Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis by Serhii Plokhy - review by Lawrence Freedman

Lawrence Freedman

Countdown to Armageddon

Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis


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The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 still provides a compelling and dramatic story that is worth retelling. It is a story with a limited cast and a clear plot line spread over a few days. For most people, it began on Monday 22 October when President John F Kennedy announced the discovery of Soviet nuclear missile bases on Cuba and demanded that they be removed. The tension eased a little on 25 October, when Soviet ships presumed to be carrying lethal missiles turned away from Cuba rather than trying to break the American naval blockade. The crisis effectively ended on Sunday 28 October, with the news that the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had agreed to withdraw the missiles in return for an American promise not to invade Cuba. During those days a catastrophic nuclear war seemed a real possibility.

At the time, the confrontation appeared stark, with little room for nuance. The main players offered a sharp contrast: the rough and impetuous Khrushchev versus the smooth and cautious Kennedy. Over time, more detail was added to the main plot, such as the origins of Khrushchev’s decision the previous spring to send nuclear missiles to Cuba at a time when he was worrying about a possible American invasion to topple the regime of his new friend Fidel Castro and the United States was bragging about its superiority in long-range missiles. We learned about the intense debate within the Kennedy administration, once spy planes had spotted the Soviet missile bases on 14 October, about whether to take them out with an immediate air strike or apply pressure with a blockade. With more information emerging from archives and memoirs and the discovery of recordings of vital meetings at the White House, new themes and subplots emerged. The most important of these came with the release of far more material from the former USSR. It turned out that the garrison on Cuba was larger than the Americans had assumed and was armed with short-range nuclear weapons, which were likely to have been used in the event of an American invasion. In addition, it transpired that the four Soviet submarines that made it to the Caribbean each carried a nuclear torpedo, one of which came close to being fired.

The accumulating detail added to the sense of just how close the world got to the brink of disaster. There were other nuclear scares after the Cuban Missile Crisis, but they either ended more quickly or went largely unnoticed at the time. It is still, therefore, the go-to crisis whenever lessons are sought on how to manage a dangerous situation. It provides examples of how decisions taken well away from national capitals, shaped by uncertainty and anxiety, might trigger a dangerous escalation, of the importance of imaginative diplomacy, especially when you are trying to find a way to help your adversary to back down, and of the difficulties of conveying nuanced political messages by military means. It is also a sobering reminder of the continuing risks of nuclear war.

For all these reasons, the crisis continues to generate new books, exploring some aspect that others might have missed or urging action to address the continuing nuclear peril – although no account of the crisis has yet matched One Minute to Midnight by the journalist Michael Dobbs, published in 2008. I am aware of at least two books on the topic published last year. Theodore Voorhees Jr in The Silent Guns of Two Octobers suggests that the risks of war have been exaggerated; Martin J Sherwin in Gambling with Armageddon argues the opposite. As the title of his book indicates, Serhii Plokhy is with those who find little reassuring in the episode. Kennedy and Khrushchev ‘managed to avoid nuclear war after making almost every mistake conceivable and every step imaginable to cause it’. This statement is somewhat hyperbolic. It is not hard to imagine mistakes that thankfully were not made, notably early resort to military action by the United States. Yet he is right to note that global peace still depends far too much on calm decision-making and displays of good sense by a relatively small number of people with control over the world’s nuclear arsenals.

Plokhy provides a sharp and critical account of the decisions taken in Moscow, Washington and Havana. He offers fascinating new material relating to the Soviet side, obtained from Ukrainian archives, though he is less satisfactory on the American side. He does not quite catch Kennedy’s tendency to keep his options open for as long as possible or the way in which he explored these options with his advisers. He assumes, for example, that the president was more attached to the possibility of air strikes than was the case. From the start, he was in favour of air strikes only if they were limited, and he steadily lost interest in this option as it became clear that the US Air Force could not come up with a plan that did not involve massive air raids that would probably have needed to be backed up with a full invasion, without any guarantee that all of the Soviet missiles would be taken out.

Important evidence of Kennedy’s determination to avoid war, as Plokhy notes, comes from his offer to trade American Jupiter missiles in Turkey for the Soviet missiles in Cuba. There was an evident symmetry in their strategic roles. American missiles had arrived in Turkey the previous year, but the US administration had quickly decided that they were both vulnerable to a Soviet strike and unnecessary, since the American long-range missile programme was gathering pace. Yet once Khrushchev had demanded an explicit trade, Kennedy was persuaded that it would damage NATO if he publicly appeared to jeopardise an ally’s security to resolve the crisis. But he was always prepared to put the missiles back into the diplomatic mix if that was the only way he could get a deal. He therefore told his brother Robert to meet with the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, and let him know that the Jupiter missiles would eventually be removed from Turkey. As this was not a formal promise, it was of no political value to Khrushchev, and it was not the reason that the crisis was resolved. More important were a letter sent by the president to Khrushchev on 27 October setting out the terms of a deal – Kennedy declared that if the Soviets removed the missiles, the United States would undertake not to invade Cuba – and the urgency with which Robert spoke to Dobrynin of the risks of allowing the crisis to continue much longer, given the pressure the US military was placing on the president to act decisively against the Soviets. This was the main message that Khrushchev picked up from Dobrynin’s report and upon which he acted almost immediately by accepting Kennedy’s proposal.

Where the book really comes alive is in the descriptions of Soviet decision-making and the amateurishness of Khrushchev’s approach. There was the initial thrill of taking such a bold step, but the adventure began to go badly wrong. No serious consideration had been given to the question of whether the missile deployments could be kept secret. Once the first deployment of Soviet air defence systems to Cuba had been discovered, Khrushchev added to the risk by deciding that short-range ‘tactical’ missiles should also be dispatched. There is some fascinating detail on the disciplinary issues faced on the Soviet ships travelling to Cuba, with conscripts grumbling about fighting for a country about which they did not care, while suffering from seasickness and the intense heat of the Caribbean. The conditions faced by Soviet submariners were even worse, especially when the US Navy used the explosions from practice depth charges to encourage them to rise to the surface.

Another reason why the Cuban Missile Crisis continues to fascinate is that, despite so much being known about it, there are still issues on which there is no consensus. For example, I have always assumed that at the time of the crisis, Khrushchev was still after Western concessions in Berlin, notwithstanding the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 to stop the flow of refugees escaping communism. There had been confrontations since then over attempts to prevent American, British and French personnel going into East Berlin. Plokhy makes an intriguing case that Khrushchev kept the Berlin issue simmering during the summer of 1962 largely to divert American attention away from Cuba, and also that this worked: one reason for Kennedy’s caution was that he expected Soviet counter-pressure against West Berlin. But this assumes that defending Cuba was Khrushchev’s only motive. I suspect, however, that by attempting to create a new nuclear balance, he hoped to gain a wider political advantage, including in Berlin.

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