An 'Accident' Of History Remembered p. 18

By: Debra Gersh Hernandez ABC News correspondent John Scali's role in bringing the Cuban
Missile Crisis to an end is commemorated by the restaurant
where his fateful meeting with a Soviet official took place sp.

JOURNALISTS DO NOT, as a rule, get involved in the stories they are covering, but the world can be grateful ABC News correspondent John Scali did just that on Oct. 26, 1962.
On that day, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Scali met with Aleksandr Fomin from the Soviet Embassy at the Occidental Grill in Washington, D.C.
Fomin, identified for many years only as "Mr. X," put forth a proposal for the withdrawal of Russian missiles in Cuba and asked Scali to submit the plan to his contacts in the State Department.
Scali did so, without jeopardizing the negotiations by reporting what he knew, and from this discussion came the deal that ended the crisis.
The Occidental Grill recently commemorated Scali's role in bringing the Cuban Missile Crisis to an end by placing a plaque and a photo of Scali over one of its booths.
The Occidental is known for displaying on its walls hundreds of black-and-white photographs of its more famous patrons.
The plaque reads: "At this table, during the tense moments of the Cuban Crisis (October 1962), a Russian offer to withdraw missiles from Cuba was passed by the mysterious 'Mr. X' to ABC-TV correspondent John Scali. On the basis of this meeting, the threat of a possible nuclear war was avoided."
As part of the dedication, the Occidental invited journalists and officials who were in Washington during the crisis, including Scali, to attend a luncheon and participate in a round-table discussion.
A number of those who could not attend sent short messages that were read aloud by discussion moderator Peter Busowski, chief editor of the weekly Inside the White House.
In his written comments, Pierre Salinger, who was President John F. Kennedy's press secretary at the time of the Cuban crisis, recalled what happened that day.
"I found Scali . . . in the hallway just outside John F. Kennedy's office, and I started to grab him out, thinking he had illegally entered this part of the White House," Salinger wrote.
"Secretary of State Dean Rusk stopped me and told me he was coming in with important information, and they wanted to talk to him. What Fomin had told him was that if the United States made a pledge not to invade Cuba, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was ready to pull his missiles out of Cuba," Salinger recalled. "That conversation with Scali led to the solution."
"I regard myself as an accident of history," Scali said. "I was minding my own business in the State Department pressroom, six days into it, when I got a call [from Fomin], requesting an urgent meeting. He asked me to find out what the reaction would be to a Soviet offer to withdraw.
"I thought I was through with it," Scali said, of relaying the message. "I did not look upon this as an offer that would make me a household name. I was sincerely interested in continuing to cover this crisis throughout, which I did."
Scali, who later became ambassador to the United Nations, said President Kennedy was insistent that the U.S. not appear to gloat and asked Scali if he would hold off on writing about his role.
"I was trying to get out from under [the agreement not to disclose what he knew]," Scali said, "but when the secretary of state and the president ask you to do something when the world is on the edge of nuclear destruction, you do it."
Two weeks before the assassination, Scali and Kennedy again discussed publicizing what had happened. Kennedy agreed to produce a handwritten letter, recognizing Scali's contribution to ending the crisis, but asked the correspondent to sit on the story while Kennedy was still in the White House.
The facts were not revealed, however, until two years later, when a reporter from Look magazine called Scali to ask him about his involvement.
"In the past years I have been deluged with comments and questions from colleagues," Scali said, many of whom were "chastising me for keeping it secret for such a long period of time.
"I generally accepted the request by President Kennedy and the secretary of state," he said. "Since then, I've learned to live with how I was scooped on my own story."
"It couldn't happen today, but, thank God, it happened then," noted Warren Rogers, a military correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune in 1962, who said the president's speech announcing the presence of missiles in Cuba "really shook up the world. It scared the devil out of everyone."
"It's remarkable when you think about a journalist who would be given, arguably, the biggest story of his career, and he would keep quiet about it for two years and then only respond to a reporter's questions and downplay his significance," wrote United Press International's Helen Thomas, who could not attend the luncheon in person.
Thomas also recalled "watching the teletype machine as the world's leaders were communicating directly with one another. Kennedy and Khrushchev communicating directly during terse moments ? not like today when world leaders communicate through one another via CNN."
Ray Scherer, NBC News White House correspondent at the time, added that "Kennedy had the luxury of not having television looking down his neck" and had "13 days to discuss and evaluate the situation" ? unlike today, when "TV cameras in front of the White House put pressure on the president."


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