Oleg Penkovsky and JFK

As I mentioned in a previous post, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Pres. Kennedy had a Soviet ace in the hole named Oleg Penkovsky. Here, from a history book I co-wrote a while back, is a little further exposition of Penkovsky’s impact on world history.

On Oct. 15, 1962, an American U2 spy plane took pictures of nuclear missile bases being built in Cuba by the Soviet Union. The Cuban Missile Crisis had begun. President John F. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba in order to prevent Soviet completion of the bases. The world wondered if this event would begin World War III, but 13 days after the standoff began, it ended. America pledged not to invade Cuba, and the Soviets agreed to dismantle the missile sites. The young president had stared down the Soviet Union.

But Kennedy didn’t win the staring contest on guts and Massachusetts accent alone.  A disenchanted Soviet military intelligence officer and spy named Oleg Penkovsky had been giving Soviet military secrets to the British and Americans since 1961. Included in Penkovsky’s treasures was the knowledge that the Russians’ intercontinental ballistic missiles based in the Soviet Union couldn’t reach America. Armed with this knowledge, as well as the assessment of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Kennedy was able to call the Soviets’ bluff, avert disaster and add to his reputation as a skilled and brave politician.

Penkovsky wasn’t as lucky as Kennedy. The man now referred to as “the spy who saved the world” was arrested by KGB on Oct. 22, 1962, the same day Kennedy gave a speech
in which he stated, “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” Penkovsky was executed in May 1963.

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