Andrei Gromyko, elder statesman of the Soviet Union, has given his first public account of his White House confrontation with President Kennedy on the eve of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
He described the meeting as "probably the most difficult that I ever experienced in all my 48 years of meeting presidents of the United States."Gromyko, in an interview to be televised in Britain Monday, portrays a "nervous" Kennedy who did not directly challenge him with the fact that U.S. intelligence had detected Soviet missiles in Cuba.
He dismissed reports, made at the time, that he had denied the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
"Kennedy never raised the question of the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. I repeat, he never mentioned it. Thus, I didn't have to give a direct reply as to whether there were such weapons in Cuba or not," said the veteran Kremlin diplomat.
Gromyko was apparently surprised at the U.S. failure to confront the issue directly. What he did not know was that Kennedy and his advisers had decided not to challenge him with their evidence because they were not then sure how far the U.S. should go in seeking the missiles' removal.
"The discussion with Kennedy was full of sharp turns, zigzags," he recalled. "He was clearly nervous, though outwardly he tried not to betray it. He made contradictory statements. Threats toward Cuba were followed by assertions that Washington didn't have any plans for an assault on Cuba.
"This last statement was certainly significant, and was assessed as such then by me and the Soviet leadership after my report."
He said the Cuban missile crisis presented "a certain degree of risk" of nuclear war but then contended: "There was no real threat of the unleashing of nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. I have solid grounds for this statement."
He did not outline the basis of his assertion, and the interview was restricted to presubmitted questions, preventing any enlargement.
The interview, conducted in the central television studios in Moscow, forms part of a British-U.S.-Japanese co-produced series entitled "The Nuclear Age," which has taken three years to put together.
Producers of the series were surprised that Gromyko, the embodiment of Soviet reclusion, suddenly agreed to be questioned after their initial approaches to him were consistently rejected.
One condition of the interview was that the questioning would stop every 15 minutes so that the 79-year-old Gromyko could have a break. In fact, once in the studio he insisted that it go on continuously for 21/2 hours.
The questions covered the entire post-World War II period, but Gromyko's account of the Oct. 18, 1962, encounter with Kennedy is perhaps his most dramatic recollection.
Gromyko recalled that in the summer of 1962, the Cuban government asked for Soviet military help in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Responding to Fidel Castro's fears that the United States might next try a direct invasion, the Soviets agreed to a military aid program "including the deployment of missiles - exclusively for defensive purposes."
U.S. surveillance flights photographed the missile installations, and the Cuban missile crisis started.
When he arrived at the White House, Gromyko said, he raised the "question of Cuba on my own initiative and explained the Soviet position."
This is his account of the meeting: " `I would draw your attention,' I said, `to the dangerous developments caused by the American attitude toward Cuba.'
"The president listened attentively. `For a long time,' I continued, `America has been conducting an unrestrained campaign against Cuba. It threatens Cuba with aggression. Such a policy could lead to grave consequences, which, we believe, no nation - including America - wants.'
"Kennedy replied that the present regime in Cuba did not suit the United States. If there were a different government there, the U.S. attitude would be different. I noticed this was said sharply.
"I said `On what basis does the American leadership assume that the Cubans ought to order their internal affairs, not according to their own judgment, but as Washington thinks fit?' "
Gromyko said he asked Kennedy how the American "giant" could be threatened by the Cuban "midget," and told the president: "The training of Cubans in the use of arms intended for defense by Soviet specialists could not be evaluated as a threat to anybody. The Soviet Union responded to Cuba's request for help because the request was aimed at eliminating the danger hanging over the country."
Eventually, the Soviets withdrew their missiles from Cuba, preventing the possible first superpower nuclear conflict.
Asked what lessons should be learned from the experience, Gromyko replied: "Nobody, no state, should impose on any country, regardless of its size and population, a regime which is not acceptable to its people. In other words, there should be no interference in any country's internal affairs.
"The whole confrontation between the U.S.A. and the USSR over the Cuban question even today demonstrates to the great powers the necessity to seek for mutually acceptable peaceful solutions in all situations, however complicated and critical these situations may seem."
The program will not be shown in the United States for two or three weeks.