Almost six decades ago this month, an international crisis, bringing the U.S. and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war, ended without doing so.
U.S. citizens denigrating America today for its historical transgressions and other shortcomings fail to understand something a Soviet soldier understood long ago: that the America created under our Constitution, despite past imperfections, continuously strives for perfection. As such, it offers more than any other member of the world community can. This recognition would cost the Soviet soldier his life.
In October 1962, the discovery the Soviet Union had secretly placed nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba launched the crisis. Tensions increased as President John F. Kennedy pressed Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to remove them, but he refused to do so.
Khrushchev viewed Kennedy as a softball player unable to deal with the Soviet leader's hardball pitches. After all, three months after taking office, Kennedy suffered the CIA's botched "Bay of Pigs" invasion of Cuba. Additionally, six weeks later, in June 1961, in a face-to-face summit with Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria, Kennedy performed badly, later admitting Khrushchev "beat the hell" out of him.
Thus, Khrushchev saw Kennedy with an 0-2 record in foreign policy wins, emboldening the Soviet leader to put missiles in Cuba.
As tensions mounted, Kennedy knew he had to make a hardball pitch, demanding Khrushchev remove the missiles "or else." But to do so, a key piece of intelligence was desperately needed, enabling him to know whether the pitch would work.
Khrushchev had counted on deploying the missiles in Cuba and arming them before the U.S. knew they were there. However, unbeknownst to him, Washington had learned about this while their deployment was being undertaken.
But of ultimate importance at this point to Kennedy was whether the missiles were fully armed and ready to fire. If operable, he would have to take a softball approach to negotiating their removal; if not yet operable, he could play hardball.
This is where a colonel in the Soviet military intelligence (GRU) by the name of Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky came into the picture.
Recognized early on in his career by his Soviet superiors as a very good intelligence officer, Penkovsky quickly rose in rank. However, as he did so, he also became more and more disillusioned about the Soviet system, leading him in April 1961 to approach the West about spying.
Penkovsky traveled frequently to England and France as a representative of a Soviet scientific research delegation. Thus, he was able to meet with European and American handlers without drawing suspicion from his superiors. In doing so, he provided a treasure trove of intelligence, motivated purely for ideological reasons as he cherished American freedoms and values.
Over 12,000 pages of transcripts was Penkovsky's intelligence contribution to the U.S. It helped dispel the West's concerns of Soviet strategic superiority, revealing we actually had an advantage in missile systems.
When Penkovsky was contacted in Moscow during the Cuban Missile Crisis as to whether those missiles were operable, he knew responding was risky and would undoubtedly result in his identity being discovered. Yet due to the urgency of the situation, he did not hesitate. He revealed the missiles lacked both their guidance and fueling systems, so they were not yet operational.
Penkovsky's intelligence enabled Kennedy to play hardballl, forcing Khrushchev to back down.
It would take almost a year for Penkovsky to be identified by the GRU as an American spy. In October 1963, he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death. How he was executed served as a chilling reminder for others not to follow his example.
Penkovsky purportedly was cremated – while still alive. Strapped to a board, he was fed into a furnace fire, feet first, to maximize his agony. Other GRU members were forced to watch the execution to demonstrate a traitor's fate. His cremated ashes were unceremoniously dumped in the Donski Monastery Cemetery.
To the end, Penkovsky's ideological belief was that the Soviet system was evil and only America offered freedom-loving people everywhere greater hope. Penkovsky wore the Soviet uniform, but his loss was America's loss. During his espionage days, Penkovsky had appropriately been given the U.S. codename "Hero."
Before the 2020 presidential election, the Democrats' vice presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, had the audacity to suggest liberal rioters destroying our cities were "heroes." There is no way the millions of dollars worth of property these rioting miscreants destroyed and deaths they triggered justify giving them hero status. They sacrificed nothing but the property and lives of others. Their actions compare in no way to those of a selfless hero like Penkovsky.
Not only does Harris' claim demean Penkovsky's name and selfless sacrifice, it tells us she has no sense of appreciation for the heroes who have long made America great with their personal sacrifices.
Although it won't happen, it should be Harris, the rioters and those of their ilk who should be giving thanks this Thanksgiving Day week for men like Penkovsky who lived and died for an imperfect but free America. Meanwhile, Penkovsky undoubtedly looks down on our country today, shaking his head in disbelief at the unappreciative attitude of such ingrates for the America that his self-sacrifice helped them inherit.
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