The Biographer's Craft
For Writers & Readers of Biography
March 2020 Vol. 15 Number 1
The Story Only Daughters Can Tell
By Felicity O. Yost, Hawai'i Correspondent
Many historians have written about the Cold War achievements of Ambassador Llewellyn E. "Tommy" Thompson. Despite this, his daughters shared with me (over the course of numerous email interviews) that they kept coming across publications that made no mention of him, "which we thought was just wrong." Co-authors Jenny and Sherry Thompson, who jointly answered my questions, decided that if they did not "make him known," a comprehensive biography of their father could remain untold. They also felt that their book could serve, for both specialists and the general public, as a useful illustration of how Foreign Service Officers successfully conduct our foreign affairs. The Kremlinologist: Llewellyn E. Thompson, America's Man in Cold War Moscow is the story of the impact that one negotiator can have during a dangerous era.
Thompson, the son of a rancher, was brought up in rural Colorado, "in a place and time where character meant more than personality." Despite being an introvert (some called him aloof and remote), when he joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1928 he had already "cultivated an ability to empathize and to understand the outlook of the 'other'"—one of the essential tools of a negotiator. This ability also helped him to anticipate another government's position during mediations—and to win at poker.
Thompson did not initially set out to become a State Department Soviet expert. He served in Austria, where he negotiated the settlement of the Free Territory of Trieste and an Austrian State Treaty, before becoming one of a handful of diplomats "correctly anticipating Soviet moves" for U.S. presidents. His time spent working in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during World War II, and as a U.S. Ambassador in the 1950s and 1960s, also gave him a rare inside perspective on Soviet leaders. This insight proved crucial during presidential summits and world crises.
As first-time biographers, Thompson's daughters faced several challenges. Their father, who left a thin record of his work, had no interest in recording or analyzing his thought processes. They also soon discovered how little they knew about the historical events of their father's era. This, however, ended up working in their favor, "because we had no pre-conceived notions or narratives to support." With little research experience, they found, like so many biographers, how invaluable archivists are and especially in their case those at the National Archives. Family letters and interviews with Thompson's colleagues helped to fill in the blanks "to build a frame on which to hang our memories."
One of the advantages of a biography written by a family member revealed itself as Jenny and Sherry, who were aware of their father's role, reviewed the published history. They found themselves questioning the historical narrative "if it seemed wrong." This led to further research. Their book thus served another purpose, to correct historical errors, ones that a researcher might well have missed or misinterpreted. An example the Thompsons cite occurred prior to the 1961 Kennedy/Khrushchev Vienna summit, in a cable sent by their father to the State Department.
Cold War specialists continue to debate the summit's outcome—whether the young president was led into a trap and pummeled by the wily Soviet Premier over the Berlin Crisis. What concerned the sisters was that some historians, who had cherry picked from Thompson's cable, held their father responsible for encouraging Kennedy to believe that Khrushchev would give him no trouble: "In view his conversation with me, quite possible K [Khrushchev] will attempt to slide over Berlin problem in sweetness and light atmosphere." Sherry and Jenny knew enough about their father to feel that "there was something wrong with this premise." When they unearthed the original cable, they found that the last sentence in Thompson's message was clear and insistent in advising: "In this event, [I] believe President should force issue." Historians had omitted, and thus missed, capturing the thrust of Thompson's advice.
Jenny and Sherry's conversations with Nikita Khrushchev's son Sergei helped to complete the picture they had formed of the bond between their fathers. Thompson's special relationship with Premier Khrushchev was based on the fact that "he was one of the very few people who was both forthright and respectful towards Khrushchev. He never made fun of him and he never lied to him. Even though Khrushchev could be impulsive, he thought Khrushchev was willing to look at internal reforms and deal with the West on a practical, rather than strictly ideological basis. In other words, he was someone we could work with." Thompson's insight proved crucial in 1962.
When President Kennedy convened a group of experts, the Executive Committee (ExComm), to advise him during the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of them was the Soviet expert Thompson. On October 26, the State Department received a private letter from Premier Khrushchev with a proposal for de-escalating the crisis. The next day, a second, rambling letter arrived, which made unreasonable demands on the Americans. At a critical moment, when a number of ExComm hawks were recommending an immediate U.S. nuclear response, the relationship that Thompson had forged with Khrushchev helped take America back from the brink of war. Thompson believed that while the first letter had been written by Khrushchev, the second was most likely drafted by Soviet hawks, and Thompson recommended to the president that he respond to the first letter as if he had never received the second. The ploy worked, which led some ExComm members to dub Thompson "our Russian in the room."
Why is the story of a diplomat who preferred the shadows to the limelight important? Because it shows how a Foreign Service Officer's negotiations, often conducted behind the scenes, can be vital to the security of our nation. Our president and his State Department, and anyone interested in foreign affairs, would do well to study the life of Thompson, a diplomat who "believed in looking at long-term consequences and not just the short-term win."
Felicity O. Yost, who worked at the United Nations, co-authored Adlai Stevenson's Lasting Legacy. She lives in Hawai'i and is writing The Only Brave One in the Room: Charles W. Yost and the Golden Age of U.S. Diplomacy.
Llewellyn "Tommy" Thompson, The Cold War Owl
Against the sprawling backdrop of the Cold War, The Kremlinologist revisits some of the twentieth century's greatest conflicts as seen through the eyes of its hardest working diplomat, Llewellyn E Thompson. From the wilds of the American West to the inner sanctums of the White House and the Kremlin, Thompson became an important advisor to presidents and a key participant in major global events, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. Yet unlike his contemporaries Robert S. McNamara and Dean Rusk, who considered Thompson one of the most crucial Cold War actors and the “unsung hero” of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he has not been the subject of a major biography—until now.
Thompson’s daughters Jenny and Sherry Thompson skillfully and thoroughly document his life as an accomplished career diplomat. In vigorous prose, they describe how Thompson joined the Foreign Service both to feed his desire for adventure and from a deep sense of duty. They also detail the crucial role he played as a negotiator unafraid of compromise. Known in the State Department as “Mr. Tightlips,” Thompson was the epitome of discretion. People from completely opposite ends of the political spectrum lauded his approach to diplomacy and claimed him as their own.
Refuting historical misinterpretations of the Berlin Crisis, the Austrian State Treaty, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Thompsons tell their father’s fascinating story. With unprecedented access to Thompson’s FBI dossier, State Department personnel files, letters, diaries, speeches, and documents, and relying on probing interviews and generous assistance from American and Russian archivists, historians, and government officials, the authors bring new material to light, including important information on the U-2, Kennan’s containment policy, and Thompson’s role in US covert operations machinery.
This unique and monumental biography not only restores a central figure to history, it makes the crucial events he shaped accessible to a broader readership and gives contemporary readers a backdrop for understanding the fraught United States−Russia relationship that still exists today.