White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger was surprised when on October 20, 1962, President John F. Kennedy abruptly broke off a Midwest campaign swing and headed for the capital. “Something strange is happening,” Salinger said to Kennedy, probing for an explanation. “The minute you get back to Washington, you are going to find out what it is,” the president snapped.
Two days later Kennedy announced to an alarmed and wary nation that the USSR had secretly installed medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. This move was unacceptable, the president told his fellow citizens. He was instituting a blockade to prevent further Soviet deployments and demanding that the missiles be removed forthwith.
Fifty-nine years ago the world held its breath as the United States and the Soviet Union danced on the brink of Armageddon. Disaster was narrowly averted, but as Harvard Professor Serhii Plokhy shows in his new book “Nuclear Folly,” the dangers of that moment still persist. His story is also a warning.
Plokhy’s study of the of the events of October 1962 may be the most complete telling of this frightening tale. It is deeply researched and armed with new documents from Ukrainian KGB and Foreign Ministry archive. His book shows us not only the tense negotiations, compromises and back room deals that ultimately brought the crisis to an end, but also the blunders and miscalculations of both national leaders and lower-level players that almost produced a global disaster. Plokhy presents the story in a readable and engaging style spiced with suspense, human interest and a touch of dark humor.
Plokhy gives a splendid account of Operation Anadyr, the audacious Soviet maneuver that brought rockets, nuclear warheads and 40,000 troops to Cuba before the Americans knew what was afoot. He presents sharply-drawn sketches of the Soviet military leaders who headed the operation and skillfully follows the development and implementation of the plan itself. But he also adds a deeply human dimension by describing the experiences of the soldiers, sailors and missile-men as they crossed the Atlantic, enduring conditions that in the armed services of other countries might have led to mutiny.
Plokhy continues to follow the fates of these warriors, trained to fight in the frozen steppe, as they fried under the tropic sun battling the attacks of insects and worms that stung their bodies and infested their food.
Throughout the book, Plokhy stresses how precarious things were as Soviet and American leaders grabbed and juggled many balls at once. While Nikita Khrushchev and Kennedy sought to extract themselves from the Cuban imbroglio, they both had to keep a weather eye cocked toward the potential flashpoint in Berlin with its implications for the power balance in Europe.
Each of the leaders also had to contend with dangerous pressures within their own camps. Kennedy, who initially inclined toward the use of force and then moved toward compromise, had to deal with bellicose elements among his political advisors as well as with a military whose chiefs pushed for air strikes followed by a full-scale invasion of the island. For his part, Khrushchev had to cope with Fidel Castro, who was outraged by the Soviets’ decision to strike a deal with the Yanquis over his head. The cantankerous Cuban strongly opposed the withdrawal of the rockets and, after a solution was at hand, seriously endangered the agreement when he balked at any outside inspections in his domain.
Tensions and disagreements at the top were not the only threats to a peaceful resolution, however. The actions of individuals far lower on the food-chain had the potential to set off ruinous events. The shooting down of an American U-2 reconnaissance plane on October 27 was not approved from the Kremlin or by the Soviet commander on the island. Air Force General Curtis LeMay and the other chiefs of staff urged an all-out attack in response. Later on, a confrontation in the Bermuda Triangle between U.S. Navy warships and a Soviet submarine was defused thanks to a lucky accident and a timely apology.
In the end, both sides accepted compromises they did not relish, and the world avoided a quick trip to the stone age. The U.S. and the USSR slowly groped towards a cold peace, established better communications and took some serious steps toward arms control.
But Plokhy does not leave us with sanguine conclusions. He reminds us that mankind just narrowly escaped disaster because Khrushchev and Kennedy truly dreaded its prospect. He also notes that in 1962 it was a bipolar world and nuclear arms were in few hands. Today things are different. The U.S. and Russia have scrapped most arms control agreements and, along with a rising China, are expanding and modernizing their atomic arsenals. India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel and, soon perhaps, Iran are nuclear powers. Dangerous flashpoints pop up by the day.
Meanwhile, we seem to have put the prospect of global thermonuclear war comfortably in the distorted rear-view mirror called history. Plokhy’s often chilling narrative urges us to keep our eyes on the road ahead.