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Robert Kennedy’s back channel with the Russians

Senator Robert F. Kennedy holds a news conference on May 5, 1967.

In researching a book on Robert F. Kennedy, I have become familiar with the back channel relationship my subject carried on with a Cold War figure named Georgi Bolshokov. I owe this information to Evan Thomas’ excellent biography of Kennedy, which came in the year 2000.

Georgi Bolshakov was a mid-level figure at the Soviet embassy here in Washington, also a colonel in the KGB known to be close to Nikita Khrushchev’s son-in-law. Bolshkov was popular with American reporters, including Charles Bartlett, a close friend of President Kennedy, the one who introduced him to Jacqueline.

In the spring of 1961, Bolshokov passed word through his American reporter friends that he wanted to meet the president’s brother.

When the two men got together, Bobby suggested they open a back channel between President Kennedy and Khrushchev apart from the US Department of State.

Bobby’s first goal with Bolshakov, according to biographer Thomas, was to have the Russian agent get word to Khrushchev that, no matter what had just happened in the Bay of Pigs, his brother would fight if the Soviets pushed, especially if they tried grab US-occupied West Berlin.

Unfortunately, the Bolshokov back channel did nothing to prevent a disastrous summit meeting between the two leaders that June in Vienna. In that meeting, Khrushchev bullied the American president, leaving him with the frightening impression that the prospect of a nuclear war had not seemed to deter the man sitting across from him.

In a later, even more critical moment, the back channel between Bobby and Bolshakov, again according to Thomas, may have proven strikingly effective. During the fearful days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy used Bolshakov to suggest to Khrushchev that the US might secretly agree to remove its missiles from Turkey if the Soviets would remove theirs from Cuba. That ended up being the deal that prevented a nuclear war.

Watch Chris and Evan Thomas on “Hardball with Chris Matthews” on Wednesday, May 31 at 7 PM ET.