Llewellyn Thompson: Champion of the World June 20, 2012Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
Beach has pioneered on this blog ‘hinge moments’, those instances when world history changes. In any list of these moments, the Cuban Missile crisis is a must, because this is, of course, the closest the human race has come to mutually assured destruction. But what moment within the missile crisis was the key one?
Almost certainly it was 26 Oct 1962 at the National Security Council Executive Committee, where Kennedy and his top advisors, including one Llewellyn ‘Tommy’ Thompson, had to discuss next steps in relation to the Russian convoy that was drawing closer and closer to Cuba. The world was well aware of the dangers and this included, of course, the Soviet Union. From Moscow had come to the White House two telegrams. The first was an extraordinary long telegram from Khrushchev himself. This telegram is prolix and perhaps overly emotional: some contemporary historians have asked whether Khrushchev was drunk when he wrote it. It was, however, heartfelt.
We must not succumb to intoxication and petty passions, regardless of whether elections are impending in this or that country, or not impending. These are all transient things, but if indeed war should break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war. I have participated in two wars and know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction…
The first telegram said, in effect, step back from an attack on Cuba and we will remove the missiles. Then, a second telegram arrived with a different message: you invade and we hit you as hard as we can. (It must be remembered that though the US did not know this, there were already war heads on Cuba). The dilemma faced by Kennedy and those at the Excomm meeting was: which message do we answer? Kennedy’s initial instinct and that of any red-blooded male (though what have red blooded males ever done for US?) was let’s respond to the second. Kennedy was particularly under pressure from the Pentagon that was (understandably) pressing for unilateral strikes against Cuba without any negotiation. It was a tense moment and likely to get tenser.
Enter Llewellyn Thompson, a recent American ambassador to the USSR. While others were breathing fire, Thompson spoke peace [427-428]
Kennedy: ‘It seems to me what we ought to… To be reasonable, we’re not going to get these weapons out of Cuba, probably, anyway, but I mean by negotiation. We’re going to have to take our weapons out of Turkey. I don’t think there’s any doubt he’s not going to, now that he made that public. Tommy, he’s not going to take them out of Cuba if we…?
Thompson: ‘I don’t agree, Mr. President. I think there’s still a chance we can get this line going.’
Kennedy: ‘That he’ll back down?’
Thompson: Well, because he’s already got this other proposal which he put forward [to remove the missiles for a promise not to invade Cuba]
Kennedy: Yeah, but now this other public one. It seems to me, has become their public position. Isn’t it?
McCone: ‘The important thing for Khrushchev, it seems to me, is to be able to say ‘I saved Cuba; I stopped an invasion,’ and he can get away with this, if he wants to, and he’s had a go at this Turkey thing, and that we’ll discuss later.’
LT’s intervention marked a turning point in the meeting. Kennedy, who knew that LT had had long contact with Khrushchev respected his opinion and the meeting closed with the decision to reach out to the USSR by replying to the first telegram, ignoring the second. It proved the right decision. Yes, Castro was in for the long haul, but then so was the United States, the USSR and the rest of humanity.
Llewellyn Thompson talks quietly in the tapes of the meeting, often the transcript has ‘[unclear]’ when he speaks. Yet his intervention and (let’s not forget) Kennedy’s wisdom in taking it proved decisive.
And how did America reward one of her greatest heroes? Well, apparently there is a boulevard named after him in Las Animas, LT’s hometown. There are worse forms of immortality…
Other key moments from the Cuban Missile Crisis: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
22 June 2012: A lovely email from Jenny Thompson, LT’s daughter who explains ‘Kennedy was also persuaded by him to have Khrushchev remove some of his fighter jets that he had installed in Cuba too.’ Jenny and her sister are writing a book, should anyone have any contributions Beach will gladly pass the information along.’ Thanks Jenny!