October 12, 2012
The Oct. 23, 1962, issue of The Miami Herald. (Newseum collection/David Moye)

The Oct. 23, 1962, issue of The Miami Herald. (Newseum collection/David Moye)

50 Years Ago in News History: A Reporter Helps Defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis

For 13 days in 1962, from Oct. 14-28, the United States and the Soviet Union stood at the brink of nuclear war after U.S. surveillance of Cuba discovered the presence of secret Soviet missile bases.

President John F. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade to prevent the Soviets from bringing in more missiles. He warned Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev that the United States would retaliate against Moscow if a missile was fired at this country. A standoff between the two leaders heightened when neither would back down. The threat of air strikes and an invasion of Cuba appeared imminent.

Amid the crisis, an unlikely source emerged as an intermediary to help end the crisis: John Scali, a State Department correspondent for ABC News.

On Oct. 26, Scali received an urgent phone call from Soviet intelligence officer Aleksandr Fomin with an invitation to lunch. At the meeting, Fomin told Scali of a Soviet proposal to withdraw the missiles if Kennedy would agree not to invade Cuba. Fomin asked Scali to relay the message to his contacts at the State Department to see if the confrontation could be resolved peacefully.

“At times like that, a reporter has no choice. Because whatever he can do to save humanity, even just an ounce worth, he must do,” Scali said.

Scali took the information to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who relayed it to Kennedy, and over the next few days, continued to work as the government’s go-between. He kept the negotiations secret at Kennedy’s request. Tensions rose when the Russians amended their proposal by requesting that the United States abandon its military bases in Turkey. Scali accused Fomin of a “dirty, rotten, lousy, stinking double-cross.”

Kennedy issued Khrushchev a final offer through Scali. By Oct. 28, Khrushchev announced that he would remove the missiles.

After Kennedy’s assassination in November, ABC planned to tell the behind-the-scenes story of the missile negotiations. But the Los Angeles Times and Newsday scooped Scali on his own story.

Scali left ABC in 1971 and worked for two years as a foreign affairs adviser to President Richard M. Nixon. He was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1973 to 1975. He returned to ABC in 1977 and retired in 1993. He died in 1995 at age 77.

Scali’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis is featured in the News Corporation News History Gallery.

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