ABC's John Scali (WGBH)
This Month from the Vault: An interview with ABC Newsman John Scali
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, and we revisit the events that brought the world to the brink of a nuclear disaster in two specials on WGBH 2 (see below). In the archives, we found a gripping interview about that fate-of-the-planet drama of October 1962. It hints at high-level espionage but unfolds amid convincingly mundane details (a baloney sandwich, the coffee shop in Washington’s Statler Hilton Hotel), and it makes you feel as if you’re in the center of the storm as President Kennedy and his advisors struggle to avert nuclear war. The story held a respected place in the annals of the missile crisis for decades. But it turned out to be a blind alley. How it unraveled gives us a glimpse inside the fog of war.
Producers from WGBH’s ambitious 13-part series
War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
interviewed former ABC reporter John Scali in February 1986, where Scali describes his involvement with a high-ranking Soviet Embassy contact at the height of the crisis.
But with the help of hindsight, consider the backstory to this back-channel encounter: Desperate for information about Soviet intentions, President Kennedy and his top advisors took Scali’s story very seriously. It seemed to be the first sign that the Soviets wanted to back off, and US Secretary of State Dean Rusk devoted considerable time to drafting a reply. When the crisis ended a few days later, the deal announced by the Kremlin seemed to reflect much that Scali and his Soviet contact, Aleksandr Fomin, had discussed.
The secret story of the Scali-Fomin back-channel negotiations was revealed in 1964 in a book by Rusk’s head of intelligence, Roger Hilsman. It remained mostly unquestioned until 1989, when both Scali and Fomin (now identified by his real name, Aleksandr Feklisov) were present at a conference in Moscow. Feklisov disputed Scali’s account completely. It was Scali, he said, who floated the famous proposal; it was Scali, not he, who was fearful, and so on. Scali heatedly disputed these claims.
One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro On the Brink of Nuclear War, by Michael Dobbs
Thus began the unraveling of the Scali-Fomin myth. When scholars drilled deeper into the crisis in the ensuing decades, the significance of their secret meetings was shattered. As journalist Michael Dobbs described it in his brilliant 2008 book about the crisis,
One Minute to Midnight, the Scali back-channel was “a classic example of miscommunication between Moscow and Washington at a time when a single misstep could lead to nuclear war.” The author concludes that “there is no evidence” that Scali’s message to the Soviets “played any role in Kremlin decision-making on the crisis, or was even read by Khrushchev.”
The late ambassador Richard Holbrooke,
reviewing Dobbs’ book,
added a layer of disdain, describing the Scali-Fomin back-channel as “a self-generated effort by an ambitious spy to send some information to his bosses in Moscow, as well as self-promotion by an ambitious journalist, who parlayed his meetings with the KGB agent into a public legend that eventually led to his becoming the American ambassador to the United Nations.”
Holbrooke is pretty harsh, but even without his slant on it we can begin to see how dangerous this was. The demolition of the Scali story is only a small part of a revolution in thinking about the Cuban missile crisis. Confusion reigned in Moscow and Washington, and as JFK and Khrushchev searched for a way out (with Washington jumping on the Scali story), their military machines were headed for war.
As James Blight, a leading missile crisis scholar, put it—referring not only to the Scali story but to the revelations of recent research—“the crisis [seems] far more dangerous, and its peaceful outcome far more miraculous, than ever before.”
Elizabeth Deane is a longtime producer and writer for WGBH