Atomic Chaos

"One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War" by Michael Dobbs, Knopf, 426 pages, $28.95

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 has been analyzed and dissected from nearly every possible angle. The event described as the climax of the Cold War can be seen as a riveting and emotional human drama. "One Minute to Midnight," Michael Dobbs tells his readers at the outset, does not presume to tell the whole story as it was never told before. On the contrary: The new revelations he has managed to find and describe only attest to how much is still concealed from us even today, nearly 50 years later, about the events that are considered, more than any others, to have brought humanity closest to a nuclear world war. I do not know everything, the author admits, but what I have discovered so far shows to what extent the rehashed story presented to us does not reflect what really happened.

The prevailing mythological version of the 13 days of danger began to take shape as early as a few days after the threat was lifted and Soviet missiles were removed from sites in Cuba where they had been installed. The Kennedy family - i.e., president John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert - had a clear interest in publicly disseminating an improved, brilliant version of the events. To do so, they enlisted talented and efficient people from the glamorous entourage that also surrounded the young president, headed by the influential historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

It would have been possible to live with another myth surrounding the decisive events in our short history, notes Dobbs, if only we had been persuaded that this orchestrated distortion had - and still has - a very harmful impact on and undesirable influence over U.S. foreign policy makers. Kennedy and his men rushed to define removal of the missiles from Cuba as a great and decisive victory for the determination and wisdom of the young president. The Soviets were frightened and retreated from their aggressive intentions, said Schlesinger from every possible platform, because they came up against the United States' expressed willingness to defend itself and to use its considerable force. From there, it was not long until adoption of the diplomatic rules of warships.

Presumptuous thinking

The first manifestation of this aggressive and presumptuous way of thinking was in the U.S.'s behavior in Vietnam as early as during Kennedy's presidency: The Americans had no doubt that the Vietnamese would not hesitate to surrender, at the sight of the U.S. forces. What a pity, argues Dobbs, that those behind the U.S.'s violent foreign policy did not know that the decision makers in the jungles of Vietnam were not graduates of the Harvard school of business administration, and the mysteries of game theory did not interest them. For some reason, they took America's threats seriously and returned fire.

Dobbs has no problem, of course, identifying traces of the Kennedy legacy also in the U.S.'s actions in Iraq during the presidency of George W. Bush. Kennedy, the author recalls, had proven military experience from World War II and knew the limits of power. The myth was needed to bolster his image as a fearless leader who goes all the way, but in reality, Kennedy acted completely differently. His successor in the White House today, although from a different party, does not stop glorifying his predecessor's brave actions. But Bush, says Dobbs, and primarily the neoconservatives around him, tend to accept the Cuban myth as is. They have no doubt that the use of unlimited force will achieve the desired solution.

Based on brief and concise reports concerning the drama that unfolded on various fronts, the book under review does a good job of relating the various stages - from the discovery of the missiles in Cuba by American spy planes, to Khrushchev's decision to remove them. Communist Party secretary general Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev in Moscow, president Fidel Castro in Havana and president Kennedy in Washington were naturally the main heroes. The author includes background information describing the motives of both Khrushchev and Kennedy; the brief history of their acquaintance; and the main points of conflict between the superpowers. This is all woven into the large tapestry of the Cold War.

Subversive move

The Americans did not hesitate to describe the decision of the Soviet Union's leader to place missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba as evidence of the malicious intentions of the evil empire. After all, this showed that the goal of international communism, based in Moscow, was to gain control over the world. Castro's willingness to deploy the missiles on an island so close to the coast of Florida only reinforced among the American leadership the recognition that he was a sworn enemy who should be removed from office, and any means for doing so was legitimate.

The official myth concealed this part of the story - the Kennedy administration's desperate efforts to remove the "aging missiles" from Cuba - from the eyes of the American public. It also concealed the fact that the head of this subversive move, who did not hesitate also to enlist in its ranks criminals and Mafia people, was Robert Kennedy, the man depicted as the saint and idealist of the Kennedy family.

After the 1959 overthrow of Cuba's Fulgencio Batista, the corrupt leader who obeyed America's dictates, the U.S. did everything in its power to control the island. Castro's argument - and the reason for inviting the Soviet Union to deploy missiles in his country - that the American neighbor was planning to invade his country and take it over, was therefore not completely baseless. Indeed, the Soviet Union and its leader were very surprised when they discovered such a loyal supporter in such an unexpected region of the world.

Khrushchev, Dobbs reminds us, was a loyal and enthusiastic communist, who believed with all his heart that history was on his side and the process should not be stopped: Communism would eventually rule the entire world. And when the opportunity arose for him to help speed up this process, he did not ignore it. The fact that, from their sole meeting in Vienna, he concluded that Kennedy was indeed a weak leader only reinforced his decision to accept the enthusiastic Latin communist invitation.

But in contrast to the skewed descriptions, the author states at the conclusion of his book that Khrushchev, just like Kennedy, did not want to lead the world into a war from which no one would emerge alive. At the first opportunity he was offered a chance to step away from the gamble, without his honor being unbearably damaged; he "blinked first" and got out.

How lucky we are, says Michael Dobbs, that at such a fateful moment for humanity, there were, at the two decisive focuses of power, two wise and rational leaders.

The book uses notes from secret White House meetings to describe the divided opinions of the president's advisers. There were some who called for moderation, caution and careful consideration; opposing them, as was to be expected, were the generals who demanded a rapid and unequivocal response - an invasion of Cuba, come what may. Prominent among the latter group was General Curtis LeMay, a World War II veteran and a rash officer, who was later the model for the character of the mad general in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove." But Kennedy hesitated and in the end decided, very wisely, to impose a naval quarantine on the rebellious island.

The first encounter between Soviet and American ships trying to enforce the quarantine was an important signpost that taught much about future developments in the crisis. It is not hard to describe the drama that occurred deep at sea as U.S. and Soviet ships faced off, their captains each looking at the "whites of the eyes" of the other, and deliberating whether to withdraw or to attempt to break through the quarantine on the way to Cuba, which awaited the missiles.

But, according to Dobbs, such a scene never took place: The U.S. ships determined to impose the quarantine never confronted the enthusiastic Soviet captains in the stormy seas. At least one day before the possibility arose of such an encounter in the middle of the ocean, when Khrushchev heard that a quarantine had been imposed, he ordered all his ships to stop advancing and to refrain from a direct confrontation with the U.S. Coast Guard. But the official description of events highlighted the drama and even promoted the concept of America's decisive power.

Nevertheless, even this book does not attempt to minimize the intensity of the danger the entire world faced in October 1962. The detailed description of events is intended not only to heighten the drama, but also to show that there is a foundation of terrible distortion in the simplistic portrayal of the crisis, to the effect that its wise and rational handling saved the whole world from certain destruction.

The book portrays the crisis as a huge victory for U.S. foreign policy, and neglects the unexpected, uncritical aspects of the sequence of events: The source of the danger was not in the White House or the Kremlin. In these two places, there were people who knew the extent of the danger threatening the entire world, and they did everything they could to prevent it. What the official version does not often mention to us is the many possibilities that existed for the world to enter a conflagration without the leaders wanting this to happen. During the time of the crisis, there were too many points of unexpected friction threatening to take the helm away from the leaders' grasp.

At one of the peaks of the crisis, when it became apparent to the White House that it was not completely in control of events and that communications lapses prevented it from getting information vital to decision-making, Bobby Kennedy burst out and said: "There's also some bastard who doesn't understand what they're saying to him." And indeed, the danger to the world during those critical days did not stem from those who wielded the power, and not even from the mad generals who called for pulling the trigger - but from "the bastards" of all sorts at all the intermediary levels. And Michael Dobbs has solid examples to illustrate this argument.

Thus no official version of the story tells us about the American U-2 spy plane that set out at the height of the crisis on an espionage mission to the North Pole. The pilot lost his way, encountered a storm and penetrated deep into Soviet territory. The U.S. plane was spotted on Soviet radar screens, and there were quite a few Soviet officers who claimed that the flight was the first step of an expected U.S. nuclear attack against the Soviet Union, and if that was the case, a preemptive strike and counterattack must be launched immediately. It is not hard to imagine what might have been the results of such a step.

What contradicts the claim of the leaders' full control over the development of the crisis is the fact that in Washington, they knew such an occurrence was possible, and therefore ordered an immediate halt to all sorties by spy planes. But someone out in the field, far from headquarters, did not hear, did not know, and in general, all those confusing instructions from Washington did not seem appropriate to him.

What happened to the Americans also happened to the Soviets. Castro did not stop warning his allies that the Americans were planning a large-scale invasion of the island. He was not mistaken, as mentioned, in his assessment, and demanded that they take a harder stance vis-a-vis the signs of violation of Cuban sovereignty. He demanded, for example, that reconnaissance flights over his country by his neighbors be prevented. Khrushchev rejected Castro's requests and made sure to clarify to his troops on the island that they were not authorized to decide of their own accord on any hostile military action. But here, too, the soldiers in the field were tense. Even among the Red Army soldiers concentrated on the tropical island, there were some who were furious over the U.S. flights, and eventually a commander was found who decided to do something and shoot down an enemy plane.

There were military advisors around Kennedy who maintained that such a blatant violation of an unwritten agreement, whereby the Americans could spy and take photos over Cuba's sovereign territory, could not be allowed to occur without a response. The possibility that a horrible third world war would break out without anyone wanting it to, was therefore very real.

The account of the winners and losers in the missile crisis is also complex. The two main heroes did not remain in office long. Kennedy was assassinated and the possibility that the assassination was connected to the events of October 1962 cannot be ruled out. Khrushchev's colleagues in the end deposed him, and the fact that his role in the missile crisis was described as a shameful disgrace undoubtedly played a decisive role in the effort to remove him from power. Ostensibly, the only winner in the leading trio was Fidel Castro: the man who in certain respects prompted the crisis from the start. But was his victory really clear and unequivocal? He remained in power and continued to rule Cuba for more than 40 years after the Soviet missiles were taken away. He managed to preserve Cuban sovereignty as well as Cuban "dignity." But the price was steep: international isolation, economic problems and complete dependence on the Soviet bloc.

Michael Dobbs finished writing his book before the outbreak of the Georgia crisis, and assessments of the outbreak of a new Cold War are now being heard everywhere. It is very possible that had he wanted to summarize his book now, he would add another lesson learned about the advantages and disadvantages of a policy of aggression and the appropriate response to it.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is a historian and editor of the Ofakim series published by Am Oved.