When Khrushchev Helped JFK

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and US President John F. Kennedy (source: Foreign Policy)

I recently read and reviewed an excellent biography of former Soviet leader Leonid Brejnev by Andreï Kozovoï. Even if I found it to be tragic, I was fascinated to read about Brejnev’s role in the toppling of his predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, in October 1964. Khrushchev’s persona was light years away from the character portrayed in The Death of Stalin – it is a satire, after all – and his bombastic temper certainly played a role in his downfall.

Khrushchev always fascinated me, whether it is regarding his role during World War II, his succeeding Stalin in 1953 or his role with President John F. Kennedy (of whom we commemorate the assassination today) during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. I recently came upon a very insightful article, “Nikita Khrushchev and the Compromise of Soviet Secret Intelligence Sources” in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence by David Easter. In his research, the academic exposes several instances where the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union might have compromised Moscow’s intelligence work and capabilities.

“A wealth of intelligence passed across Khrushchev’s desk every day”, writes the Lecturer in War Studies at King’s College London, but “the KGB did not analyze the intelligence for Khrushchev, and he was in effect his own intelligence analyst, with all the problems of interpretation this could cause.” Literally a train wreck in the making.

The author questions the reliability of certain actors and accounts in his assessment of the security risk represented by the reckless attitude of the Soviet leader. He also points to the lack of evidence in certain circumstances, but “[…] it is clear that Khrushchev’s behavior attracted unwelcome attention to Soviet intelligence operations.”

The author describes several instances where “Khrushchev sought to unsettle, intimidate, or impress his Western interlocutors who were the victims of the KGB’s exploits.” The best example happened during the June 1961 Vienna summit with JFK. The communist leader thwarted a KGB operation planned to assassinate the Shah – a Washington ally – by gloating to Kennedy that the Iranian monarch’s days on the throne were counted. The KGB plan was scuttled, and it probably contributed to the intelligence service estrangement with the statesman.

With nuance, the academic observes that the KGB overestimated the impact of Khrushchev’s indiscretions. But due to the omnipotence of the people working at Lubyanka Square on Soviet politics, one can easily guess that a reckless player like Khrushchev was too big a risk for them to keep around the table. Hence, their potential role in the 1964 machinations, about which I hope the author will continue his research on the matter.

From the reigns of the Tsars to the current day mandate of President Vladimir Putin, intelligence services have always played a dominant role in Russian politics. Their support or opposition are crucial in a leader’s fate. In addition to a bodyguard of lies, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the truth – in the form of intelligence and knowledge – needs to be protected behind thick walls of good judgment and discretion.

If you want to understand the historically dominant role played by intelligence and security services in Russia, David Easter’s article is an essential – and agreeable – reading.

I hope he has a book in the making.

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