His name was Georgi Bolshakov.
His real job? He was a colonel in the GRU — the formal name of the latter being the Main Intelligence Agency of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. His cover? Bolshakov was a mid-level diplomat operating out of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., who posed as well as a journalist, editing an English-language magazine that focused on the glories of life in the Soviet Union.
Off the books? On the side, Georgi Bolshakov was a “back channel” in early 1960s Washington, a back channel for no less than Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney general of the United States, who, not coincidentally, was also the brother and closest confidante of President John F. Kennedy.
Writing in Robert Kennedy: His Life, biographer and longtime Newsweek editor Evan Thomas describes Bolshakov as “very well connected: his patron in Moscow was Aleksei Adzhubei, Chairman (Nikita) Khrushchev’s son-in-law.” In April of 1961, at the suggestion of an American journalist acquaintance for the New York Daily News, Bolshakov agreed that he would love to meet the president’s brother. Word was duly passed to RFK’s press secretary who in turn passed word to his boss — who loved the idea. Thomas writes:
On the afternoon of May 9, Bolshakov was escorted to the southwest corner of the Department of Justice. He found the attorney general sitting on granite steps outside. The jolly, fat Russian and the spare, taciturn American strolled down Constitution Avenue towards the Capitol. As Bolshakov recalled their conversation a quarter century later, Kennedy said, “Look here, Georgi. I know pretty well about your standing and about your connections with the boys in Khrushchev’s entourage.… I think they wouldn’t mind getting truthful firsthand information from you, and I presume they’ll find a way of passing it on to Khrushchev.”
Sitting on a park bench, the two men talked for four hours until they were chased inside by a downpour….”
I bring this up, because the other day, I stirred a small contretemps when I said on CNN that President Trump’s son-in-law “Jared Kushner is the Robert Kennedy of the Trump Administration.” Mini-fireworks soon to follow.
As a thorough-going and lifelong RFK fan (at 17, in the shocking wake of RFK’s assassination, I persuaded my Nixon-supporting Mom to take me to New York so I could stand six hours in line to walk through St. Patrick’s Cathedral and touch the flag on RFK’s casket), I knew RFK was, in a very real sense, “Mr. Back Channel” for his brother. And, but of course (after a memory stir from reader Rob Waters), I had Evan Thomas’s splendid RFK biography on my library shelves and right at hand to confirm. Now, no less than Mr. Thomas himself has taken to the pages of the Washington Post to elucidate. The headline:
We may owe our lives to a back channel with Russia
Among other things, the RFK biographer writes, in part, this:
Jared Kushner is not the first member of a presidential family to try to open a back channel with the Kremlin. John F. Kennedy’s brother Robert met secretly with a Soviet intelligence agent named Georgi Bolshakov many times during the Kennedy administration. Their dealings illustrate the shortcomings and dangers of informal high-level diplomacy — but also the potential for breakthrough in a crisis.
… The Kennedy brothers were, in their way, as highhanded as the Trump family. President Kennedy appointed his own brother to be attorney general — the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.
… The president’s brother and the short, tubby Russian spy met dozens of times over the next 18 months. The Kennedys had been warned against relying on the bureaucrats at the State Department by their father, who felt he had been undone by professional diplomats during his rocky tenure as ambassador to Britain at the beginning of World War II. JFK viewed State as slow-moving and lightweight. “They’re not queer, but, well, they’re sort of like Adlai,” he said, referring to Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
… For his part, Bolshakov sometimes lied to RFK. On Oct. 5, 1962, the GRU agent reassured Kennedy of Khrushchev’s promise that Soviets would put only defensive weapons in Cuba. Less than two weeks later, American U-2 spy planes flying over Cuba photographed nuclear-tipped missiles that could reach Washington. The most dangerous crisis of the Cold War had begun.
But it was also the Bolshakov back channel that first hinted the way out. On Oct. 23, the morning after the president announced a blockade of Cuba and millions of Americans faced the real prospect of nuclear war, RFK passed a message to Bolshakov. In 1993, historians Timothy Naftali and Aleksandr Fursenko found Bolshakov’s cable in the papers of the Soviet foreign office in Moscow: “R. Kennedy and his circle consider it possible to discuss the following trade: the U.S. would liquidate its missile bases in Turkey and Italy, and the USSR would do the same in Cuba.”
Thomas points out that is “exactly” what happened in the agreement between JFK and Soviet leader Khrushchev, concluding:
Back channels can be a terrible idea. They can sow confusion by subverting normal diplomacy and, potentially, precipitate disaster by expressing the unchecked will and wiles of headstrong leaders. But they can also lead to peace. President Richard Nixon’s opening to China in 1973 was run entirely through a back channel opened by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger — who was also running a back channel to the Kremlin. It would be interesting to know to what extent Kissinger is advising Kushner.
I have no idea about a Kissinger/Kushner relationship. But thanks to Thomas for elaborating on exactly the two points I was making. The first being the obvious — JFK used brother Bobby precisely as Donald Trump is using son-in-law Jared: as the trusted family confidant — in both the president’s personal and official family — to open a back channel with a seriously problematic foreign power.
Subtract the family relationship and, as Thomas also hints, there are other presidents who did their version of the same thing. As noted, Richard Nixon used then national security adviser Henry Kissinger in precisely this back channel fashion in relationships with both the Chinese and the Soviets. Keeping the State Department in the dark, just as JFK did. Senator Barack Obama — as reported here by my former Reagan colleague Michael Ledeen (himself a Reagan back channeler in the day) — had his own back channel going during the 2008 presidential campaign… before he was even elected president! Writes Ledeen:
During his first presidential campaign in 2008, Mr. Obama used a secret back channel to Tehran to assure the mullahs that he was a friend of the Islamic Republic, and that they would be very happy with his policies. The secret channel was Ambassador William G. Miller, who served in Iran during the shah’s rule, as chief of staff for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and as ambassador to Ukraine. Ambassador Miller has confirmed to me his conversations with Iranian leaders during the 2008 campaign.
Reader Waters has also steered me to this December 1, 1976 memo written by then-Soviet U.S. Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Dobrynin writes of a back channel opening sent to him by then-President-elect Jimmy Carter — conveyed by none other than storied Roosevelt/Stalin/Churchill envoy and ex-New York Gov. Averill Harriman. The memo reads in part:
December 1, 1976
On December 1 Harriman came to visit me.
1. He said that he had met with J. Carter on Monday, November 29, at his (i.e. Carter’s) home in the city of Plains (state of Georgia). As had been agreed, he, Harriman, had brought to Carter’s attention the messages which had been brought from Moscow on behalf of L.I. Brezhnev,1 as well as other messages which the Soviet Ambassador had expressed to him, Harriman, in accordance with the instruction to bring this information to Carter’s attention.
The “President-elect” (Carter’s current title) has authorized Harriman to convey the following answer for transmission to L.I. Brezhnev (Harriman read further from the text which he was holding):
Carter received the message from General Secretary L.I. Brezhnev and was grateful for the sentiments expressed in it. Personally, he highly values the fact that he received an expression of the views of the General Secretary. Although he does not have the possibility to conduct negotiations before assuming his position, he would like to declare that he shares the aspiration of the General Secretary for an improvement in relations between our two countries. He also recognizes the importance of mutual limitations in nuclear weapons and of bringing the arms race to a halt.
And for all those crying over the imposition of a president-elect interfering in foreign policy as still conducted by an incumbent president, forget not candidate Dwight Eisenhower promising the American people in October of 1952 that if elected: “I shall go to Korea.” He was elected — and on November 29, 1952, with more than a month and a half to go before being officially sworn-in — Eisenhower did just that. By the standards being applied to Trump and his team, this Eisenhower trip represents perhaps the most blatant interference by a president-elect during a transition period in the official affairs of the sitting president, who, in this case, was very much still President Harry Truman.
There’s more, but you get the picture. There is not just Eisenhower in Korea; there is the not-yet-President Carter, during the transition, jumping into the middle of the U.S.-Soviet relationship on an official basis and using the back channel offices of Harriman to do so.
There’s more here. But the point is crystal clear. All the yelps from Democrats and the media about Jared Kushner’s back channeling to the Russians is, shocker, either outright hypocritical or based on sheer ignorance of how three Democratic presidents — Kennedy, Carter, and Obama — treated back channels themselves. Kennedy and Carter with the Russians, Obama with the Iranians.
The simple fact of the matter is that presidents — any president — trust whom they trust. Sometimes, as was and is the case for JFK and DJT, that means a family member who is also serving in their government — Robert Kennedy and Jared Kushner. Sometimes, as with Carter and Obama, it is not a family member but rather an experienced, trusted emissary with government experience who gets the job — Harriman for Carter and Miller for Obama. In Ike’s case, who better for the commanding general of D-Day to trust in Korea than — himself?
Pretending that presidents-elect meddling in foreign policy during transitions or that presidents don’t use family members or others as back channels is somehow new, strange, out-of-the-ordinary or much less illegal, unethical, or somehow wrong is nothing more than plain, old-fashioned ignorance at best when not outright hypocrisy at worst.