Thirty-ninth Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
The Soviet Charges
In July 1960 the USSR charged that NATO aircraft “buzzing” Soviet ships at sea were conducting “a calculated policy of violating the sovereignty of the Soviet Union, a policy directed toward intensification of international tension.”
What is “Buzzing”?
Buzzing occurs when an airplane flies very low over objects or people on the ground or water. Buzzing is highly dangerous. It is, moreover, illegal in the United States. The U.S. military prohibits it (except, of course, in combat).
Ironically, the protesting Soviets never publicly acknowledged that their planes had buzzed unarmed Western aircraft in the Berlin corridors repeatedly since 1948—and were still doing it in 1962.
Low-level Intelligence Flights
The offending planes were patrol aircraft, many from the U.S. Navy, monitoring Soviet shipping. Though they flew close to Soviet ships to get good photographs, the unarmed patrol planes were not a menace…as the Soviets very well knew. Up to mid-July 1962, the protests about buzzing were simply standard Soviet nuisance-making.
From mid-July 1962 onward, however, the Soviets feared that photographs of Soviet shipping bound for Cuba would betray ANADYR to the U.S. intelligence community. Ironically, the Soviets could not reveal that their new protests were motivated by genuine tactical concerns rather than the need to generate propaganda.
On July 26, 1962, the day the Mariya Ulyanova delivered 340 “students and agricultural workers” to Cuba, Khrushchev asked departing U.S. Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson “to speak to the President about U.S. harassment of Soviet ships.”
Thompson had no way of knowing why Khrushchev had made this request. When the departing ambassador relayed the premier’s message to Washington, Thompson stated “that he believed the United States was paying too high a price for whatever value it gained from identifying Soviet vessels and pointed out that this was the only time that Khrushchev had raised the issue ‘with any heart.’ ” Thompson had played right into Khrushchev’s hands.
The “Back-Channel” Appeal to Kennedy
Just to be sure the President heard him, Khrushchev decided to use Bobby Kennedy’s friend Georgi Bolshakov to repeat his request. According to Fursenko and Naftali, Bolshakov and Bobby Kennedy went to the Oval Office on 31 July 1962.
The authors believe Khrushchev’s strategy worked. “In early August,” they write, “the Presidium authorized Bolshakov to tell the Kennedys, ‘N. S. Khrushchev is satisfied with the president’s order to curtail the U.S. planes’ inspections of Soviet ships in open waters.’ ”
What Really Happened?
I have not yet found any U.S. documentation verifying that President Kennedy ordered U.S. reconnaissance flights suspended. It is hard to believe that such an order would not have been quickly discovered and reported.
Indeed, a photograph caption written by Dino Brugioni, of the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center, read, “Throughout the summer of 1962, U.S. intelligence agencies maintained close surveillance over the heavy volume of Russian shipping exiting the Baltic and Bosporus bound for Cuba.” (Emphasis added)
The accompanying picture, taken by a Navy patrol plane flying at mast-head height, shows the starboard side of a Soviet vessel from the bridge forward to the bow. The vessel is carrying at least 10 trucks or other vehicles on her foredeck. The picture is, however, undated.
At this point, I believe we have yet another in a long series of Cold War mysteries that can be grouped under the heading, “What really happened?”
More of these mysteries are waiting for us.
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Sources and Notes
The 1960 Soviet complaint about buzzing quoted in the first paragraph was reported by Osgood Carruthers in “Soviet Protests ‘Buzzing’ by West.” New York Times, July 15, 1960, p. 4.
For Soviet harassment of Allied aircraft in the Berlin corridors during the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift, see Ann and John Tusa, The Berlin Airlift. New York: Sarpedon, 1988. The 1950s-1960s Soviet harassment in the corridors was reported time and again in the New York Times. See Chapter Twenty-six of this series ().
A Navy patrol aircraft photographing a Soviet ship would fly a “cloverleaf” pattern at mast-head height along both sides of the ship and across her bow and stern. The aircraft would then make a slightly higher pass along one side or directly overhead to take pictures of the ship’s deck. These cloverleaf patterns could not possibly be interpreted as hostile—except by the Soviets for propaganda purposes.
U.S. Navy patrol aircraft would never have been armed in peacetime unless they were conducting rocket runs on a towed surface target. They would certainly have never carried any weapons on peacetime patrol flights. Finally, even in wartime U.S. Navy patrol planes would never have been sent to attack surface targets—only submarines.
Ambassador Thompson’s account of Khrushchev’s request that Kennedy suspend reconnaissance flights is contained in Foreign Relations of the United States, Vol. V, the USSR, No. 215, footnote 3 (http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/vol_v/210_219.html).
See Chapter 27 in this series () for more on Bobby Kennedy’s friendship with Georgi Bolshakov, a Soviet military intelligence agent under cover as a diplomat reporting to Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.
Fursenko and Naftali’s account of the “back-channel” between Khrushchev and the White House appears in their “One Hell of a Gamble.” Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, 193-197. Fursenko and Naftali’s sources for these events are Soviet documents (unavailable to me) and an entry in the President’s desk diary indicating that President Kennedy met Bolshakov and his brother at the White House on July 31. The authors do not cite any U.S. sources to support the Soviet documents’ implication that Kennedy suspended U.S. reconnaissance flights.
These pages include a discussion of Khrushchev’s additional attempts to distract or soothe President Kennedy during mid-1962 by bouncing back and forth between the Berlin and test-ban issues. The authors also discuss Castro’s August proposal that Cuba and the USSR tell the world that they had signed a mutual defense pact and were establishing Soviet strategic missile bases in Cuba. Khrushchev would not hear of such a disclosure. See Chapter Twenty-three in this series () for a discussion of Khrushchev’s serious errors in planning and prosecuting ANADYR.
According to Fursenko and Naftali, President Kennedy’s desk diary containing the July 31, 1962, entry is archived at the John F. Kennedy Library near Boston, MA.
Dino Brugioni’s picture and caption appear on the second page of the photography section between pages 368 and 369 of his Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of The Cuban Missile Crisis (Robert F. McCort, ed.). New York: Random House, 1991.