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From former Soviet archives, chilling new details of the Cuban missile crisis

Two young women watch as Army soldiers set up anti-aircraft missile launchers on a beach in Key West, Fla., on Oct. 26, 1962. The United States had recently confirmed the presence of Soviet missiles and troops in Cuba, less than 100 miles to the south. (AP Photo)

An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962 were operational on Oct. 14. According to a CIA report, the first eight missiles became operational on Oct. 20. The text has been corrected.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history knows that the world came close to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. But, unless you are a historian of the period, you may not know how close the close calls actually were — or how many of them there were. Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, provides fresh and horrifying details in his new book, “Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” which draws upon previously classified Ukrainian and Russian archives.

Plokhy notes that, six days after a U-2 spy plane confirmed the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba on Oct. 14, 1962, some of the medium-range nuclear missiles, which were capable of hitting Washington, were already operational. To its credit, the CIA figured that out. But it entirely missed the presence of nine short-range Luna missiles with nuclear warheads, each one only slightly less powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. The CIA also greatly underestimated the number of Soviet troops on the island — the actual figure was 40,000, not 4,000. If the United States attacked Cuba, the Soviets were fully prepared to defend it with conventional and nuclear munitions. That probably would have led to an all-out nuclear exchange, which might have killed 70 million people in the United States alone.

The secret strength of the Soviet forces in Cuba made the deliberations of President John F. Kennedy and his ExCom (Executive Committee) even more fraught than they realized. The initial consensus in the room was that the United States had to be prepared to use force to remove the nuclear missiles in Cuba. The president was torn initially between ordering a surgical airstrike or authorizing a more general bombing campaign. The Joint Chiefs of Staff favored an invasion. So did Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, even though he later tried to portray himself as a dove.

Eventually cooler heads prevailed. President Kennedy decided to institute a naval blockade — he called it a “quarantine” because a blockade is an act of war — to prevent the Soviets from sending more missiles to Cuba and to pressure them into removing the ones they already had. But the possibility of a military clash still loomed if the Soviets resisted the U.S. Navy’s attempts to inspect their ships. The ExCom, moreover, was committed to military action if the quarantine failed.

Plokhy writes that the Soviet troops in Cuba were poised on a knife’s edge, expecting an American attack any minute. The crisis further escalated on Oct. 27 when a Soviet missile battery shot down a U-2 spy plane over Cuba. The same day, another U-2 mistakenly wandered into Soviet airspace over the Chukotka Peninsula in Siberia. Two U.S. F-102 fighter jets armed with nuclear-tipped missiles were scrambled from Alaska to locate it. They only narrowly missed running into two Soviet MiG-17s sent to intercept the spy plane.

The shoot-down of the U-2 over Cuba is well known, but the near miss over the Bering Strait came as news to me. So did an even more dangerous confrontation that night in the Bermuda Triangle.

When a Soviet attack submarine surfaced to recharge its diesel batteries, it found itself surrounded by U.S. Navy destroyers that had been tracking its movements. The two sides were literally eyeball to eyeball when a Navy P-2 surveillance aircraft flew low over the submarine, dropping flares that detonated with loud noises and blinding flashes. The Soviet captain thought he was under attack and gave orders to make ready to dive and fire at the nearest destroyer, the USS Cony. His weapon of choice was a nuclear torpedo that would have not only destroyed the Cony but also badly damaged all of the other U.S. ships in the vicinity. That catastrophe, which could have rapidly escalated into World War III, was averted only because the quick-thinking captain of the Cony sent an apology via a signal lamp, and the Soviet skipper saw it just before his sub was about to dive.

Such close calls spurred Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev into intensive diplomacy to defuse the crisis. Their publicly announced deal was for the Soviets to withdraw their missiles in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba. But there was a secret codicil: Kennedy agreed to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey that could reach Moscow as quickly as Soviet missiles in Cuba could reach Washington. Interestingly, Plokhy writes, Khrushchev got the idea of asking for the removal of the Jupiters from an article in The Washington Post by columnist Walter Lippmann, who was privy to White House discussions.

Because the Jupiter deal remained secret, Kennedy was widely seen to have ended the crisis with a display of strength. Khrushchev was humiliated and forced out of power two years later. In reality both men deserve credit for making concessions to save humanity.

Of course, the two leaders also deserve blame for putting the world on the brink of disaster to begin with. If there is one flaw in this deeply researched book, it is that Plokhy does not emphasize how reckless Kennedy was not only in ordering the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion but also in continuing poorly concealed efforts to overthrow or kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Plokhy writes that Cuba was a “low priority” for JFK until the missile crisis. In fact, both Kennedys were obsessed with avenging the Bay of Pigs. Robert Kennedy personally oversaw Operation Mongoose to overthrow Castro — not normally the role of an attorney general.

This U.S. threat to a “fraternal” regime was one of the reasons for Khrushchev’s fateful decision to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. His other motive was to redress a U.S. advantage in long-range missiles. Unfortunately, the Soviet strongman had no clear idea of what he would do if the missiles were discovered by Washington, as they soon were.

Finishing this sobering account, I could not help but think of the dangers that exist today from nuclear standoffs involving Pakistan, India, China, North Korea and the United States. There is the potential for even greater danger in the future if Iran or other countries acquire nuclear weapons. At least Kennedy and Khrushchev had open lines of communication, but the United States does not even have an embassy in Pyongyang or Tehran. The Cuban missile crisis should be seen not as a relic of a long-concluded conflict but as a terrible augury of what could happen in the future if we cannot reduce the risk of nuclear war. The next crisis may not have such a peaceful conclusion.

Nuclear Folly

A History of
the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Serhii Plokhy

444 pp. $35