The Book That Stopped an Outbreak of Nuclear WarHistorians in the News
tags: Cold War, nuclear weapons, book reviews, Cuban Missile Crisis
It is very likely that no work of popular history has ever informed an American president’s actions in a crisis as much as The Guns of August did in the fall of 1962. Published that spring, Barbara W. Tuchman’s account of the outbreak of World War I made a lasting impression on John F. Kennedy. “In reading the history of past wars and how they began,” he wrote to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in July 1962, “we cannot help but be impressed how frequently the failure of communication, misunderstanding and mutual irritation have played an important role in the events leading up to fateful decisions for war.”
Academic historians may have sneered at the bestseller, which won the Pulitzer Prize the following year, but they grudgingly lauded its vivid rendering of anxious rivals, buffeted by misapprehension, as they plunged headlong into the pointless hellfire of modern industrial warfare. The young commander in chief insisted the book be read by his inner circle and had copies delivered to officers at U.S. bases around the world. Robert Kennedy later recalled that during the Cuban missile crisis the president committed himself to avoiding “a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] The Missiles of October.”
The story of those tense days in the fall of 1962 is well known. On October 14, an American U-2 spy plane discovered medium-range Soviet missiles in Cuba, where three years earlier a band of rebels toppled a U.S.-friendly despot. Fidel Castro, the leader of the revolution, initially sought a rapprochement with Washington, or at least a tacit commitment to noninterference. But after the bungled U.S.-supported invasion of Cuba in 1961, Castro declared himself a Marxist-Leninist and appealed to the Soviet Union for protection. Although Khrushchev was initially cool on the Cuban revolutionaries—he was committed to reducing the temperature of the Cold War and avoiding unnecessary confrontation with the United States—he embraced Castro’s government in April 1962. Soon Soviet soldiers, military equipment, and armaments were moved into position 90 miles off the coast of Florida. The American reconnaissance pilot who first spotted the missiles worried he might be responsible for starting World War III.
As recounted in works with titles like One Hell of a Gamble, One Minute to Midnight, and Gambling With Armageddon, the two global superpowers at the center of the Cold War locked eyes and tensed up, bringing the world to the brink of devastation. What followed, in one telling, was the victory of American resolve. Kennedy made clear that he knew about the missiles in Cuba and declared their presence unacceptable. After consulting with advisers, he declared a quarantine of the island (Kennedy studiously avoided calling the measure a blockade, which is an act of war). The missiles were removed shortly thereafter. The real story was less sensational if no less impressive, involving intensive back-channel communications and U.S. concessions. Most importantly, Kennedy agreed to relocate U.S. missiles in Turkey in exchange for Soviet missiles being removed from Cuba. However one shades the episode’s conclusion, the competing hegemons prevented an outcome befitting a Tuchman sequel.
What they did not do, of course, was banish nuclear war from the realm of possibility. Indeed, the prospect of nuclear calamity looms in the background of current geopolitics. The end of the Cold War scattered seeds of discord as several nations raced to develop nukes of their own, Iran and North Korea being only the most recent and worrisome examples. While the Obama administration successfully negotiated with Iran to contain its nuclear ambitions—a feat Trump scuttled and that Biden hopes to restore—any progress with North Korea has remained elusive. A frustrated Obama warned his successor that Kim Jong Un’s regime would be his most vexing foreign policy challenge. By 2017, amid loose talk of fire and fury, there were “multiple realistic pathways” to the disaster of a nuclear war with North Korea, according to one expert. The Trump presidency is over, but the existential danger of nuclear weapons persists.
With this simmering predicament in mind, Serhii Plokhy has written a new account of the incident that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Plokhy, a professor of history and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard, has written prize-winning accounts of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown and the implosion of the Soviet Union. In Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he brings a deep understanding of Soviet political reality to the oft-told story of those 13 dicey days in October 1962, a narrative still defined much more by Camelot than the Kremlin in the popular imagination. The result is a magisterial work based on a bevy of U.S. and Soviet archival sources, including previously classified KGB documents. The perspective Plokhy provides exposes the perverse incentives that fueled dangerous nuclear power plays during the Cold War and, he suggests, beyond. Understanding how the most famous near miss of the Cold War was peacefully resolved can, he believes, bring us some reassurance—and perhaps offer crucial life-saving insights.
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