The Bartender who Accidentally Saved the World
The evening of October 24, 1962 must have been quite a shift for the bar staff at the National Press Club. Only two nights before, President John Kennedy addressed the nation about Soviet missiles being discovered in Cuba and the imposition of a naval “quarantine” around the island. The uncertainty combined with the high stakes of a nuclear stand-off between two superpowers would’ve been enough to send DC’s elite searching for a place to grab a drink and seek out more news. As one of the few spots in Washington for power players of the day to blow off steam and exchange information, the tap room at the Press Club would’ve been packed.
Johnny Prokov, a Soviet émigré of Lithuanian decent, was working at the bar that night in a smoky atmosphere of heightened chatter. He had worked at the Press Club for three years and, like most bartenders, he would’ve been busy, juggling drink orders and cash while being friendly with regulars. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that night shifts at bars move quickly. They’re exciting and exhausting at the same time.
So it’s understandable that in the midst of a hectic night, Prokov caught only a snippet of a conversation between two regulars. Warren Rogers, a reporter with the New York Herald Tribune was sharing a drink with the paper’s Washington bureau chief, Robert Donovan. Prokov overheard Donovan saying that he would fly south later in the night to “cover the operation to capture Cuba.” Prokov, however, misheard the conversation and didn’t catch the most important part of the entire exchange. It was to be Rogers, not Donovan, who would fly south “to cover the operation to capture Cuba” as part of the Pentagon’s approved list of media members…if the decision was made to invade Cuba. It was a pretty big “if” to miss. As we know, the president and his advisors had not decided to invade Cuba.
At the end of his shift, the snippet of conversation he thought he heard was stuck in his head. At closing, bartenders are usually pre-occupied with settling the tabs of the remaining customers, cleaning up and prepping the bar for the next day’s opening. It’s mundane. But as the bar was closing, Anatoly Gorsky, a KBG spy working under cover as a Soviet journalist from Tass, dropped by for a late night drink. Despite all the urban mythology surrounding the adeptness of Soviet espionage, Soviet intelligence gathering in the United States was rudimentary at the time. No one in the Kremlin knew Kennedy’s intentions. It must have come as quite a surprise to Gorsky when Prokov passed along what he thought he heard. In fact, it was such a surprise that Gorsky left without his nightcap and went straight to the Soviet embassy to send a message to Moscow about the exchange.
Seeking to confirm what appeared to be Kennedy’s intention to invade Cuba, a Soviet embassy official arranged to coincidentally run into Rogers the following morning. When asked by the embassy official if Kennedy means what he says, Rogers recalls saying, “You’re damn right he does. He will do what he says he will do.”
News of the encounter went directly to Khrushchev’s office. A personal assistant and translator to the Soviet Premier recalled the great alarm that Khrushchev felt upon reading the intelligence of the conversation. It was in this context that Khrushchev penned an emotional letter to Kennedy that outlined the possibility of a deal—a pledge by the United States to lift the quarantine and not invade Cuba in exchange for missiles being removed from the island. It was this letter that Kennedy and his advisors responded to and used as a framework to gradually deescalate the crisis.
One wonders what might have happened had the events at the National Press Club bar played out a little differently. What if Prokov accurately heard the exchange between Donovan and Rogers? Would he have passed the information along to Gorsky at all? If he had, would Gorsky have thought it important enough to report to Moscow right away? If Gorsky hadn’t, would Khrushchev have taken a tougher line; one that Kennedy couldn’t accept? Would events have then begun to spiral towards a war, possibly involving a nuclear exchange?
Nothing about the Cuban missile crisis was a foregone conclusion. Key events in history are often near-run things. No outcome is inevitable. Fate often turns on an individual’s decision, like deciding to share a misheard conversation with a bar patron who just happened to be a Soviet spy.
There other things we don’t know about that night. We don’t know what Rogers, Donovan or Gorsky ordered to drink that night, but we do know what the popular drinks were of the time: martinis, manhattans, Rob Roys, brandy Alexanders. So fix one of these and raise your glass to Johnny Prokov. He may be the reason we’re still around to toast anyone at all.
Paul Kan is Professor of National Security Studies at the US Army War College and a former bartender. This particular episode in the Cuban Missile Crisis is recounted in two excellent books: Michael Dobbs’ One Minute To Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War and William Taubman’s Khrushchev: A Man and his Era.