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John F. Kennedy


From the Estate of Llewellyn E. Thompson,

United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union

Shortly before Thompson's crucial role as a member of the ExComm,

advising President Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis,

JFK accepts Thompson's resignation as Ambassador to the Soviet Union

in favor of his appointment as a key advisor on Soviet affairs

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1917-1963.  35th President of the United States, 1961-1963.  Typed Letter Signed, John Kennedy, one page, 6 ¾" x 8 ⅞", on stationery of The White House, Washington, [D.C.], July 10, 1962.

Some three months before the Cuban Missile Crisis that would in some ways define his presidency, Kennedy accepts the resignation of Ambassador Llewellyn E. Thompson, the United States ambassador to the Soviet Union.  He writes, in full:  I have your letter of resignation as Ambassador to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and I accept it effective on the appointment and qualification of your successor.  /  On behalf of our Government, I wish to thank you for your devoted and dedicated service.  Your career has been distinguished by continuous outstanding performance.  /  I am deeply pleased that you will shortly undertake another important assignment.”

Thompson became an Ambassador At Large and a key advisor to President Kennedy on Soviet affairs.  Soon the Ambassador was called to serve on the ExComm, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, to advise Kennedy as he wrestled with the Missile Crisis in October 1962.  The Missile Crisis pitted the United States and the Soviet Union nose to nose, closer to nuclear war than they ever had been or ever would be. 

Thompson was a vital member of the ExComm because he knew Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev so very well.  He had stayed at Khrushchevʼs private country dacha—which was highly unusual for a foreign diplomat—and had spent many hours with Khruschev, both alone and in meetings with other Soviet officials.  Secretary of State Dean Rusk called him “our in-house Russian during the missile crisis."

Thompson's role as an advisor to President Kennedy was crucial in the final decisions that resolved the crisis.  On Friday, October 26, Khrushchev sent Kennedy a conciliatory letter in which he offered to remove Soviet offensive missiles from Cuba if the United States would promise not to invade Cuba.  As Kennedy was considering that letter, the next day, October 27, Khruschev sent a much more belligerent one:  He offered to withdraw the missiles from Cuba if the United States would withdraw similar American missiles from Turkey.  Thompson argued vociferously against trading away the Turkish missiles because he knew that American allies in NATO would perceive that the United States had abandoned them.  He urged Kennedy to respond to Khrushchev's conciliatory letter and to ignore the subsequent belligerent one.  He knew that an American promise not invade Cuba would let Khrushchev off the hook, since Khrushchev could claim strategic success in avoiding an American invasion.  “The important thing for Khrushchev, it seems to me,” he said, “is to be able to say I saved Cuba; I stopped an invasion.' And he can get away with this, if he wants to, and he's had a go at this Turkey thing, and that we'll discuss later."  Thompson correctly perceived that Khrushchev did not want war but probably wrote the second, bellicose letter under scrutiny from Soviet generals and hard-line members of the Politburo.  Although Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy presented the proposal to the ExComm, Secretary of State Dean Rusk acknowledged that it was Thompsonʼs idea.  James C. Blight & David A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis 179 (1989).

Ultimately, President Kennedy took both approaches.  The ExComm meeting resulted in a letter from the President, drafted by Robert Kennedy and Ted Sorensen and edited by JFK, accepting the terms of Khrushchev's first letter.  Then, outside of the ExComm, the President met secretly in the Oval Office with a small group that included Thompson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and Robert Kennedy.  Bobby Kennedy was instructed to have a back-channel meeting with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin in order to convey clandestinely to Khrushchev that, although the President could not publicly agree to remove American missiles from Turkey, the United States would dismantle those missiles in time.  Echoing Thompson's concerns, Bobby was told to emphasize that dismantling the missiles was not a trade. 

According to the memoirs of Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrinyn, at a reception for the diplomatic corps at the end of 1962, Kennedy "expressed satisfaction at the way the whole crisis was being wound down.  He called over Llewellyn Thompson, pointed at him, and said, ʻNow I have a very good, cautious, and experienced adviser on Soviet affairs.'  I commented that, having such able advisers, it was also a good idea to listen to them."  Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence: Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents 93 (1995).

Robert Kennedy echoed the Presidentʼs respect for Thompson.  JFK, he said, “liked Tommy Thompson.  This is obviously influenced by my personal opinion, you know, and I expect it's based on the conversations that we had.  Tommy Thompson he thought was outstanding.  I also thought he was outstanding.  He made a major difference.  The most valuable people during the Cuban crisis were Bob McNamara and Tommy Thompson, I thought."  Robert Kennedy In His Own Words: The Unpublished Recollection of the Kennedy Years 420 (Edwin O. Guthman & Jeffrey Shulman eds. 1988).

This letter is in fine to very fine condition.  It has one horizontal mailing fold, which touches nothing; slight soiling at the top edge, not particularly noticeable; and two small black fountain pen marks in the blank right margin near the first paragraph.

Provenance:  This letter comes directly from the estate of Thompson, a career American diplomat who served at a critical time in history as the United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson.  Thompson was not only a member of the ExComm but was also present at Johnson's summit with Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin at Glassboro, New Jersey, in 1967.




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