Reviews and Articles
A Son of Colrado's plains helped avert nuclear war
Dick Vadhams for the Denver Gazette October 17, 2022
Sixty years ago this week, the United States and the rest of the world trembled as the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union loomed during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
It is no exaggeration that Llewellyn Thompson, Jr., the son of a southeastern Colorado sheep rancher who served as the American ambassador to the Soviet Union under three presidents, helped give President John F. Kennedy the critical insights into the Soviet leadership he needed to avert a nuclear confrontation.
Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro asked Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev in July 1962 to place nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter a future American invasion. The United States had sponsored Cuban exiles who failed to topple the Castro regime during the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion attempt in April 1961.
An American U-2 spy plane confirmed that construction of ballistic missile launch facilities was underway in Cuba setting off the dangerous confrontation between Kennedy and Khruschev.
Thompson was born in Las Animas, Colorado in 1904 where his father raised sheep on ranches in Colorado and New Mexico. After graduating from Bent County High School, he went to the University of Colorado in Boulder.
A chance conversation with a member of the U.S. Foreign Service resulted in Thompson taking the terribly difficult Foreign Service exam in 1928. Thompson was one of 34 out of 185 applicants who were admitted.
After assignments in Ceylon — now known as Sri Lanka — and Geneva, Switzerland, Thompson moved to the Office of European Affairs at the State Department in Washington, D.C. in 1938. Recognizing his diplomatic and political skills, he was moved to the American embassy in Moscow in 1941, when it was uncertain if Joseph Stalin would join with Germany and Japan in World War II.
But Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 and began a siege on Moscow that resulted in the Soviet government largely relocating further inland although Stalin remained. The American embassy was evacuated except for Thompson and one other staff member who volunteered to remain in Moscow at great personal risk as the German army approached.
The siege lasted six months before the Nazis were turned back just six miles from Moscow. During this time, Thompson was the highest ranking American official in Moscow where he became very familiar with Soviet officials. They never forgot that he did not abandon them, especially future Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev.
President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Thompson as the American ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1957 at the height of the Cold War.
During his annual New Year's Eve party on Dec. 31, 1959, attended by Thompson and his wife, Jane, a drunken Khruschev threatened a nuclear attack against West Germany, France and England if Allied forces were not removed from Berlin. Though terribly ominous, Thompson knew Khruschev well enough to understand that the threat was inebriated bluster and dismissed it as not being serious in his report to the State Department and President Eisenhower.
President Kennedy retained Thompson as the ambassador until August 1962 when he returned to the United States as an ambassador-at-large. His many years of dealing with Soviet leaders going back to the dark days of the Nazi siege of Moscow prepared him for the crisis that nearly brought the two super powers to nuclear war.
At the height of the crisis, Khruschev sent two conflicting cables to Kennedy. One was a handwritten letter that was conciliatory and offered to remove the missiles if the U.S. promised not to invade Cuba. The second cable was more confrontational promising a massive military response if Cuba was invaded.
President Kennedy was inclined to respond to the second cable but Thompson urged him to ignore the confrontational version and respond only to the first. This prescient decision set the stage for the crisis to end peacefully.
Thompson died in 1972 after serving one more time as ambassador to Moscow under President Lyndon Johnson from 1967 to 1969. After a funeral service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., he was buried in his childhood hometown of Las Animas.
As his two daughters, Jenny and Sherry Thompson, say in their painstakingly researched book, "The Kremlinologist: Llewellyn Thompson, America's Man in Cold War Moscow," his life journey went from "the dust of the old Santa Fe Trail to the inner circles of the White House and the cobblestones of Red Square."
And along the way, he helped save the world from nuclear war.
Dick Wadhams is a former Colorado Republican state chairman and a native of Las Animas.
Journal of Cold War Studies Forum
Mark Kramer, Head of Harvard DAvic Center's Project on Cold War Studies and Editor i Cheif of the Journal, introduces the Forum, followed by commentary from five distinguished historians: James Goldgeier, Thomas W. Simons, Jr., Vladimir Pechatnov, Vladislav Zubok, and Dan Caldwell.
See the Summer Issue of the Journal
or see the .pdf here
National Security Archives Briefing Book: Tommy Thompson-The Kremlinologist
The National Security Archives of George Washington University has posted a briefing book on The Kremlinologist, including scans of important documents cited in the book. Compiled and edited with contribution from Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton. See the original documents for yoursef.
The Strategy Bridge
Review by Professor Roger Champman
July 15, 2020
Though he was a known quantity to all Kremlinologists and highly respected, however, Thompson has largely remained an obscure figure. ...Seldom has a person been so in the thick of important events only to be so largely forgotten ... Yet Anatoly Dobyrin, the long-time Soviet ambassador, regarded Thompson as "probably the best American ambassador in the USSR during the Cold War."
Now, thanks to Thompson's daughters, who as children spent eight years living in the Soviet Union, a fuller picture emerges of this public figure.
Professor David Foglesong review for H-Diplo
by David Fogelesong
November 24, 2018
Philip Zelikow Commentary
Professor Zelikow discusses the influence of the Berlin/East Germany crisis on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Robert Legvold Review
Kremlinologist Review: A Starring Role Behind the Scenes by Bertrand Patenaude for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
"Llewellyn E. “Tommy” Thompson Jr., hardly a household name, deserves to be better known than he is. At various moments he may well have made the difference in preventing the Cold War from turning hot."
The Life and Work of a Moscow Pro by Jonathan B. Rickert for THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
Foreign Service Journal, March 2018
"A vivid and compelling picture of the man and his career."
We've Forgotten a Lesson of the Cold War and One of the Wise Men Who Preached it
Jenny and Sherry Thompson for the History News Network, February 2018
“Thompson’s is an archetypal American Story that took him from the wilds of the American West at the beginning of the 20th century to inside the halls of the White House and behind the walls of the Kremlin.”
The Voice of Reason, by Megan Bennett for ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL NORTH
"It was his early years full of hard work, according o Jenny and her sister Sherry Thompson, that made him a direct but reasonable diplomat and negotiator."