Quid pro quo saved the world from nuclear war

Ned Jilton • Nov 28, 2019 at 11:30 AM

After weeks of public and closed impeachment hearings in which the phrases “quid pro quo” and “back channel negotiations” have been repeatedly knocked about, one would get the idea that these two actions are highly illegal.

The truth is that both of these actions are perfectly legal. Quid pro quo is just a fancy way of saying “this for that.” You do it every time you go to the grocery store checkout and give “this” money “for that” carton of milk.

Back channel negotiations is simply opening a second line of communication using other than normal means. There is nothing that says a president has to use the State Department to communicate or negotiate with another country.

Both of these actions have been used by almost every president. Even Abraham Lincoln used back channel negotiations in an effort to arrange a quid pro quo settlement with Confederate President Jefferson Davis to end the Civil War.

But the most critical use of these two tactics came in 1962. It was then the world came as close as it ever has to nuclear war with President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev using both actions to avoid mass destruction.

The NATO agreement uniting the United States and the European powers had put Khrushchev in a tough position. It not only stopped Soviet expansion but also allowed for the placement of nuclear missiles in Turkey, pointed at Russia.

But Kennedy’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 gave the Soviet leader an idea. If the United States could arm its allies to prevent Soviet aggression, why couldn’t Russia arm its allies to prevent American aggression?

In 1962, Khrushchev arranged with Cuban leader Fidel Castro for the placement of Soviet light bombers along with medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missile sites on the island just 90 miles from the coast of Florida.

The plan was to secretly ship the weapons in cargo ships along with 42,000 Soviet soldiers and assemble everything in Cuba before the United States found out what was going on. Khrushchev hoped that Kennedy would be unable to respond and the missiles would stay. Perhaps the missiles could even be used as a negotiation tool to get the U.S. and NATO out of West Berlin in Germany.

But the United States found out what the Soviets were up to on Oct. 16 when a U-2 spy plane spotted the missiles and the launch sites, which were not ready.

Kennedy gathered key members of the government to determine a response. The group came up with three different plans. One, take out the missiles with air strikes and invade Cuba to prevent more missiles from being placed there. Two, attempt a diplomatic approach using a blockade to put pressure on Cuba and the Soviet Union. Three, do nothing because having missiles in Cuba pointed at the U.S. was no different than the missiles already pointed at the U.S. from the U.S.S.R.

Kennedy chose the diplomatic approach with an invasion ready to go if talks broke down.

On Oct. 22, Kennedy went on television and informed the American public of the missiles, saying that he would consider any attack from Cuba as if it had come from the U.S.S.R. He then announced a “quarantine” of the island. A clever choice of words on his part, as a blockade is a term of war while a quarantine is not.

On Oct. 25, the U.S. ambassador at the United Nations confronted the Russian ambassador with the photos from the U-2 and demanded the removal of the missiles.

Khrushchev later responded that Russia was standing by the Cuban people and that the weapons were defensive only.

Things begin to spiral out of control. The U.S. Navy wanted to fire on any ship not stopping for the quarantine. Kennedy forbade it. In Cuba, Castro wanted Russia to launch a first strike. Khrushchev said no and ordered his forces there not to fire on U.S. reconnaissance planes.

On Oct. 27, a U-2 was shot down over Cuba against Khrushchev’s orders. That same day, another U-2 in Alaska went off course and strayed into Soviet airspace, setting off alerts and scrambling Russian jet fighters. In Florida, the United States was assembling the largest invasion force since D-Day in WW II.

While publicly both Kennedy and Khrushchev stuck to their positions, privately they begin to establish back channel negotiations to avoid the slaughter of nuclear war.

Khrushchev sent KGB agent Alexander Feklisov, who made contact with John Scali of ABC News to establish a line of communication with U.S. officials. On the same day the U-2 was shot down, emissaries from both Kennedy and Khrushchev begin meeting in the Yenching Palace Chinese restaurant in Washington. The United States also begin communicating with Castro in Cuba via government contacts in Brazil.

Thanks to these back channel negotiations, not one but two quid pro quo agreements were reached. One was public, the other was secret.

The public agreement was that in exchange for the United States lifting the quarantine and pledging before the United Nations never to invade Cuba, Russia would remove the missiles from Cuba under U.N. supervision.

The secret agreement was the United States would remove the missiles from Turkey if Russia removed the missiles from Cuba.

President Kennedy’s brother Robert showed up at the back door of the Russian embassy with two envelopes. The first envelope contained the public agreement sighed by the president. Then as he handed the Soviet ambassador the second envelope with the signed secret agreement, he warned that if any word of the agreement leaked out, the deal would be off.

Even though both Cuba and Turkey were unhappy, the agreement stood and all missiles on both sides were removed.

Thanks to quid pro quo, the world was spared from nuclear war.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]