Tick Tock Toward Armageddon

Reviewed by James G. Hershberg
Sunday, June 22, 2008


Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War

By Michael Dobbs

Knopf. 426 pp. $28.95

We all know the ending -- we're still here, after all -- but the Cuban Missile Crisis remains a cliff-hanger. In October 1962, Nikita Khrushchev's secret deployment of nuclear missiles to Fidel Castro's revolutionary Cuba, and John F. Kennedy's determination to remove them, brought the United States and the Soviet Union into a confrontation that nearly ended in a catastrophic war. Almost a half-century later, it is still humanity's closest brush with nuclear disaster since the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

In One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobbs sets out to "help a new generation of readers relive the quintessential Cold War crisis" and, in particular, its harrowing climax on "Black Saturday," Oct. 27, just before the Kremlin leader lanced the tension by agreeing to withdraw the missiles. In this he succeeds brilliantly, marshaling diverse sources to relate an intensely human story of Americans, Russians and Cubans caught up in what the late historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. termed "the most dangerous moment in human history."

Dobbs, a Washington Post reporter and former foreign correspondent, previously depicted the collapse of communism in Down with Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Empire (1997). Here he cites Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Day and William Manchester's The Death of a President as exemplars of the fine-grained, wide-ranging nonfiction saga he seeks to emulate. But as the pages fill with memorable characters in extraordinary circumstances and exotic settings, and as the drama steadily builds, One Minute to Midnight evokes novelists like Alan Furst, John le Carré or Graham Greene -- a reminder that footnote-laden history need not take a backseat to fictional thrillers.

Dobbs's vivid narrative brings the crisis alive not only in the rarefied inner sancta of politicians, bureaucrats and revolutionaries in Washington, Moscow and Havana but also among the grunts in the superpowers' vast, unwieldy military machines, from the tropical Caribbean to the frigid Arctic. Readers feel the tension suffusing JFK's "Excomm" and Khrushchev's Presidium (i.e., Politburo); the anxiety aboard the Soviets' sweltering, claustrophobic "Foxtrot" subs; and the near panic as pilots, commandos and other bit players on both sides see their roles go dangerously off script. The smell of "the grease of the bear" (as Cubans called the aroma emanating from Soviet comrades, "an amalgam of noxious gasoline fumes, cheap cigarettes, thick leather boots, and body odor") wafts through the pages.

While aimed at a generation too young to remember much of the Cold War, let alone to have experienced the missile crisis, Dobbs's book will also be required reading for specialists and aficionados who have devoured reams of prior studies. Fluent in Russian, he has tapped into crucial sources from the former USSR, interviewing military personnel who served in Cuba and mining recent Russian publications, as well as delving into obscure or long-classified U.S. materials.

Consequently, he is able to clarify aspects of the crisis clouded by mystery and secrecy. In October 1962, U.S. officials had great trouble locating the Soviets' atomic warheads in Cuba, but Dobbs describes their disposition and movement in riveting detail. He relates Moscow's extensive plans to use tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a U.S. invasion, including a previously unreported scheme to obliterate Guantanamo Naval Base with Hiroshima-sized charges. (The presence of the tactical arsenal, as opposed to the longer-range missiles, did not become generally known until after the Soviet Union's demise.)

Dobbs also provides fresh details on the shoot-down of a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane, killing the pilot, on Oct. 27 -- an act that markedly raised tensions in Washington but had not been authorized by Moscow. He recounts the CIA's covert anti-Castro operation in Cuba, code-named "Mongoose." And he suspensefully narrates cat-and-mouse duels in the Caribbean between Soviet submarines and U.S. forces imposing JFK's "quarantine" on the island.

In a story that stayed submerged for decades, one frazzled Soviet sub captain -- his communications with Moscow disrupted, stalked by U.S. ships, planes and helicopters dropping depth charges to force the sub to surface -- reportedly wondered whether World War III had broken out and considered firing a nuclear-tipped torpedo at his pursuers. Had Soviet forces in or around Cuba fired a single nuclear weapon, with or without Moscow's authorization -- and Dobbs establishes that there was no physical barrier to their doing so -- it would have provoked a devastating American response and virtually uncontrollable momentum toward total war.

Dobbs also debunks several myths featured in past accounts. As Kennedy's naval blockade went into effect on Oct. 24 despite Khrushchev's fiery public charge that it amounted to international piracy, fears were rampant that a clash between U.S. and Soviet ships could escalate rapidly. When a report reached the White House that all the Soviet vessels had stopped "dead in the water" or turned around, Secretary of State Dean Rusk famously remarked, "We're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked." Actually, Khrushchev had blinked (i.e., had issued a secret order to naval commanders not to challenge the blockade) roughly 30 hours earlier, and no close-range stare-down occurred on the high seas. But, as Dobbs notes, the leaked " 'eyeball-to-eyeball' imagery served the political interests of the Kennedy brothers, emphasizing their courage and coolness at a decisive moment in history."

Dobbs asserts that other lingering errors include the notions that JFK, a former World War II PT boat commander in the South Pacific, circumvented the chain-of-command to direct ship captains on the blockade line (he didn't), and that an informal meeting between a KGB operative and an ABC reporter in Washington on Oct. 26 conveyed a backchannel "signal" from Khrushchev that was crucial to the eventual deal that resolved the crisis (it wasn't).

No account is definitive, and One Minute to Midnight contains its share of (mostly trivial) errors or omissions. For instance, Dobbs fingers McGeorge Bundy as the leading proponent of an air strike during the early White House deliberations over the proper response to the missile deployment, but he ignores evidence (revealed by Bundy's biographer, Kai Bird) that Kennedy directed his national security adviser to keep that option alive so hawks would feel their views received due consideration. Lasering in on Black Saturday, he lavishes far more attention on reconstructing the events and feel of October 1962 than on analyzing how the crisis came about or its subsequent effects.

Nevertheless, he has produced the most important secondary account of this pivotal event in more than a decade, since Aleksandr Fursenko's and Timothy Naftali's One Hell of a Gamble (1997). His book arrives at a central, somewhat paradoxical conclusion: Having displayed almost criminal irresponsibility by stumbling into a potentially apocalyptic confrontation over an issue of essentially peripheral importance, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev became "sane and level-headed" statesmen when it mattered most -- when they had to restrain more bellicose colleagues and, in effect, reach across chasms of culture and ideology to prevent the perverse and unruly contingencies of history from spiraling out of control.

We should be so fortunate the next time around. ·

James G. Hershberg, associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, wrote the Cuban Missile Crisis essay for the forthcoming Cambridge History of the Cold War.

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