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New views of the Cuban missile crisis

Chaos may have been closer than we think.

By Carlo Wolff / June 2, 2008



The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 generated unbearable tension. I was a sophomore at Brandeis University in suburban Boston and recall being ordered into a bomb shelter in the student union as newspaper headlines grew ever more ominous. To believe that ducking under a desk or burrowing underground could protect you from nuclear annihilation seemed crazy then (it still does), but there was no apparent alternative. Apprehension ruled.

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To grasp how frightening and dangerous those 13 days really were, read One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobbs’s chronicle of events that pitted the United States against the Soviet Union over the presence of nuclear missiles in Cuba. Dobbs’s hour-by-hour unspooling of that charged period, and of the resolution of that tension, is as gripping as any fiction.

Dobbs, a Washington Post reporter who spent two years researching this book, presents new material to substantiate his claim that this narrowly averted disaster was a matter of detail, poor communication, accident, and pure coincidence.

The crisis was driven and, thankfully, resolved by men of great talent, character, ambition – and patriotism.
The last is the rub: different countries, different ideologies, and different goals can generate intractable problems. An understanding of the fact that we need to live together, albeit uneasily, is what resulted, with face (particularly for “great survivor” Fidel Castro) perhaps the greatest loss.

Dobbs is an impeccable researcher and reporter. What gives his book special depth, though, is his gift for characterization. Take this glimpse of pain-plagued John F. Kennedy after he learns that U-2 pilot Chuck Maultsby has veered off-course into Soviet air space:

“He was discovering the limits of presidential power. It was impossible for a commander in chief to know everything that was being done in his name. There were so many things he would never find out until ‘some [expletive]’ fouled everything up. The military machine operated according to its own internal logic and momentum.... Nobody had considered the possibility that a U-2 might end up over the Soviet Union on the most dangerous day of the Cold War.”

Three canny protagonists
Dobbs is similarly astute about the canny Nikita Khrushchev, a master of the salty, telling homily; and Castro, the grandiloquent, messianic Cuban leader who staked all on dignidad, a conception of national pride that put him into uneasy alliance with the Soviet Union, his country’s chief patron.

Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro were the prime movers behind this near fiasco. Among its elements: a US blockade of Cuba, a massive Soviet militarization of the Cuban countryside to counter that (with, Dobbs reports for the first time, moves to bomb the US naval base at Guantanamo) and the accidental penetration of Soviet air space.

Ultimately, Dobbs seems to admire all three of his main protagonists, praising Kennedy for his cool-headedness, Khrushchev for his craftiness and flexibility, and Castro for his sense of mission and canny self-casting as leader-martyr-hero. Books like this one are needed, Dobbs suggests, to help reclaim and celebrate civilian control of the military – and to learn from history.

The step back from the brink
Kennedy and Khrushchev “had the power to blow up the world, but they were both horrified by the thought of nuclear Armaggedon,” he writes. “They were rational, intelligent, decent men separated by an ocean of misunderstanding, fear, and ideological suspicion.”

Later, he adds, “JFK’s great virtue, and the essential difference between him and George W. Bush, was that he had an instinctive appreciation for the chaotic forces of history.”

Chaos may never have come so close to being unleashed as it did in October 1962. Dobbs’s extraordinary book reminds us that keeping powerful forces under control is particularly hard in the nuclear age. And, as always, essential.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer in Cleveland and the author of ‘Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories.’

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