Recent scholarship has begun to shift our understanding of Cold War diplomacy, highlighting unofficial tracks and the role of public pressure groups. This article reinterprets the existing evidence and brings new documents and secret White House recordings to bear in order to explore the important but previously overlooked role that Norman Cousins, long-time editor of The Saturday Review of Literature, played in helping to move the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty forward. In 1962–1963, Cousins twice served as John F. Kennedy's emissary to Nikita Khrushchev in the hopes of unblocking the stalled process. Although Cousins played only a small part in the larger effort, he intervened at a pivotal crossroads. His direct access to both Khrushchev and Kennedy allowed him to assuage Khrushchev's intransigence and inject fresh thinking into Kennedy's approach, ultimately cumulating in the U.S. president's now famous American University speech, which is regarded as the catalyst leading to the treaty's success.

The eight-month period from the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 to the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) in August 1963 witnessed one of the largest pendulum swings in attitudes of the entire Cold War period. U.S. President John F. Kennedy and the leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Nikita Khrushchev, went from proverbially staring each other down—ready, if necessary, to launch a nuclear war—to coming together and signing what Matthew Evangelista has described as “the first significant agreement of the nuclear age.”1

The narrative of how the test ban came to fruition is well known. Both leaders realized how close they had come to annihilation during the missile crisis and thus knew they needed to step back from the brink and do something to help ease tensions. Most authors agree that Kennedy was the driving force on the U.S. side and that without his determination the treaty would never have been consummated. Glenn Seaborg contends that “the achievement of the treaty can be traced in large part to the deep commitment of President Kennedy,” but Ronald Terchek more plausibly argues that “no single component was responsible for the success of the treaty's negotiation.”2 Terchek claims that “unofficial representatives carrying messages from Kennedy to Khrushchev were often a more effective avenue in demonstrating American determination to reach an agreement.”3 Unofficial representatives, however, should not be equated with “unimportant” representatives.

Lawrence Wittner, Evangelista, and other scholars have begun to shift our understanding of Cold War diplomacy in this regard, highlighting unofficial tracks and the role of public pressure groups. This article builds on their path of scholarly inquiry by challenging previous interpretations of the LTBT. Even though the test ban is one of the most studied episodes in Cold War diplomacy, most analyses have focused on the official negotiations and grassroots pressure groups. In so doing, they overlook an important aspect of the treaty.

This article reinterprets the existing evidence and brings new documents to bear in order to explore the role that Norman Cousins, long-time editor of The Saturday Review of Literature, played in helping to move the treaty forward. In 1962–1963, Cousins twice served as Kennedy's emissary to Khrushchev in the hopes of reviving the stalled process. Although Cousins was not a direct participant in the negotiations, he served as a courier who met with the two leaders and delivered messages between them. The article highlights how Kennedy and Khrushchev used the Cousins meetings to promote their objectives quietly through “unofficial channels” and, in turn, how Cousins used his unique position and direct access to both leaders to attempt to influence the outcome of events.

Kennedy's use of Cousins during the test ban negotiations marks one of the first, and arguably the most successful, use of a “citizen diplomat” during the Cold War. This case is especially important given that the LTBT was the first major nuclear arms control treaty. An analysis of this key episode in the Cold War powerfully illustrates the influence of informal diplomacy, supporting the work of authors such as Evangelista, Wittner, and Charles DeBenedetti, who stress the need to take citizen diplomacy more seriously. The article discusses the context of the Cousins-Khrushchev meetings and then shows the influence Cousins had at numerous points, illustrating how his participation outside the direct negotiations helped keep the test ban alive.

Cousins's involvement began on the periphery in late 1962, but by early 1963 he was exerting direct influence on events. The Cousins meetings were not an alternative path to negotiations but a parallel one that dealt directly with the heads of state. Seaborg has argued that the second Cousins-Khrushchev meeting “did more than explain history—it helped to create history.”4 The fact that Seaborg, who in 1963 was chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and a member of the negotiating team, believed that Cousins “helped to create history” makes it all the more important to examine Cousins's previously overlooked role in this matter.

Cousins on the World Stage

A week after the U.S. nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, Cousins published an editorial in The Saturday Review of Literature declaring that “Modern Man Is Obsolete.” He lamented that the nuclear bomb had ushered in “the violent death of one stage in man's history and the beginning of another.” With this ghastly new weapon, he wrote, “man's survival on earth is now absolutely dependent on his ability to avoid a new war.”5 Thus began Cousins's lifelong quest for nuclear disarmament and peace.

Although Cousins was instrumental in persuading Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson to campaign in the 1956 presidential election on a test ban platform, what really established the Saturday Review editor as a leading anti-nuclear campaigner was his role in forming the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE.) In the spring of 1957, Cousins borrowed against the stock of Saturday Review and contributed $50,000 of his personal funds to set up an organization that would help end nuclear testing.6 Cousins's participation in SANE proved to be the catalyst for his later involvement in the Kennedy-Khrushchev meetings.

In early 1958, Cousins was invited to the Soviet Union under the terms of the Cultural Exchange Agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union.7 After receiving explicit encouragement for this initiative from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Cousins traveled to the Soviet Union in June 1959 and gave a speech to the official Soviet Peace Committee “about the problems that had to be faced in any basic understanding or agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union.”8 The speech touched on issues of nuclear war and weapons testing, but, most important, Cousins issued a call for private citizens to help bridge the Cold War divide through cultural exchanges such as the one he was on. He later tactfully described his audience as “politely attentive,” but, according to Wittner, “Cousins's comments on the need for private citizens’ efforts to span the Cold War divide appealed to the Peace Committee, which proposed a meeting with U.S. peace organizations.” From this was born the Dartmouth Conferences, a series of broadly based meetings of prominent U.S. and Soviet citizens, first held in October 1960.9

Why does this episode matter to the LTBT? Khrushchev was familiar with Cousins's efforts at improving U.S.-Soviet relations. According to Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, Khrushchev “had received, through the KGB [State Security Committee], direct reports from Soviet participants at transnational conferences that Cousins had sponsored.”10 In addition, Khrushchev wrote to Cousins in February 1961 in support of SANE's activities. “I hope that the activity of your committee directed toward the strengthening of world peace, will bring real fruits.”11 The encouragement was not out of character for Khrushchev, who had a habit of embracing peace activists from the non-Communist world, a fact that soon worked greatly in Cousins's favor.12

Operating in tandem with Cousins's unofficial work through SANE was the U.S. government's official test ban effort, in coordination with the British. The idea of a comprehensive nuclear test ban had been floated in one form or another since 1954. Kennedy had a strong, long-standing interest in a test ban, but the issue did not gain sufficient momentum until after the Cuban missile crisis.13 Soviet, British, and U.S. negotiators worked long hours in Geneva, hammering out the specific terms of a possible deal. What held them back was the question of on-site inspections.

If a country tried to cheat, secret atmospheric tests would be easily detectable through radiation monitors around the globe, but underground tests were easier to conceal. Under the terms of the treaty, seismographic stations would be placed across the Soviet Union, but given the high seismic activity in some areas, the United States demanded the right to conduct up to twenty on-site inspections per year to ensure that Soviet officials did not use natural seismic activity to conceal clandestine underground tests. Khrushchev's position on the issue of inspections vacillated. At times he agreed to a small number of inspections, and at other times he insisted, “we shall not accept inspection, this I say to you unequivocally and frankly.”14 The reason for Khrushchev's intransigence was his belief that inspections would enable the United States to conduct espionage on Soviet soil.15 The negotiations stalled over this point, and both sides looked for a way to break the impasse.

The First Cousins Meeting

In a memoir of the events, Cousins claims that “through a strange combination of circumstances, I found myself an emissary for Pope John to the Kremlin. An offshoot of this mission involved President Kennedy.” Cousins refers to his role as “hardly more than an asterisk in history.”16 But in fact it amounted to much more than that, as subsequent events showed.

Working with Father Felix Morlion, the president of Pro Deo University in Rome, the two men explored possibilities of communicating with Moscow for the cause of a workable peace. Morlion put forward the notion that Cousins himself might be suitable as an emissary to the Kremlin. Morlion called his Soviet contacts and expressed his belief that an individual—unofficial and unattached—might initiate an exchange of ideas. According to Cousins, “[Morlion] felt individual citizens had the responsibility to undertake initiatives which might not always be feasible or possible for officials.”17

In late November 1962, Cousins received a phone call from Soviet Ambassador Anatolii Dobrynin, informing him that his trip had been approved and that Khrushchev had agreed to meet with him. U.S. citizens were forbidden by law from holding discussions with heads of governments on matters that could have a bearing on the policies of those countries toward the United States. Cousins therefore traveled to Washington, DC, and discussed the matter of his trip with Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger. Kennedy gave his approval, and a few days later Cousins was invited back to the White House for a meeting with the president.18

Because the purpose of Cousins's trip to Moscow was to discuss Vatican business, Kennedy simply wanted Cousins to relay a message to Khrushchev. Cousins remembers Kennedy telling him,

You’ll probably be talking with Mr. Khrushchev about improving the religious situation inside the Soviet Union, and I don't know if the matter of American-Soviet relationships will come up. But if it does, he will probably say something about his desire to reduce tensions, but will make it appear that there's no reciprocal interest in the United States. It is important that he be corrected on this score. I’m not sure Khrushchev knows this, but I don't think there's any man in American politics more eager than I am to put Cold War animosities behind us and get down to the hard business of building friendly relations.19

Cousins carried this message with him when he met with Khrushchev in December 1962. The two men spoke for approximately three hours about Vatican matters, and Cousins almost missed the opportunity to relay Kennedy's message. As Cousins recounts:

I stood up to leave. I was mindful of the fact that we hadn't even discussed the matters of concern to President Kennedy. But I was also mindful that the Chairman hadn't eaten his lunch, even though we had been talking for nearly three hours and it was now almost 2:00 pm. The Chairman was reading my mind. “Please sit down,” he said. “How is President Kennedy?”20

During this discussion, Khrushchev expressed his desire to meet Kennedy “more than halfway” in reducing bilateral tensions. At the very least, the meeting helped to break the ice. On 19 December—just a few days after Cousins left Moscow—Khrushchev sent Kennedy a lengthy letter devoted entirely to the test ban issue. Kennedy was surprised and “exhilarated” upon receiving Khrushchev's letter.21 This was the first direct Soviet-U.S. communication since the missile crisis, and in the letter Khrushchev agreed to allow the United States three on-site inspections, a concession that Kendrick Oliver calls “a break with years of intractable diplomacy.”22

Although the letter was sent directly after Cousins's visit, Khrushchev based his proposals in the 19 December letter partly on a recent revelation at the Pugwash Conference in London. British scientists had announced the possibility of using unmanned “black boxes” for the remote detection of nuclear tests, thus negating the need for on-site inspections and reducing Soviet concerns about espionage. Although the United States made clear that it could not accept unmanned stations as a substitute for on-site inspections, Khrushchev's letter represented a loosening of the Soviet position.23

The impetus for Khrushchev's letter has been the subject of debate. In a careful analysis of internal Soviet political dynamics and Khrushchev's motives, Franklyn Griffiths concludes only that the first Cousins visit “may” have improved Khrushchev's reading of Kennedy's intentions.24 Certainly other factors weighed on Khrushchev as well, most obviously the fact that a round of testing was drawing to a close and his understanding that the promise of newer technologies might make on-site inspections unnecessary.25 This gave Khrushchev a freer hand to pursue the test ban that he had preferred all along.26

Khrushchev had not, in fact, changed his own views about inspection but offered the concession based on the assumption that Kennedy needed to keep calling for on-site inspections for domestic political reasons.27 Khrushchev wanted to help Kennedy convince the Senate to ratify the treaty. In turn Kennedy, by relying on Cousins to let Khrushchev know how serious the president was about the treaty, may have helped convince Khrushchev to be more receptive to moving forward. Prompted by the visit, the letter may have been Khrushchev's way of meeting Kennedy “more than halfway,” following through on what he had expressed to Cousins.

Because no records are yet available of Khrushchev's impression of the meeting, one cannot say with certainty what effect Cousins had on his thinking. What is clear, however, is that Khrushchev and Cousins parted on courteous terms, with Khrushchev extending an open invitation for future meetings: “if there's anything you ever want to talk to me about at any time, just come back and we’ll talk.”28

The Cousins meeting provided a valuable source of information about Khrushchev's mental state, and Cousins reported this information to the White House. The Soviet leader, he said, was deeply concerned about the prospect of a nuclear war and admitted that he had been “scared” during the Cuban missile crisis. Cousins noted that after he and Khrushchev discussed the ruinous aftermath of a possible nuclear war, Khrushchev's “eyes were in a blank stare.”29 In addition to his personal feelings, the Soviet leader was under a lot of pressure to see his “peaceful coexistence” policy bear fruit, if only to quiet the growing Chinese criticism that he was being duped by the imperialist West. Much of the current literature reinforces the notion that Khrushchev was shielding the test ban against Chinese criticism.30

While in Moscow, Cousins also met with Yurii Zhukov, the editor of Pravda and Khrushchev's former speechwriter, who explained that “the Chairman has to have some results for his policy” of attempting to find some agreement with the West.31 Cousins would also later remark that this is what accounted for the importance Khrushchev attached to the nuclear test ban.32

Khrushchev's long-standing spending priorities were directed toward agriculture and the civilian economy, which often put him at odds with his colleagues who favored defense.33 Many internal factors contributed to his desire for a treaty, including the ongoing (but often mired) negotiation efforts, which served to keep the treaty alive even during the lowest points. Cousins's first visit thus was by no means the only reason Khrushchev chose to move forward. However, during and after the second meeting Cousins's influence, not just on Khrushchev but on Kennedy, became more central.

Kennedy's initial exhilaration over the breakthrough letter did not last long. He replied to Khrushchev on 28 December, quashing his hopes for a test ban by writing that the United States continued to insist on eight to ten inspections.34 Khrushchev was livid because Kennedy's rejection of this offer caused him to look foolish. He had gone out on a limb and expended a good deal of effort persuading his colleagues that the USSR could accept three inspections. He later ranted to Cousins about how Eisenhower had earlier betrayed him with the U2 incident and now Kennedy's intransigence on the inspections issue “was a deeply humiliating experience.”35 Vojtech Mastny writes that “the humiliation [Khrushchev] had suffered [during the Cuban missile crisis] increased his need for a success.”36 The success he was hoping for was an agreement on the test ban, a hope quashed by Kennedy's letter.

Cousins later recounted to Kennedy what Khrushchev told the Soviet Council of Ministers about this matter:

for political reasons, to accommodate the President, I believe that we ought to accept the inspections. We need the agreement. This is what the President wants and I understand he can't get it through the Senate without on-site inspections. … I put the full weight of my prestige before the Council of Ministers and got them to accept, and the next thing I knew, things changed. … I tried to accommodate the President, I carried my part and I got slapped in the face.37

Khrushchev had encountered considerable opposition from other high-ranking Soviet officials, who had warned him not to compromise on the position of inspections. The views of these hardliners now seemed correct. Khrushchev, humiliated yet again, withdrew his offer and broke off talks in February. Nearly six years of work toward the test ban agreement was in danger of falling apart.38

Cousins was dismayed by this troubling development but was determined not to lose hope. In early February he had lunch with Kennedy adviser Ralph Dungan while on a trip to Washington. Given the renewed tensions, he asked whether a return trip to the Soviet Union might serve any useful purpose. Dungan forwarded the question to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who invited Cousins to lunch several days later.39

Cousins and Rusk met on 19 February 1963, after which Rusk generated a private memorandum of conversation.40 Although the lunch meeting was ostensibly arranged to discuss the test ban, Cousins was one of the few private U.S. citizens to have visited the Soviet Union, so Rusk was particularly interested in his descriptions of Soviet industry and technological achievements. Cousins concluded the lunch meeting by saying he would return to the USSR and asked Rusk to stay in touch if he had anything he wished to say before he left.41

Concurrently, recognizing that Khrushchev “may be the best type of Russian leader we are likely to get,” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan decided to redouble his efforts. He hoped that by taking the initiative in the test ban he would help bolster Britain's great-power status as well as his own waning political fortunes.42 In a series of long letters to Kennedy the British leader encouraged him to approach Khrushchev again. Most importantly, he succeeded in reframing the debate by imploring Kennedy to recognize that the test ban was really about a personal duty to human survival. Macmillan would leave his indelible mark by helping to convince Kennedy that positive rhetoric could play an immeasurable role.43

Meanwhile, Cousins returned to Washington on 12 March for an 80-minute meeting with Kennedy. The president mused that until the sudden change in January the Soviet leaders had seemed most eager to have a treaty. Cousins suggested that in mid-January Khrushchev had become convinced that the United States was backing away from its own proposals—proposals Khrushchev had accepted—and was therefore turning, under pressure, to a hardline posture.44 Following up on this meeting two days later, Cousins asked for Kennedy's instructions should he be able to arrange another meeting with Khrushchev. Kennedy replied, “I think you can accurately reflect a strong desire of this administration for peaceful resolutions with the Soviet Union.”45 With that single, unexceptional sentence as his guide and hoping to make use of Khrushchev's open invitation to “chat” anytime, Cousins took the initiative to contact Ambassador Dobrynin and ask whether Khrushchev might accept a second meeting. The answer was in the affirmative, and the meeting was scheduled for 12 April 1963.

Things moved quickly at this point. Dobrynin requested a meeting with Robert Kennedy on the afternoon of 3 April and informed him of Cousins's impending meeting with Khrushchev. The ambassador asked what Cousins's relationship to the president was. He then handed the attorney general a 25-page letter that would come to be known as the “rude letter,” evidently written by Khrushchev and directed to the president. The letter berated Kennedy for not standing up to aggressive circles in Washington and instead demanding Soviet concessions because he was too afraid to confront hawkish Senators.46

After hearing this, President Kennedy urgently plotted to send his brother to Moscow to straighten things out. Macmillan, in more than one letter to the president, had already emphasized his belief that sending a personal emissary to Moscow would demonstrate their seriousness. The British prime minister believed that Kennedy reaching out personally in this manner might be the only thing Khrushchev would take seriously. Hence, for the better part of a month Macmillan pushed the president to send the attorney general to meet Khrushchev.47

The purpose of the mission would be for Robert Kennedy to correct Khrushchev's misunderstanding of the White House's intentions. This idea was firmly discouraged by Rusk despite the president's assurances that his brother would make a good emissary. Instead, after being informed that Cousins had already made arrangements for a second trip and that Rusk had spoken with him about it, Kennedy again agreed to use Cousins for help, “unofficially,” in overcoming the most recent setback.48 To his credit, Kennedy also chose (in collaboration with Macmillan) to reply calmly and constructively to the “rude letter.”49

The day before Cousins departed, he received a telephone call from Kennedy, who stressed to him the need to “support the fact [with Khrushchev] that I am acting in good faith and that I genuinely want a test-ban treaty.” He also asked Cousins to “see if you can't get Premier Khrushchev to accept the fact of an honest misunderstanding. … [so] the way can be cleared for a fresh start.”50 Cousins traveled to Moscow with his two teenage daughters—it was thought that having his children along on the trip might help “soften up” Khrushchev—thus embarking on one of the most bizarre and fruitful meetings of the Cold War.51

The Second Meeting

The meeting Cousins had with Khrushchev at his Black Sea dacha lasted an unprecedented eight hours, during which the Soviet leader had lunch with Cousins, played badminton, entertained Cousins's daughters, and went for a walk around the grounds—in addition to having an intense meeting. When Cousins arrived, he found Khrushchev “angry and suspicious” but also “weighted down, even withdrawn.” This frosty start, however, soon gave way to the most fruitful of meetings.52 Khrushchev remarked that he came to his dacha whenever he had “a big egg to hatch.”53 The two men spoke frankly, covering a plethora of topics. The tone of the tense meeting vacillated between cordiality and anger, disappointment and exasperation.

The situation did not look promising. Although Khrushchev paid close attention to what Cousins was saying and claimed that he trusted the president's plea that this hang-up was just the result of a simple misunderstanding, Khrushchev was dejected. He told Cousins, “this is the end of the line for me. This [animosity between the U.S. and Soviet Union] has been going on for 40 years. If we can have it [the test ban treaty] we’ll have to have it soon.”54

Khrushchev was encountering stiff opposition in Moscow as he pushed for the test ban, and Kennedy's perceived backtracking and insistence on eight to ten inspections seemed like yet another “slap in the face.” Khrushchev's high-level CPSU colleagues, taking advantage of vulnerabilities in the wake of the missile crisis, had already reimposed much of their military and heavy industry policy.55 Khrushchev went on to explain that his advisers were pushing him to take the hardline stance they thought he should have taken all along. He lamented that he might have to swallow a “bitter pill” and resume testing.56

At this point in the meeting Cousins packed his briefcase and stood up to leave. When Khrushchev asked what he was doing, Cousins explained: “I’m going home … it's clear that I’ve failed and am going home and I’m going to have to confess my failure to the president. I had hoped to be able to convince you that he was acting in good faith … apparently I failed in that.”57 Khrushchev urged him to sit down, commending his “human touch,” and said that he was willing to give the whole thing a second chance but that he had expended all of his political capital. For the treaty to move forward, Kennedy would have to take the next step.58 With that, Cousins returned to Washington unsure of himself, fearing he had tried Khrushchev's patience.59

Cousins and Kennedy

Cousins's lengthy meeting with Khrushchev revealed a side of the man that few Westerners had such an intimate opportunity to experience: “He was a lonesome figure who gave the impression of being gregarious. He was a man who obviously managed to take time in his own life for sustained and sequential thought … he was supposed to be crude, yet I had seen that he was capable of gentility, kindness, and great courtesy.”60

After returning to the United States, Cousins met with Kennedy in an Oval Office meeting on 22 April that Kennedy secretly recorded. Kennedy listened intently to Cousins's report, rarely interrupting. These tapes offer a unique insight and a rare unadulterated primary source from a president who was notorious for not keeping records of his meetings.61 On the recording, Cousins recounts for Kennedy the entire visit from his thorough notes, even including painstaking details such as the fact that Khrushchev had two glasses of wine and half a glass of brandy with lunch.62

During the meeting Cousins began to use his intimate knowledge of the issue and his growing credibility with Kennedy to propose some fresh thinking. Knowing that the negotiations were at an impasse, that the issue of inspection numbers was likely to be a political minefield, and mindful of Khrushchev's warning that Kennedy must be the one to take the next step, Cousins laid out a bold proposal to Kennedy:

Maybe what we ought to do is not to call now for a definite treaty but to propose a trial period of six months. We can say it to the Senate to the country and to them, and many questions that we can't anticipate and any questions that can only be worked out in terms of actual experience ought to have a six month trial go of this thing to see what the problems are. … This leaves us free at the end of six months, of course, to pick up and go our own way. But in the meantime it provides a basis or a one step really into something a little more consequential.63

Kennedy interrupted at this point and remarked that one of the negatives of the plan would be that it would cost millions of dollars to set up the equipment and then it would be used for only six months. However, a few minutes later, Kennedy remarked that he liked the idea of the trial period and wanted Cousins to draft “a page or so” proposal explaining how it would work. Kennedy averred, “I really want to put something different because we’re at a dead end right now and I’m afraid the whole thing will collapse.”64 He maintained this pessimistic attitude even outside the Oval Office, remarking during a news conference on 8 May, “I would say that I am not hopeful at all.”65

This negative attitude toward the test ban was quite a change for Kennedy, who, just a month earlier had remarked to Cousins that he was not a defeatist and expected a lively fight but was “genuinely eager to reach an agreement, and that he was prepared to do everything possible towards that end.”66 Khrushchev's comment that this was the end of the line for him and Kennedy's fear of the whole thing collapsing show that both men held little hope.

What Kennedy did not know is that three days later Khrushchev apparently turned the corner. According to Mastny, on 25 April Khrushchev secretly proposed to the CPSU Presidium that they forgo the comprehensive ban and move ahead with a limited treaty that allowed for continued underground testing.67 Khrushchev may have made his mind up in principle, but he told Cousins he was still waiting for Kennedy to “reach out and take the next step” before the Soviet Union would announce anything publicly. The Soviet leader, having largely expended his political capital and already gone out on a limb once for Kennedy, was not eager to risk making a fool of himself again without assurances.

Even as Khrushchev was deliberating about the matter in Moscow, Cousins was dining with Ambassador Dobrynin in Washington. Summarizing the recent meetings with both Kennedy and Khrushchev and listening to Dobrynin's response, Cousins ominously noted: “I thought it significant that he did not refute my view that the Chairman felt he had come to the end of the line in his attempt to show tangible results for his basic policies.”68 The ambassador told Cousins “the situation is not now very good and seems to be moving in the wrong direction. … I cannot just express an optimistic view about the President's intentions; they will want to know whether I can point to anything specific that can support a feeling of optimism.”69 The dinner with Dobrynin could only have reinforced Cousins's sense of urgency that Kennedy needed to seize the moment to make a specific grand overture, lest Khrushchev grow tired of waiting.

A Breakthrough in the Form of a Speech

Not knowing that Khrushchev had already decided to move forward with a limited ban, Cousins was increasingly concerned that the Soviet leader was pondering a major shift in policy aimed at unifying the Communist world and confronting the West from a position of strength. Bolstered by his conversation with Dobrynin and growing increasingly concerned that their window of opportunity was quickly closing, Cousins again wrote to the president on 30 April.

Arguably, this is the letter that changed everything. Imploring Kennedy to make a “determined fresh start,” Cousins stressed that “the moment is now at hand for the most important single speech of your Presidency.” He envisioned a speech that took a friendly tone toward the Soviet Union, acknowledging the country's tragic losses in the Second World War and advocating for the human interest. Cousins expected that a speech of this sort would create a groundswell of support for U.S. leadership, be difficult for Khrushchev to disparage, and blanket both the internal and external opposition for the test ban. If delivered soon, Cousins believed, such a speech could help clinch the treaty.70

A month passed before Cousins received a call from Kennedy's close aide and speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, requesting that they meet at the White House. Sorensen told him that Kennedy had given him Cousins's letter and wanted to go ahead with the idea. According to Sorensen, although Kennedy had been pondering giving a speech on the general topic of “peace,” Cousins's letter is what inspired the president to embrace the idea fully.71 The administration decided that the American University commencement address would be the perfect venue for the bold “fresh start” Cousins had proposed. At this point, the idea had been discussed with no one else. The president and a few of his closest aides wanted a nimble, effective speech that would not be watered down by the bureaucracy. This was to be a speech written without interference, and Cousins was to have a central part in it. Kennedy, via Sorensen, asked Cousins to submit more of his thoughts.

Cousins fulfilled his task with vigor, submitting a sixteen-page draft on 1 June.72 Using Cousins's draft as a basis, the speech was hastily crafted by a small group of advisers who purposely bypassed the relevant departments that would normally have been involved in the drafting of a major foreign policy speech. According to Sorensen, Kennedy did not want the speech diluted by the usual threats of destruction and boasts about nuclear stockpiles.73 After McGeorge Bundy and Carl Kaysen offered their input and Kennedy made some changes, Averell Harriman, who had been intimately involved in the test negotiations, encouraged Kennedy not to change it further.74 Only after the speech had been delivered did Kennedy inform his administration that this was to be their new agenda.75

Cousins's influence on this important moment in history can clearly be seen in the American University speech. A substantial proportion of it can be directly attributed to language in the draft Cousins submitted, with many phrases used verbatim. A detailed analysis of Cousins's Saturday Review editorials reveals that much of the phrasing, rhetoric, and ideas espoused within the speech can be traced back to Cousins's earlier articles. Not to mention that the very idea of giving the speech was Cousins's in the first place. After the intimate conversations with both Khrushchev and Dobrynin, Cousins felt the urgency inherent in the situation and understood that Khrushchev was waiting for Kennedy to take a bold step, a step that had to be taken soon for Khrushchev to deflect Chinese pressure.76 The speech could not have come at a better time. On 8 June 1963, just two days before Kennedy delivered his commencement address, Khrushchev again complained about the need to treat the Soviet Union as an equal.77 Kennedy's words thus gave Khrushchev the assurance he needed that he could safely announce his previous decision to move forward with a limited ban without the risk of looking foolish again.

Although it would later be called “the most remarkable speech by a U.S. president in the Cold War era,” the speech received surprisingly little attention in the United States at the time.78 The following day, Cousins wrote to congratulate Kennedy, calling the speech “that rare event when a man speaks both to the moment and to the next generation.”79 Sorensen later remarked that the signal Khrushchev was waiting for was loud and clear.80 Although U.S. officials did not know it at the time, Khrushchev told his staff that the speech was the best given by a U.S. president since Roosevelt.81 The Kennedy administration waited with bated breath for the response from Moscow. A tense twelve hours passed before the news finally broke—the Soviet press had published the speech in its entirety, which was interpreted as an unprecedented positive sign.82 Days later, Cousins wrote to Khrushchev congratulating him on publishing the speech in full, telling him it was a “friendly act and will have a positive bearing on our relations.”83

Cousins's influence in this matter is clear. His second meeting “warmed” Khrushchev to the point where he was willing to break the impasse if Kennedy was willing to make a clear overture. With his sophisticated and realistic view of Soviet policy and having had private, direct conversations with both Khrushchev and Dobrynin, Cousins possessed a thoroughly informed opinion of what needed to be done to elicit an agreement from Khrushchev. Drawing on this experience, he proposed the conciliatory “peace speech” idea that ended up being the signal he knew Khrushchev was waiting for. Not only did the speech indicate to Khrushchev that Kennedy was serious about the treaty, but Kennedy used the speech opportunity to circumvent his internal opposition and propose a whole new approach to the Soviet Union—an approach that recognized it as an equal. Cousins, through his intimate personal discussions with Khrushchev, had been able to get a feel for his psyche, empathizing with his position, and thus knew that this rhetoric would be immensely appealing to Khrushchev.

Concurrently, Khrushchev was doing an end run of his own. He complained to Cousins during his April visit that U.S. leaders did not understand his predicament. He insisted he was not an all-powerful tyrant who could dictate his terms and get whatever he wanted. He had to lobby, petition, and convince, just as Kennedy did—something that was difficult given the conflicting views within the CPSU Presidium.84 But Khrushchev received a bit of luck on 11 April 1963 when Frol Kozlov—a powerful party hardliner—was incapacitated by a stroke, allowing Khrushchev new room to maneuver.85 That same day, by coincidence, the CPSU's main theoretical journal “discovered” and printed a document by Vladimir Lenin on the utility of supporting realistic elements in the West through concessions.86 Still, the Kennedy administration waited with great anticipation until 2 July, when Khrushchev gave his “official” response during a speech in East Berlin.

The fact that Cousins was not linked to the official negotiations helped his cause. His role as a liaison to both leaders allowed him to foster communication and understanding, helping to clear the air at a pivotal moment. His mission was not an alternative to negotiations but a parallel track that supplemented what the negotiators, to that point, had been unable to achieve.

Although the official negotiations were uniquely resilient—even continuing after the Soviet Union resumed testing—they made little progress because neither side was ready to trust the other or offer the concessions necessary to allow a deal to happen.87 Only after Kennedy's speech “reset” the tone of U.S.-Soviet relations was progress made at a rapid pace, with a treaty being signed within two months. The challenge from that point on was to persuade a skeptical Congress to ratify the treaty.

At first the mail arriving at the White House indicated that voters were heavily against the treaty, but Cousins led an impressive public campaign in which Kennedy actively participated. Gradually, support for the treaty grew, and it was passed on 24 September 1963.88

By at least one measure Cousins actually had little real influence. What he and SANE were campaigning for was a comprehensive test ban (and, ideally, complete nuclear disarmament). The realist in Cousins, however, did not let his personal ideas carry him into the realm of the infeasible. He later stated:

If I were in government, would I just want to get rid of the weapons altogether? Is this what I wanted Kennedy to do? Could he do it? And so I did have that ambivalence between my own conviction … and the specific problems that [faced] a president of a country. … I continued as an individual to talk about the folly of such weapons. But in doing things for the president, I tried to recognize that he was working inside an entirely different context.89

This episode has implications beyond just the LTBT and can expand our understanding about how diplomacy was practiced during the Cold War. The Cousins meetings were a prime example of what today would be called “Track II diplomacy.” Joseph Montville, coauthor of the 1981 article that legitimized Track II diplomacy even gives Cousins the distinction of having been the first Track II diplomat, a role he adopted after Eisenhower remarked to him, “I can't talk to the Soviets, but somebody better.”90 At Eisenhower's urging Cousins went on to found the Dartmouth Conferences for this very purpose of informal conversation.

Track II diplomacy, or “citizen diplomacy” as it was referred to at the time, overcomes the limitations of formal diplomacy by offering an unofficial, informal, noncommittal communications channel for exploring possible solutions without the need to negotiate. Montville says, “the goal is to take the edge off of resentments.”91 Ronald Fisher points out that citizen diplomacy allows unreceptive parties to look at the human relationships and overcome mistrust and hostility. This is precisely what Cousins's meetings did, with Khrushchev even commending his “human touch.”92

However, citizen diplomacy cannot function without a political atmosphere conducive to attempts made to solve the problems encountered. Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Macmillan all had strong personal and political reasons to see the treaty successfully completed. Spurred on in part by Macmillan's urging, Kennedy was open to using Cousins as his emissary to Khrushchev, a gesture the Soviet leader welcomed and took seriously.

To be sure, Cousins was only one small part of a multifaceted, years-long negotiation effort to end nuclear testing. However, the evidence shows that he intervened at a pivotal crossroads. His direct, private access to Khrushchev allowed him to understand the precarious position in which the Soviet leader found himself. Although Khrushchev may have already made the decision to pursue a limited treaty, he still needed a public overture from Kennedy in order to fortify his position and convince him that he would not look the fool once more. With a keen awareness of this fact, Cousins served this purpose well, helping to restore Khrushchev's pride and get him to agree to overlook perceived slights. Back in the United States, he injected the situation with fresh, unorthodox thinking by floating his idea for a “trial period” and then, and most important, serving as the driving force behind the American University speech. That speech, infused with Cousins's inspiring words—words and ideas he knew would appeal to Khrushchev—was the bold next step, the guarantee Khrushchev had been waiting for before moving forward with his decision to pursue a limited test ban.

The eight-month period from October 1962 to July 1963 witnessed the world's two most powerful countries move from being moments away from nuclear war to agreeing to sign a groundbreaking nuclear test ban treaty. In subsequent years much praise has been directed at the two leaders for taking this step toward peace. The new evidence presented here suggests that, although the two leaders deserve their fair share of the praise, historians should not overlook the pivotal role Track II diplomacy and Norman Cousins played in the consummation of this momentous agreement.



Matthew Evangelista, Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 46.


Glenn Seaborg, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Test Ban (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. xiv; and Ronald Terchek, The Making of the Test Ban Treaty (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970), p. 4.


Terchek, The Making of the Test Ban Treaty, p. 18.


Seaborg, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Test Ban, p. 207.


Norman Cousins, “Modern Man Is Obsolete,” The Saturday Review of Literature, 18 August 1945, pp. 5–10.


Charles DeBenedetti, ed., Peace Heroes of Twentieth-Century America (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 180–181; and “Untitled Notes by Fran Thompson,” 1970, in Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles, Box 1194, Folder: Francis Thompson 2 (hereinafter referred to as Norman Cousins Papers).


Norman Cousins, Present Tense: An American Editor's Odyssey (New York: McGraw-Hall, 1967), p. 291.


Ibid.; and Interview with Norman Cousins, Part 1 of 3, available online at http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/wpna-0c4603-interview-with-norman-cousins-1986-part-1-of-3.


Lawrence Wittner, The Struggle against the Bomb, Vol. 1: Resisting the Bomb (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 314. On the Dartmouth Conferences, see James Voorhees, Dialogue Sustained: The Multilevel Peace Process and the Dartmouth Conference (Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2002).


Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958–1964 (New York: Norton, 1997), pp. 126–127.


Nikita Khrushchev to SANE, 25 February 1961, in Swarthmore College, Philadelphia, Swarthmore College Peace Collection (SCPC), SANE Records, Corres. & Related Papers, 1961–1962.


Evangelista, Unarmed Forces, p. 47.


David Tal, The American Disarmament Dilemma 1945–1963 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2008), p. 170.


Vojtech Mastny, “The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: A Missed Opportunity for Détente?” Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Winter 2008), p. 8.


Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, Khrushchev's Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary (New York: Norton, 2006), p. 508.


Norman Cousins, The Improbable Triumvirate: John F. Kennedy, Pope John, Nikita Khrushchev (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), p. 10.


Cousins, The Improbable Triumvirate, p. 21.


Cousins was already somewhat well-acquainted with Kennedy, having corresponded with him throughout his term. He had even met with him earlier in 1962 about an unrelated issue.


Cousins, The Improbable Triumvirate, pp. 24–25.


Ibid., p. 53.


Wittner, Resisting the Bomb, p. 417.


Kendrick Oliver, Kennedy, Macmillan and the Nuclear Test-Ban Debate, 1961–63 (London: Macmillan Press, 1998), p. 145.


Seaborg, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Test Ban, pp. 177–178.


Franklyn Griffiths, “The Soviet Experience of Arms Control,” International Journal, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Spring 1989), p. 321.


Oliver, Nuclear Test-Ban Debate, p. 138.


Tal, The American Disarmament Dilemma, p. 218.


Ibid., p. 217.


Tape 82 (2 of 3), in John F. Kennedy Library (JFKL), President's Office Files, Presidential Recordings.


“Notebook 2—Interview with Khrushchev,” n.d., in Norman Cousins Papers, Vatican Visits, 1963 Khrushchev, Box 1219, Folder 1—NC Notebooks 1962.


Mastny, “The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty”; and Gordon Chang, “JFK, China, and the Bomb,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 4 (March 1988), pp. 1287–1310.


“Memorandum of Conversation with Norman Cousins,” 19 February 1963, in JFKL, NSF, Box: 188, Folder: Khrushchev Talks—Norman Cousins, Gardner Cowles, 4/20/62–4/22/63, Item 1A, 3, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the author.


Norman Cousins, “More about Khrushchev,” The Saturday Review, 21 November 1964, p. 14.


Cousins also notes that during their discussion Khrushchev remarked that he thought his most important policy was improving the standard of living. See “Notebook 2—Interview with Khrushchev.”


“Message from President Kennedy to Chairman Khrushchev,” 28 December 1962, in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Vol. 6, pp. 238–240 (hereinafter referred to as FRUS, with appropriate year and volume numbers).


Tape 82 (2 of 3).


Mastny, “The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” p. 24.


Tape 82 (2 of 3).


Dobrynin writes in his memoirs that Glenn Seaborg later told him with regret that he was the one who pushed Kennedy to bargain for more inspections, thinking the two sides would settle somewhere in the middle. Seaborg said if he had known that Khrushchev would withdraw the offer, he would have pushed Kennedy to accept the proposal. See Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence: Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents (1962–1986) (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 102.


Cousins, The Improbable Triumvirate, p. 78.


“Memorandum of Conversation with Norman Cousins,” 19 February 1963.




Oliver, Kennedy, Macmillan and the Test Ban, pp. 153, 160.


Ibid., pp. 162–163.


“Private Discussion with the President,” 12 March 1963, in Norman Cousins Papers, Box 1206, Folder: Kennedy, John F. (13).


“Letter from Kennedy to Cousins,” 15 March 1963, in Norman Cousins Papers, Box 1206, Folder: Kennedy, John F. (13).


“Memorandum from Attorney General Kennedy to President Kennedy,” 3 April 1963, in FRUS, 1961–1963, Vol. 6, p. 262; and William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (New York: Norton, 2003), p. 584.


Oliver, Kennedy, Macmillan and the Test Ban, pp. 166, 174; and Harold Macmillan, At the End of the Day, 1961–1963 (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 463.


Fursenko and Naftali, Khrushchev's Cold War, p. 517.


Mastny, “The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” p. 15.


Cousins, The Improbable Triumvirate, p. 80.


Cousins's teenage daughter Andrea kept a hand-written journal during the trip and documented some of the more bizarre aspects of the encounter, including her impressions of Khrushchev. See “Notes by Andrea,” 12 April 1963, in Norman Cousins Papers, Box 1220, Folder 1—Gagra.


Cousins, The Improbable Triumvirate, pp. 82–97; and Wittner, Resisting the Bomb, p. 49.


“Notebook 2—Interview with Khrushchev.”


“Visit of Mr. Norman Cousins to the Soviet Union,” 22 April 1963, in JFKL, Papers of President Kennedy, NSF, Countries, Box 188, Item 2A, 1.


Griffiths, “The Soviet Experience of Arms Control,” p. 319.


Tape 82 (3 of 3), in JFKL, President's Office Files, Presidential Recordings.


Interview with Norman Cousins, Part 2 of 3, available online at http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/wpna-0c4603-interview-with-norman-cousins-1986-part-2-of-3.


Tape 82 (3 of 3).


Cousins, The Improbable Triumvirate, p. 118.


Ibid., p. 110.


Because Kennedy himself controlled the recording device, the existence of this tape indicates that he thought the Cousins meeting was important enough to warrant recording.


Tape 82 (2 of 3).






Tal, The American Disarmament, p. 225.


“Private Discussion with the President,” 12 March 1963.


Mastny, “The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” p. 15.


“Memorandum on Meeting with Dobrynin,” 26 April 1963, in Norman Cousins Papers, Box 1206, Folder: Kennedy, John F. (13).




Norman Cousins to President Kennedy, 30 April 1963, in Norman Cousins Papers, Box 1206, Folder: Kennedy, John F. (13).


Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 730.


An original copy of Cousins's draft can be found in Norman Cousins Papers, Box 1149, Folder 15: “Kennedy Staff.”


Sorensen, Kennedy, pp. 729–730.


“Theodore Sorensen Oral History Interview,” 15 April 1964, in JFKL.


Andreas Wagner and Marcel Gerber, “John F. Kennedy and the Limited Test Ban Treaty: A Case Study of Presidential Leadership,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 2 (June 1999), p. 472.


“Norman Cousins Oral History,” p. 420, in Norman Cousins Papers.


Mastny, “The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” p. 17.


Wittner, Resisting the Bomb, p. 421.


Norman Cousins to President Kennedy, 11 June 1963, in Norman Cousins Papers, Box 1206, Folder: Kennedy, John F. (13).


Sorensen, Kennedy, p. 733.


Taubman, Khrushchev, p. 602.


Wittner, Resisting the Bomb, p. 421; and Cousins, The Improbable Triumvirate, p. 125.


Norman Cousins to Nikita Khrushchev, 17 June 1963, in Norman Cousins Papers, Box 1219, Folder 6: NC/Khrushchev Correspondence.


Tape 82 (2 of 3).


Roderick MacFarquhar, Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Vol. 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), p. 357.


Griffiths, “The Soviet Experience of Arms Control,” p. 320.


Tal, The American Disarmament Dilemma, p. 194.


For details about the role of public pressure in the ratification of the LTBT, see Terchek, The Making of the Test Ban Treaty. Kennedy sent personalized letters to prominent national business leaders to implore them to support the treaty. See SANE National Office, Corres. & Related Papers, SPC.


“Norman Cousins Oral History,” pp. 418–419.


M. J. Zuckerman, “Can ‘Unofficial’ Talks Avert Disaster?” Carnegie Reporter, Vol. 3, No. 3, (Fall 1995), pp. 7–11.




Ibid.; and Tape 82 (3 of 3).