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Soviets: U.S. Media Good Sources

January 19, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ With the Cold War on the brink of turning hot over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, Russian diplomats turned to one of their best sources of information about the inner thinking in the Kennedy administration _ the Washington news media.

``The Russians viewed the American media as a wonderful source of what was really going on,″ said Timothy Naftali, a professor of history at Yale University and co-author of ``One Hell of a Gamble,″ a recent book about the Cuban missile crisis.

Even though the Soviets kept tight control of their own media, Naftali said, ``they understood the difference between American journalists and their own.″

In those tense weeks in October 1962, both superpowers paid much attention to the media, but for different reasons.

The Soviets hungered for information on how the administration would respond to the missile challenge. In the White House, Kennedy and his aides were concerned about managing the news.

In a televised speech to the nation on Oct. 22, Kennedy declared the United States had ``unmistakable evidence″ that the Soviets were building offensive missile sites in Cuba.

Kennedy urged Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to ``eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace.″

Another account of the crisis, ``The Kennedy Tapes,″ provides the text of the secretly recorded discussions between the president and his top advisers. It includes the debates over how to respond. Should the president order an air strike, an invasion of Cuba or pursue diplomatic channels?

In addition to discussing options, the White House strategy group planned how to sell the administration’s plan to Congress and the media.

The morning after Kennedy’s speech, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told the group he had given an off-the-record briefing to reporters the previous evening, ``and I think we need more than that.″

Undersecretary of State George Ball said he had met with columnists James Reston and Stewart Alsop. ``I had about an hour with them,″ he said.

``Who wants to talk to Bill White?″ asked Kennedy, referring to another columnist. ``The vice president (Lyndon B. Johnson) would like to,″ someone is heard saying.

The list went on to include Philip Graham, then publisher of The Washington Post, and Hanson Baldwin, then military writer for The New York Times.

Kennedy worried not only about getting his version of events to the media, but also about dealing with leaks.

``Kennedy kept a sharp eye on reportage on the crisis,″ historian Michael Beschloss wrote in ``The Crisis Years.″ When columnist Rowland Evans described the emotional tone of a letter Khrushchev had sent to Kennedy, Beschloss said, the president ``was so furious about Evans’ story that he did his own detective work to track down the leak.″ Kennedy determined it came from a French Embassy official.

The Soviets went to great lengths to make contacts with reporters they had cultivated over the years.

Disturbing news came from Johnny Prokov, a bartender at the National Press Club and emigre from Lithuania who voiced strongly anti-Soviet views. Naftali and his co-author, Aleksandr Fursenko, a Russian historian, wrote that Prokov overheard one journalist tell another that he was going to fly south ``to cover the operation to capture Cuba.″

Prokov passed that information on to Anatoly Gorsky, correspondent for the Soviet news agency Tass who also was a KGB officer.

The information was quickly dispatched to the Kremlin, which ordered Soviet agents to find out more, Naftali and Fursenko wrote.

One of the reporters, Warren Rogers of the New York Herald Tribune, told the authors that one of his Soviet acquaintances came up to him the next morning as he parked his car.

``What do you think of the situation?″ Rogers recalled the Russian asking.

``I think it is extremely grim″ Rogers replied.

``Do you think Kennedy means what he says?″ the Soviet official asked.

``You’re damn right he does,″ said Rogers.

The Russian took his answer as confirmation of the story heard by Prokov. A U.S. invasion of Cuba was imminent.

However, Naftali and Fursenko wrote, what Prokov overheard was a discussion of a Pentagon list of reporters who would be taken along if the decision was to invade.

No such decision was ever made.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Donald M. Rothberg has covered national and international affairs in Washington for The Associated Press since 1966.

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