That Time Kissinger Kept Project Azorian from Killing U.S.-Russia Relations

Hughes Glomar Explorer, CC/Wikipedia

Editor's Note:

Josh Dean is a correspondent for Outside; a regular contributor to many national magazines, including GQ, Bloomberg Businessweek, Fast Company, and Popular Science; and the author of Show Dog and The Life and Times of the Stopwatch Gang. His book, The Taking of K-129, shares the shocking true story of how the CIA used Howard Hughes to steal a nuclear-armed Russian submarine.

In October 1992, Robert Gates arrived at the Kremlin on a historic mission, with a very special package. He was the first CIA Director ever to visit Moscow, and his visit was meant to foster good will in the early days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which brought the Cold War to a close. Gates brought with him a videotape of a funeral, conducted on the deck of the Hughes Glomar Explorer, to honor the lives of a half-dozen Soviet crewman who’d perished on the submarine K-129, which sank under mysterious circumstances in 1968 and was salvaged (in part) in 1974 by the CIA during the largest and most audacious covert operation in history.

U.S. officials had anticipated such an occasion. They sent the Explorer to sea with a crew that was fully prepared to conduct a burial ceremony that followed Russian Navy customs. A Soviet flag was carried onboard during the mission and the eulogy delivered by the mission’s director, over the ship’s PA, had been written in advance.

In addition, Gates handed over the K-129’s dented diving bell, recovered during the salvage, and the precise coordinates of the location where the bodies had been deposited overboard, so that family members could one day visit the site, if they so desired.

This was the first and only official communication on the subject between the two nations – bitter, nuclear-armed enemies for forty years – since Project Azorian, as the covert submarine salvage operation was code-named, leaked to the media in 1975.

Throughout the five-year operation, which involved the design and construction of a massive ship and multi-component salvage system, one of the loudest and most compelling arguments against going forward with the attempt to snatch the sub within the U.S. leadership was that, if exposed, the operation could destroy relations, or worse, start a war that obliterated the planet.

This was not fear-mongering. The late 1960s and early 1970s were very tense times. Despite the start of nuclear reduction negotiations, via SALT talks, the risk of war remained clear and present. So it was a surprise to many when the Soviet reaction to the exposure of Project Azorian, in 1975, was total silence.

Neither side wanted war. Survival of humanity depended on détente – on so-called “mutually assured destruction” – and it was in everyone’s best interests to lower tensions whenever possible, even when logic would indicate the complete opposite reaction.

Intelligence is a strange, murky business, built on lies and subterfuge. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union did things on a daily basis that would, if exposed, upset the other side. Sometimes these things were exposed, and most often everyone kept quiet. This is an unspoken understanding of intelligence gathering.

When Francis Gary Powers was shot down in his U-2 over Russia, what ignited tensions wasn’t that the U.S. was caught spying; the Russians had been observing those flights for months, and had tried everything they could think of to shoot down a plane. What ignited tensions was that President Dwight Eisenhower decided to go public and apologize. This, in essence, embarrassed the Soviets. It revealed, in front of the world, that the Americans had built a plane that evaded Russian defenses for months, gathering intelligence. By going public, Eisenhower forced them into a position of anger. And that’s when things get dangerous.

Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State during the time of Azorian, was a student of history. He’d watched Eisenhower blow that moment and when the sub theft attempt went public, he took the opposite tact. He instructed the president to say nothing, and to order the CIA to do the same. As far as anyone within the U.S. government was concerned, there never was a Glomar Explorer, and it certainly never tried to steal a sub that the Soviets had lost.

And that’s what Kissinger told his counterpart, Anatoly Dobrynin – that the U.S. had no comment, and never would. Dobrynin, through a backchannel, told Kissinger that the Soviets knew exactly what the U.S. had done, and weren’t happy about it, but that they too would remain silent on the matter, as long as the Americans abandoned the salvage and never again got near the site of the K-129’s wreckage.

This quiet, peculiar diplomacy saved relations, and kept Azorian from becoming a flashpoint that could, under different circumstances, have sparked a war. Inside Russia, people are still upset about the lost submarine. But Gates’s visit helped assuage some of those hurt feelings, and closed the chapter, at least as far as the U.S. and Russian governments were concerned.