35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Tommy Thompson — The Kremlinologist

Published: Nov 19, 2018
Briefing Book #648

Compiled and edited by Jenny and Sherry Thompson with contribution from Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Washington, D.C., November 19, 2018 - Today, the National Security Archive is publishing a set of documents to commemorate the life and achievements of long-time diplomat and presidential adviser Llewellyn Thompson and highlight the publication of a biography of him written by his daughters, Jenny Thompson and Sherry Thompson, The Kremlinologist: Llewellyn E. Thompson, America's Man in Cold War Moscow (Johns Hopkins Nuclear History and Contemporary Affairs, 2018).  The posting includes never-before-published translations of Russian memcons with Khrushchev and Thompson’s cables from Moscow.  

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Introduction to the posting The Kremlinologist

By Jenny and Sherry Thompson

Llewellyn Thompson was a career diplomat whose life went from the wilds of the rural Southwest at the beginning of the 20th Century to the inner sanctums of the White House and Kremlin. He became an important advisor to Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon and a key participant in major 20th century events - the birth of the U.N., the Truman Doctrine, the Austrian State Treaty, Nixon’s visit to Moscow, Khrushchev’s visit to the U.S. and the summit with Eisenhower creating the “spirit of Camp David,” the beginning of détente. This was followed by the shooting down of Gary Powers’ U-2, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the Glassboro summit, the Six Day War, and the first serious disarmament SALT talks.

Thompson joined the Foreign Service in 1928 and served early tours in Ceylon and Geneva, where he was a representative at the International Labor Organization. He was posted to Moscow as a young Foreign Service Officer during World War II, from 1941 to 1944. When the diplomatic corps and most of the Soviet government (except Stalin and Molotov) fled to Kuibyshev during the German siege of Moscow, Thompson stayed behind to take care of U.S. and allied interests, for which he later earned the Medal of Freedom.

During this time, Thompson recognized that his government did not understand the nature and structure of the Soviet government. He wrote a long paper trying to explain this and Soviet foreign policy, and gave it to his colleague, George Kennan, to edit. Thompson and Kennan were close friends during the Wartime period and remained friends, although not as close as in those days. Kennan kept Thompson’s paper for a year and then sent it back unaltered. He wrote his own Long Telegram six months later. The critical differences between the two treatises were the timing and the conclusions. Thompson’s was written in 1944 before President Roosevelt’s death (April 1945) and Kennan’s just after Stalin’s strident speech of February 9, 1946. Thompson concluded that, if the U.S. government could understand the characteristics of the Soviet system and foreign policy, it could still be possible to deal with them. Thompson’s paper has never seen the light of day, until now.

In 1950, Thompson was posted again overseas, first to Rome and then to Austria as ambassador and high commissioner. There he secretly spearheaded the negotiations on the Trieste settlement between Italy and Yugoslavia, and helped finalize the Austrian State Treaty, reestablishing Austrian sovereignty and providing for the only instance of the complete removal of Soviet troops from a previously occupied territory in Europe. Just before leaving Austria to become ambassador to Moscow, the Hungarian uprising of 1956 forced thousands of refugees across the border into Austria, their plight taking a back seat to the Suez Canal crisis unfolding at the same time.

Thompson’s forthrightness and wartime experience in Moscow helped him develop a special relationship with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev realized that Thompson was trying to work toward better relations between the two countries and that he was always straightforward with the Soviet premier. This allowed for fascinating and often frank meetings between the two men. During the eventful times in his five-year appointment, Thompson saw the timid beginnings of détente. He strongly advocated for cultural and scientific exchanges, was the first American official to appear on Soviet television, the opening of the American Exhibition in Moscow, including the infamous Kitchen Debate between Vice President Nixon and Khrushchev. He also advocated for Khrushchev to come to the United States. Unfortunately, this was followed by the Gary Powers U-2 incident which proved the death knell for the follow-up four-powers summit in Paris. Contrary to the stated excuse for delaying the U-2 spy plane over Soviet territory until May Day, the weather covering Powers’ flight plan was no worse and sometimes better than May 1st during the original window in which the flight was supposed to take place. Thompson was furious; he did not know about the U-2, having been told those flights had been cancelled. He didn’t think Eisenhower knew about the flight either.

Thompson encouraged Kennedy to meet Khrushchev in Vienna, despite the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion because he had witnessed the personal contact between Eisenhower and Khrushchev in September 1959 and believed it had been beneficial. However, the Berlin Crisis, which wove through the entire Cold War, affected this and virtually everything else at that meeting.  At the Eisenhower/Khrushchev summit at Camp David, first steps were taken to at least discuss the issue. The subsequent 1961 Vienna summit was important because Khrushchev would test Kennedy’s resolve on Berlin and a meeting between the two men could possibly find a way to put the crisis on hold. In preparation for the summit, a series of briefing cables to the Department were sent from Bonn and from Thompson in Moscow. The Bonn Embassy wanted Kennedy to be tough and back Khrushchev against the wall. Thompson warned against such a tactic. He advised Kennedy not to saw off the limb onto which Khrushchev had climbed. Following Bonn’s advice might leave the president between the choice of “all-out war or ignominious retreat.” 

Years later, some academics concluded Thompson had ill-prepared Kennedy for the summit because he wrote that Khrushchev would deal with Berlin in a “sweetness and light atmosphere.” In fact the opposite was true. For some reason part of the sentence where Thompson used that expression had been left out of the quote. Actually, Thompson was warning the department that brushing over Berlin in sweetness and light was a typical Khrushchev tactic when discussing recognition for East Germany, and if he tried that in Vienna Kennedy should be prepared to force the issue and make sure the U.S. position on Berlin was clear. In hindsight, Thompson believed that Kennedy came though on this in Vienna.

Thompson’s long experience in negotiating with Communists allowed him to correctly anticipate Khrushchev’s reactions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This made him more than just another man around the table. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk described, it made him “our Russian in the Room.” Perhaps Thompson’s greatest contribution during those 13 days in October was to shift the perspective from striking Cuba with or without prior notification to Khrushchev, to getting Khrushchev to stop the shipments of additional materiel to Cuba with a quarantine, and then to get the Soviets to take the missiles out themselves under threat of a strike.

After receipt of the two Khrushchev letters, on “Black Saturday” of the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 27), the president and his closest advisors had narrowed the inevitable options to get the Soviet missiles out of Cuba down to two: either a military strike would occur the following Tuesday or Kennedy would capitulate to Khrushchev´s demands and trade the NATO missiles in Turkey for the Soviet ones in Cuba. Kennedy looked at the men sitting around the oval table and said, “We’re not going to get these weapons out of Cuba, probably… by negotiation. We’re going to have to take our weapons out of Turkey.” To everyone´s surprise Thompson, a normally reticent participant in discussions unless specifically addressed, now said, “I don´t agree, Mr. President.” Thompson still believed the Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuba without the trade. Thompson´s intervention won him the unusual distinction of being branded both a Hawk and Dove. So what was he? Henry Brandon, the Washington correspondent for The Sunday Times of London, called him the Cold War Owl.

Writing the book was for us quite an adventure and self-educating process. We needed to teach ourselves how to do archival research, how to footnote and reference, how to question secondary sources, and look for the primary source that would clarify our doubts. We needed to learn about the history of the events we were dealing with. In the end we both decided that even if the book did not go further than a self-published record for the family, it was well worth the effort and left us both better educated, wiser, and with a sense of understanding for the times we had lived through and to better assess the events unfolding today. That is why we are so pleased to share some of the documents that we used through the National Security Archive, which was so useful to us during our research.


The documents


[1] The document that RFK refused to accept was made available to the State Department by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Department of History and Records in 1995 and is available in the FRUS online. 1961-1963, Vol. VI, Kennedy-Khrushchev Exchanges, Doc. 93

[2] Excerpt from Sorensen article in Der Weiner Gipfel 1961 Kennedy – Chruschtchow, Stefan Karner, Barbara Stelzl-Marx, Natala Tomilina, Alexander Tschubarjan, et al editors, Studien Verlag; Auflage: zahlreiche s/w-Abbildungen (28. April 2011): “Later, when I read the detailed transcripts of the summit talks, both in preparation for the President’s speech later that summer and subsequently in drafting my 1965 book, Kennedy, I found no bullying or contempt. Neither man retreated from his respective ideological views and national interests, neither showed any disrespect or incivility for the other.”
Excerpt from Thompson and Thompson presentation at Der Weiner Gipfel 1961 Kennedy – Chruschtchow: When it was over, Thompson reported that the conference had gone ‘as expected.’  Given that Kennedy was not prepared to help Khrushchev put out the fuse he had lit under himself in starting the Berlin Crisis and that Khrushchev had nothing to offer in the way of a test ban or disarmament agreement, there was not much to expect beyond the two leaders getting an impression of each other.  He believed Kennedy had come out all right because he reacted very well to Khrushchev´s threatening attitude over Berlin. It had an important effect on Khrushchev. Schlesinger is said to have quoted Thompson as thinking Kennedy overreacted. He probably meant Kennedy had overreacted in thinking that he had done badly when actually the main message Khrushchev got was that there was going to be no compromise on access rights to Berlin. This was a good thing; otherwise it could have been ‘very dangerous indeed.’… For Bohlen and Thompson, Khrushchev’s ideological speeches were nothing new, so much so that Bohlen fell asleep in the middle and had to be woken up by Thompson kicking him in the ankle.”
From Bohlen, Charles E., Witness to History. W. W. Norton, 1973, page 482:  “The general impression that emerged from the meeting was that Khrushchev was trying to intimidate the new president with his tough talk. I did not receive that impression.” (He goes on to say that the talk left a lasting impact on Kennedy and conditioned him for crises in Berlin and Cuba.)

[3] Authors’ 2010 telephone conversations with Theodore Sorensen; and Thompson Oral History for Kennedy Library