On a day in early December, one of Moscow’s agents in the United States, working undercover as a journalist for Izvestia, reported a private meeting with the president-elect’s “closest adviser.” The adviser, who met privately with the Russian spy, was frank and hopeful about a significant improvement in relations from the previous administration. He “stressed that was not merely expressing his personal opinion but the position of the future president.” The two men met alone, and there was no American record made of the encounter.
This is not a report about Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, whose activities during the transition are now being investigated. Nor it is about Jared Kushner, who, the Washington Post reported on Friday, approached Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last December to propose a secret communications channel. The meeting described above took place in 1960, and the “close adviser” was the incoming president’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy. It is not unusual for the Russians to want to establish contacts with an incoming presidential administration, especially when there is tension between the two countries. It is also not unusual for an American administration to use back channels to probe the intentions of adversarial powers. But December 1960 was not December 2016. The RFK meeting likely came at the request of the Russians, not the Americans. It was not held in secret—it was noted on RFK’s telephone log. And Robert Kennedy, despite general encouraging words, made no promises, suggested no follow-up, and was in no way working against the outgoing Eisenhower administration. The Russians were smart in focusing attention on the president-elect’s brother. He would eventually be involved in historic back channel activity, but well after the inauguration. And all these years later, such communications have been revealed as a canny and patriotic initiative by the Kennedy administration.
This Monday John F. Kennedy would have turned 100, and it has taken nearly this long to develop a full picture of his presidency: The more we learn about it, the more impressive he becomes. Much of the biographical work until recently has been filling in the gaps created by censors—mainly close allies and family members—who did not want the public image of the fallen leader to be tarnished by his addiction to sex and his physical frailties. But what should most dramatically change how we view his presidency is the flood of new information (and some of it not new but underappreciated from Russian records) about how he did his job. JFK had a taping system installed in the White House a decade before Nixon, and these recordings have only been fully opened since late 2012. Unlike the technophobic Nixon, whose taping system would turn on at the literal drop of a hat, Kennedy’s was controlled by a button usually pressed by him alone. The Kennedy tapes, and the increasing release of that era’s national security documents, are revising the picture of a very creative moment in U.S. foreign policy.