Khrushchev cheats at badminton

September 11, 1962

I wonder if Khrushchev has gone over the edge this time. This statement in TASS that appeared this morning is both belligerent and ridiculous at the same time. Khrushchev says that the Soviet Union is so incredibly powerful that they don’t need to put missiles in Cuba. Well, we know that’s bullshit. We discovered last year that most of the “missile sites” in Siberia were fakes, meant to fool us into believing that they had some vast nuclear strike capability. Of course, they’re not all fakes. Some are real enough. I wonder whom he thinks he is fooling.

But the part of the statement that really worries me is the threat that if we invade Cuba—something I have no intention of doing soon, or ever, if I can help it—the Soviets will go to war with us. I guess he means to imply that they will launch their nuclear weapons at us if we attack Cuba. Jesus Christ! Who the hell is the audience for a statement like that? Is he trying to intimidate me? Is he trying to reassure Castro? Or is he trying to convince his own hawks that he is willing to go all the way to nuclear war to save Castro’s regime? In the back of my mind I can’t help wondering: maybe the Soviets are putting the missiles in Cuba, after all, and Khrushchev is just stalling for however much time he thinks he needs before the weapons are operational. Some—not only that jerk Keating—but some others say that they are already convinced a missile deployment in underway on the island.

I asked Dean Rusk to issue a statement in response to the Khrushchev outburst that basically says everything is fine, there are no Soviet offensive weapons or Soviet combat troops detectable in Cuba. I have also instructed him to tell the press, on background, that this is just Khrushchev being Khrushchev: loud, prone to exaggeration, and full of boasts that are contrary to the known facts.

Rusk told me that the TASS statement reminded him of the time he played badminton with Khrushchev at his Black Sea retreat. I was surprised. I thought badminton was a child’s game, for one thing. But the idea of Rusk, who is one of the most button-downed, starchy, blue-suit guys I have ever met—the idea of Rusk playing badminton in his suit is downright hilarious. I must have betrayed my bemusement, because Dean told me that he had, after all, taken off his suit coat when he played Khrushchev. He told me that Khrushchev cheats at badminton in all sorts of ways. He also said that he never stops talking. Of course, he talks in Russian, which Dean doesn’t understand. So an interpreter stands on the sideline by the net, shouting at Khrushchev’s opponent whatever Khrushchev is shouting, only translating it into English. Rusk said this is incredibly distracting. I asked him who won. He said, “Khrushchev thinks he won.” That’s what Dean said.

Maybe Khrushchev conducts diplomacy the way he plays badminton: cheating, distracting, bragging and confusing his opponent. Except in place of whacking the badminton birdie, he has his finger on the Soviet nuclear button.