Scali, John Alfred

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Scali, John Alfred

(b. 27 April 1918 in Canton, Ohio; d. 9 October 1995 in Washington, D.C), journalist, consultant on foreign affairs information policy to President Richard M. Nixon, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations best known for his role in the Cuban missile crisis.

Scali was the first of the four children of the Italian immigrants Paul M. Scali, who operated two bowling alleys, and Lucy Leone. Scali played basketball and tennis at Canton’s McKinley High School, graduating in 1937. He remained in Canton, working and attending Kent State University for two years after his family moved to the Boston area. Following his family to Massachusetts, Scali majored in journalism at Boston University and worked on the student newspaper, serving as editor in chief during his senior year. After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1942, he briefly reported for the Boston Herald before accepting a position with the Boston bureau of United Press. When he failed to secure an assignment as a war correspondent, Scali, whose poor vision precluded military service, joined Associated Press (AP), which assigned him to cover the war in Europe. Before the end of the conflict he was transferred to AP’s Washington bureau. On 30 August 1945 he married Helen Lauinger Glock. The couple had three daughters.

As a correspondent covering the State Department, Scali frequently accompanied officials overseas. In 1959 he positioned himself between the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon during the “kitchen debate” in Moscow. After seventeen years with AP, Scali accepted a position as diplomatic correspondent for ABC Television in 1961. On 26 October of the following year, during the Cuban missile crisis, Alexsandr S. Fomin, a senior Soviet intelligence agent, told Scali that his country was prepared to remove its missiles from Cuba and supply no other offensive weapons in exchange for an American pledge not to invade the island nation. The ABC correspondent relayed Fomin’s proposal to Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The arrival of a letter from Khrushchev with a similar proposal hours later seemed to confirm the validity of the Fomin Scali conduit between Moscow and Washington and offered the first hope for a peaceful solution to the crisis. That hope dimmed the next day with the arrival of a second letter demanding removal of U.S. intermediate-range missiles from Turkey. Rusk asked Scali to contact Fomin to discover why Khrushchev had changed his original proposal. At the meeting the newsman accused Fomin of a “double cross” and suggested that an American invasion of Cuba was imminent.

Until the late 1980s it was believed that Scali’s scathing tone prompted the Soviets to strike a bargain based on Fomin’s initial proposal. Information from Russian sources has revealed that Fomin acted without authorization from the Kremlin and suggests that other channels of communication were more important in resolving the crisis. American officials at the time, however, believed that Fomin spoke for Khrushchev and gave serious consideration to his exchange with Scali. Ironically, Scali agreed not to report what would have been the biggest story of his career so the Kennedy administration might make future use of his connection to Fomin. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, other reporters revealed Scali’s role in the crisis.

As combat in Vietnam escalated, ABC asked Scali to anchor a weekly series, ABC Scope: The Vietnam War. The program examined the conflict in greater depth than was possible on evening newscasts. Scali continued to cover the State Department, and his question concerning a claim that the 1968 Tet offensive constituted a major Vietcong defeat prompted Secretary of State Rusk to demand, “Whose side are you on, anyway?” Scali recalled that Rusk later apologized, but the ABC correspondent, like many Americans, was coming to believe that the nation should extricate itself from Vietnam.

Scali, a registered Democrat who had not voted for Nixon and who had publicly denounced Vice President Spiro Agnew’s diatribes against the press, surprised his colleagues in 1971 by accepting the president’s invitation to join the administration as a special media consultant. Concerning Nixon’s Vietnam policy Scali said, “I believe he is headed in the right direction—namely out.” Time magazine concluded, “Even if Scali can’t solve Nixon’s image problem, he should be able to relieve [Henry] Kissinger of the burden of being the only swinger in the White House” (19 April 1971). Scali’s “freewheeling lifestyle” and acerbic personality alienated some administration officials, including Nixon’s chief architect of foreign policy, Henry Kissinger. Nonetheless, during his tenure Scali accompanied Nixon on most of his foreign travels, arranged television coverage of the trip to China, and helped orchestrate press coverage for state visits of foreign leaders.

In 1973 Scali’s first marriage ended in divorce, and on 4 March he married Denise St. Germaine. Less than two weeks earlier, on 20 February 1973, he had replaced George Bush as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Despite criticism that the appointment of a journalist reflected a downgrading of the UN position, Scali did “a far better job than most people who knew him expected him to do,” John Osborne commented in an article in the New Republic (24 May 1975). During his tenure as ambassador Scali cast or threatened vetoes in the Security Council to block action the United States opposed, walked a diplomatic tightrope during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and on 6 December 1974 delivered a scathing address in which he criticized the “tyranny of the majority,” warning third-world nations recently admitted to the UN that their irresponsible behavior threatened the organization’s stability.

In 1975 Daniel Patrick Moynihan replaced Scali at the UN, and Scali returned to ABC News as senior correspondent, a position he held until his retirement in 1993. Scali, who had undergone triple bypass surgery in 1973, died of a heart ailment two years after his retirement. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Although Scali could not restore Nixon’s credibility, he did bring the same dedication to his government positions that characterized his career as a newsman. Before accepting Nixon’s invitation to join the administration, Scali told the president, “If I deal with my news colleagues, I must be able to speak truthfully.” Despite administration stonewalling of the press over the Watergate scandal, Scali maintained his reputation and integrity. Osborne called him “a first-rate journalist,… better versed in foreign affairs than most political appointees.” Even Kissinger said, “John Scali has been one of our more effective UN ambassadors.” Although Scali was reluctant to lie even for his country, his willingness to give up the story of a lifetime during the Cuban missile crisis left no doubt that he placed national interests above scooping the opposition. No doubt ever existed about the answer to Rusk’s question. Scali was on America’s side.

The best source on Scali is a sketch in Current Biography (1973). After his death an obituary in Current Biography Yearbook (1996) recapitulated and updated the earlier piece. Bill Monroe, “Rusk to John Scali: ’Whose Side Are You On?’” Washington Journalism Review (Jan.–Feb. 1991), gives both sides of the Rusk-Scali confrontation. Soviet accounts of the Cuban missile crisis that became available after glasnost challenge interpretations of Scali’s role based solely on American sources. Raymond L. Gar-thoff, “Cuban Missile Crisis: The Soviet Story,” Foreign Policy 72 (1988): 61–80, surveys older interpretations and the Soviet view. Articles on Scali’s government service that sketch his background and qualifications include “Recruiting the Opposition,” Time (19 Apr. 1971); “Nixon’s New Voice,” Newsweek (19 Apr. 1971); “Nixon’s U.N. Nominee,” New York Times (19 Dec. 1972); and “Moynihan Is Selected to Replace Scali,” New York Times (21 Apr. 1975). John Osborne, “Moynihan and Scali,” New Republic (24 May 1975), briefly evaluates Scali’s UN career. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 10 Oct. 1995).

Brad Agnew