicate a far greater willingness to increase the level of risk in US-Soviet relations than the USSR has displayed thus far.”2  Kennedy himself said that it was “one hell of a gamble”, and he ascribed it to Khrushchev’s perception from the 1961 Vienna summit that he was weak.

What drove Khrushchev to take this extraordinary risk?  In effect, to ask this is to ask why there was a Cuban Missile Crisis in the first place.

Kennedy’s Senior Girlfriend

Though the story was kept out of the national news, Jack Kennedy was, of course, a notorious womanizer.  For years he had worked his way through a succession of lovers, and neither marrying Jackie nor entering the White House made any change in his compulsive skirt-chasing.  However, there is no evidence that any of these women had any special influence over him.  Except one.

Mary Pinchot Meyer was an upper-class Pennsylvanian (her father was an isolationist with a pacifist bent) who had married Cord Meyer, a leading peace advocate who then became a CIA manager.  After divorcing him in 1958, Mary began working as an abstract artist and moved in fashionable social circles.  Acquainted with Kennedy since college days, she became a frequent visitor at the White House and eventually Kennedy’s senior girlfriend, attending many receptions and private dinners as well as showing up for one-on-one evening sessions with the President.  Unlike Kennedy’s other girlfriends, though, Mary Meyer was permitted to stay for serious discussions and to attend policy meetings.3

Around this time, Mary began to meet with Dr. Timothy Leary of Harvard University, famous for his experimenting with psychedelic drugs.  She came to him, Leary later wrote, seeking advice on how to run LSD sessions with women in influential circles of Washington, D.C., with the goal of getting their power-elite husbands to turn on, lose their aggressive edge, and seek peace.  In a later meeting, she complained to him that one of the wives had snitched on her, and that she was in trouble. Her goal, she told Leary, was to follow the prescription of poet Allen Ginsberg for achieving peace in the nuclear age.  Kennedy and Khrushchev, Ginsberg had said on various public occasions, should smoke pot together.  Then the threat of war would go away.4

There seems to be little doubt that Mary herself smoked marijuana and had taken her share of LSD.  She claimed that she had smoked pot with President Kennedy, but we have only her word for this story.5  It must be understood that at this early date the negative impacts of LSD were not well understood, and it was not outlawed.

How exactly Mary carried out her peace campaign is not completely clear.  We know that Kennedy was concerned that he could not communicate well with Khrushchev by relying solely on the cold warriors who populated established diplomatic and intelligence channels.  Thus Mary Meyer’s advocacy of peace seems to have appealed to Kennedy and could explain why he appeared to hold her in great esteem, though he also confided to Ben Bradlee that “Mary would be rough to live with.”6  He seems to have meant that she could be very demanding.

By dint of her status as the senior presidential lady friend, Mary appears to have inserted herself into the U.S.-Soviet relationship as a key go-between.  It appears that she used this position to push her recipe of peace and drugs on the Soviets as well as on Kennedy.  She may also have been keeping CIA informed.  At any rate, she seems to have proven very persuasive with both sides, perhaps because she exaggerated how ready each was to cooperate.  We do not know what she told the Soviets−That Kennedy was smoking pot with her?  That other powerful men in Washington were turning on?  That Kennedy was eager to resolve superpower disputes peacefully (which of course was true)?  Whatever it was, it seems to have persuaded Khrushchev, who already suspected Kennedy of weakness from their encounter at the Vienna summit, that Kennedy was a pushover who would acquiesce in the emplacement of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

I’m going to crush that viper

Why should we think that this reconstruction of such behind-the-scenes interactions is accurate?  Because of a little anecdote.

According to Ion Mihai Pacepa, at that time deputy director of foreign intelligence for Gheorghe-Dej’s Romania, in his book Programmed to Kill: Lee Harvey Oswald, the Soviet KGB, and the Kennedy Assassination7, Dej was visiting Moscow at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Pacepa writes:

According to Dej’s account, when Khrushchev finished reading that cable [from the KGB in Washington saying that Kennedy had ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba], his face was purple. He looked inquiringly at [KGB chief] Semichastny, and, when the terrified general nodded, Khrushchev ‘cursed like a bargeman’. Then he threw Semichastny’s cable on the floor and ground his heel into it. ‘That’s how I’m going to crush that viper,’ he cried. The ‘viper,’ Dej explained in telling the story, was Kennedy.

Goading himself on, Khrushchev grew increasingly hysterical, uttering violent threats against the ‘millionaire’s whore’ and his CIA masters.”

Dej interpreted ‘that viper’ and the ‘millionaire’s whore’ as references to Kennedy, but viper (gadyuka) is feminine in Russian and a common epithet for a malicious, treacherous woman.  Moreover, Kennedy was a millionaire himself and of the wrong gender, and he did not have CIA masters. A far better interpretation is that Khrushchev was referring to Mary Meyer.  In turn, this suggests that Meyer’s peace rhetoric and her talk about the purported use of drugs by American leaders had emboldened Khrushchev to undertake his reckless Cuban missile adventure, thus putting humankind at risk of an all-out nuclear war.

This hearsay account could have been inflated or distorted in the telling and retelling.  Nonetheless, it deserves credence for four reasons.  First, it has the ring of truth, being characteristic of Khrushchev’s behavior.  Second, Dej told and Pacepa retold the story without realizing its real meaning, and the mistaken details and explanation make its real meaning more believable because Dej and Pacepa did not intend to give it the meaning it clearly has.  Third, it fits perfectly with the need for a persuasive explanation of why Khrushchev took such a risk.  Fourth, in fact the KGB arranged for a contract murderer to kill Mary Meyer on the Canal towpath in Georgetown in October, 1964.

Conclusions

Three conclusions suggest themselves.

First, Kennedy must share in the blame for the emergence of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  His irresponsible womanizing led him into an emotional attachment where he mixed business and pleasure in such a way as to blind himself.  Meyer was a pot-smoking, LSD-tripping abstract artist; a woman-about-town with a woolly scheme suggested by Allen Ginsberg; and a pushy pacifist and amateur negotiator with a supercharged sense of mission dealing with the most sensitive, consequential relationship in the world.  This was an explosive combination that should have set off alarm bells in Kennedy’s generally level head.  But it didn’t.

Second, the KGB should have seen through Meyer and warned Khrushchev, who clearly did not understand Kennedy or the United States.  Khrushchev was foolish and indeed reckless to take such a gamble based on Meyer’s stories.

Third, it is perhaps comforting to think that the unusual mixture of personal idiosyncrasies (of Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Meyer) and circumstances that led to such a dangerous misunderstanding occurred only once during the decades of the Cold War.  But this story reminds us that the horrors of nuclear weapons exist in close proximity to the age-old human capacity for folly.

*****

Kenneth J. Dillon is an historian who writes on science, medicine, and history.  See the biosketch at About Us.  For further detective work on ancient and modern history, see his The Knowable Past (Washington, D.C.:  Scientia Press, 2018).

Notes:
1. Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev.  Khrushchev Remembers.  London:  Andre Deutsch, 1971, p. 494
2. Robert Dallek.  An Unfinished Life.  John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963.  New York:  Little, Brown, 2003, p. 541
3. Nina Burleigh.  A Very Private Woman.  The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer.  New York:  Bantam, 1998, p. 194.  The characterization of Mary’s role is from White House Counsel Myer Feldman.  The other book on Meyer is Peter Janney.  Mary’s Mosaic.  The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace.  New York:  Skyhorse, 2112.  Both books offer many useful details on the life and times of Mary Meyer, but Janney’s relies on various dubious sources and reaches an untenable conclusion that includes his own CIA father, Wistar Janney, as an accessory in Mary Meyer’s murder.  In all likelihood, Wistar Janney learned of the murder within an hour or so of its occurrence not because there was a CIA conspiracy but because CIA had found out from SIGINT or HUMINT what the KGB had done.
4. Janney, pp. 216-7
5. Janney, p. 70
6. Burleigh, p. 208
7. Chicago:  Ivan R. Dee, 2007, p. 185
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