The defusing of the Cuban missile crisis involved delicate diplomacy

JFK carefully threaded a solution, which included a series of hard lines and face-saving measures that allowed the Soviets to withdraw their missiles peacefully. 

"The Abyss: Nuclear Crisis Cuba 1962," by Max Hastings, Harper 2022, 538 pp.

It has been 60 years since the Cuban missile crisis, a two-week standoff between the United States under President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet Union under Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The two countries’ brinkmanship brought the world to the edge of nuclear annihilation. 

The Cuban missile crisis has been the subject of countless books, including one by President Kennedy’s brother and attorney general, Robert Kennedy. Adding to that collection is the latest book from bestselling popular historian Max Hastings, “The Abyss: Nuclear Crisis Cuba 1962.”

Reading any account of the crisis, much less one as accessible and involving as this crafted by Hastings, always provokes a graveyard chill. The story is by now familiar: In late 1962 the Kennedy administration received photographic confirmation that the Soviet Union had placed a number of ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba, 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

President Kennedy was immediately faced with a shortlist of options, all of them bad. He placed a military quarantine around Cuba to prevent the delivery of any further ordnance, and a flurry of increasingly nervous messages crawled between Washington and Moscow. “A critical feature of the Crisis was the snail-like pace of communication between Washington and Moscow,” Hastings writes, “impeded by bureaucracy, imperfect technology and the requirements of ciphering and deciphering, followed by physical delivery of messages to intended recipients in the Kremlin, Soviet embassy, US State Department and White House.”

U.S. generals urged a full-scale military response, and Cuba’s dictator, Fidel Castro, seemed every bit as ready to believe what Hastings refers to as Khrushchev’s “rocket rhetoric,” which amazed even Communist officials. “We were completely aghast,” Khrushchev told Czech leader Antonín Novotný. “After all, if a war started it would first be Cuba that would vanish from the face of the Earth. ... Only a person who has no idea what nuclear war means, or who has been so blinded, like Castro, by revolutionary passion, can talk like that.” As Hastings puts it, “Khrushchev suddenly found himself eyeball to eyeball not only with the Americans, but also with the wild Latin American revolutionary whom he had chosen to embrace.”

War could easily have erupted, either through frayed nerves or belligerence or simple incomprehension. JFK somehow threaded a diplomatic solution through this cacophony, a delicate series of hard lines and face-saving measures that might allow the Soviets to withdraw their missiles peacefully. By the time the quarantine was lifted on Nov. 20, the world’s two superpowers were already inching back from the “abyss” of this book’s title.

This author has always had a talent for drawing vivid characters, and his various sympathies are clear throughout the narrative. His Kennedy and Khrushchev are both practiced politicians who are suddenly shocked by the horrifying potential for a cataclysm. His Castro is a doltish zealot who never quite understands the full importance of what’s happening. “For years afterwards, Castro quizzed top Russians about the rationale underlying their actions in the summer and fall of 1962,” Hastings writes. “He never received a rational response, because there could be none.”

Interestingly, the standout character in the book is Bobby Kennedy, “he of the mean mouth and ice-blue eyes, only thirty-six, committed to his brother through flame and fire,” as Hastings writes. “RFK ... had some common sense, terrific energy, together with a confidence rooted in intimacy with the president, and another virtue uncommon in politics: he was willing to change his mind.” Hastings calls his conduct “sometimes immature, often ruthless, spasmodically ugly,” but also “capable of sensitivity.” These flourishes underscore the pivotal role RFK played in defusing the situation.

In the end, however, the entire drama centers, as it must, around Kennedy and Khrushchev. Hastings concedes their hard-headed personal courage, but his judgment is that their most important shared characteristic was that they were “prudently haunted by consequences.” Readers of “The Abyss” will naturally hope the world hasn’t run out of leaders who are as “prudently haunted by consequences.”

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