Book Reviews - Spring 2021

Seconds from Midnight

Busting the myth that skilled diplomacy saved the world

By Gregg Herken | April 16, 2021
The U.S. Navy intercepts a Soviet merchant ship near Cuba in November 1962. (PJF Military Collection/Alamy)
The U.S. Navy intercepts a Soviet merchant ship near Cuba in November 1962. (PJF Military Collection/Alamy)

Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis by Serhii Plokhy; Norton, 464 pp., $35

More than a half century has passed since the United States and the Soviet Union went “eyeball-to-eyeball” over the Cuban missile crisis. Nikita Khrushchev’s clandestine introduction of nuclear-tipped missiles to that “imprisoned island,” as President John Kennedy called Cuba, has generated a library’s worth of books on the 13 days in October 1962 that did—or did not—bring the world to the brink of thermonuclear war.

Two recently published histories represent the opposite ends of that debate. The Silent Guns of Two Octobers, by Theodore Voorhees Jr., senior counsel at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Covington & Burling, asserts that there was never much danger of a nuclear war, since both Kennedy and Khrushchev had matters under control and were equally determined to avoid a conflict. At the other end of the spectrum is Gambling With Armageddon, by Martin J. Sherwin, a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian at George Mason University, who believes that it was only by “plain dumb luck”—in the words of one of Kennedy’s advisers—that an unimaginable disaster was narrowly averted.

In Nuclear Folly, the latest addition to the literature, Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Cold War history at Harvard, comes down decidedly in Sherwin’s camp. Writes Plokhy: “John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev managed to avoid nuclear war after making almost every mistake conceivable and every step imaginable to cause it.” Drawing on declassified Soviet, Cuban, and American documents, the author makes a compelling case for his thesis.

From the outset, the U.S. president and the Soviet premier misunderstood and mischaracterized the intentions and actions of the other. Eager to redress a strategic nuclear imbalance and at the same time protect Fidel Castro, his Communist client, Khrushchev believed that putting missiles in Cuba would prevent an American invasion of the island. Instead, it very nearly provoked one. For domestic political—if not military—reasons, Kennedy could not abide a Soviet ballistic missile base just 90 miles from the U.S. homeland.

The most valuable—and illuminating—part of Nuclear Folly is its insight into Khrushchev’s persona. Most books on the crisis have told the story, of necessity, from the American perspective. Not until the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 and the subsequent release of Soviet documents has it been possible to tell the tale from the Russian side, and Plokhy makes the most of the new material. By his account, once Khrushchev had decided to smuggle nuclear missiles into Cuba—Operation Anadyr—the 68-year-old Russian leader could not be dissuaded from following the doomed gambit out to its bitter, and humiliating, end. Although the success of Anadyr was critically dependent on confronting Kennedy with a fait accompli, Khrushchev seemed not to understand that in contrast to Russia’s vast taiga, Cuba’s palm trees offered little opportunity for effective concealment of medium-range missiles. “There’s no place there to hide a chicken, let alone a rocket,” warned a Soviet general. Nonetheless, Khrushchev persevered. Informed that U-2 overflights had alerted Kennedy prematurely to the missiles’ presence on the island, Khrushchev failed to call the operation off—the response expected at the White House—but instead ordered the ships carrying the missiles and warheads to speed up delivering their cargo to Cuban ports.

There was at least equal self-deception, miscalculation, and confusion on the American side. The CIA believed that 4,000 Russian troops and missile technicians had been positioned in Cuba—an underestimate by an order of magnitude. Not until 1992, at a conference in Havana on the 30th anniversary of the crisis, did Kennedy’s secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, learn that contrary to his and the administration’s assumptions, Soviet nuclear warheads were already in Cuba when the missiles were discovered. On Saturday, October 27—the most dangerous day of the crisis—the Russians had more than a dozen atomic-tipped cruise missiles available to fire at an American invasion fleet. Soviet technicians had also made 36 medium-range R-12 ballistic missiles combat-ready, each armed with a one-megaton nuclear warhead. American cities as far west as Seattle were within their range.

Operation Anadyr and the U.S. response to it had more cliffhangers than a Netflix thriller. At the height of the crisis, an Air Force U-2 accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace, provoking suspicions in the Kremlin that the plane was conducting reconnaissance preparatory to a U.S. nuclear attack. That same day, the panicking commander of a Soviet anti-aircraft battery disobeyed his superior’s orders and shot down a U-2 over Cuba, killing its American pilot. Fearing that an invasion of the island was imminent, Castro cabled Khrushchev, pleading with him to attack the United States with nuclear weapons. “When this was read to us, we, sitting in silence, looked at one another for a long time,” the Russian leader remembered.

Nuclear Folly also offers a new twist on the oft-told story about “the man who saved the world.” According to legend, Captain Valentin Savitsky of Russian submarine B-59, believing that he was under attack by U.S. destroyers enforcing a blockade of Cuba, ordered a nuclear-tipped torpedo to be readied for firing. But Savitsky’s order was countermanded by a second, more senior captain on the sub, Vasilii Arkhipov.

In Plokhy’s version, Savitsky was dissuaded by Arkhipov only long enough to surface the B-59, whereupon the submarine was buzzed by a low-flying Navy plane, which dropped flares and fired tracer bullets ahead of the boat. Believing once again that he was under attack, Savitsky ordered an emergency dive, intending to reinstate his previous command to fire the nuclear torpedo. As Savitsky was leaving the conning tower to get back into the sub, however, the way was blocked by his signals officer, whose Morse lamp had caught in the narrow hatchway. The delay was sufficient for both men to see an urgent message flashed from the destroyer U.S.S. Cony, apologizing for the incident and promising that no attack was forthcoming. If Plokhy’s account can be believed, the planet was saved from Armageddon only by the courtesy of a U.S. Navy captain and the clumsiness of a Soviet submariner.

The crisis was ultimately resolved in a secret deal, whereby Khrushchev agreed to withdraw his missiles from Cuba in exchange for Kennedy’s promise to remove U.S. missiles in Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union. For political reasons, however, Kennedy insisted that the terms of the missile swap be kept secret—and so it remained for the next 25 years, until it was revealed by the release of JFK’s White House tape recordings.

Plokhy intends his book to be more than just entertaining history, as he makes clear in his preface: “The crisis did not develop into a shooting war because Kennedy and Khrushchev both feared nuclear weapons and dreaded the very idea of their use.” Ironically, that fear has diminished in the intervening years, as the missiles remain in their silos, even as the danger that they will be used eventually has increased. Thus, the arms control efforts begun under Kennedy and Khrushchev have since stalled, and some earlier progress has recently even been undone by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. The subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons and the advent of new technologies—like cyberwarfare—will complicate those efforts for the future. Plokhy urges a return to the negotiating table by all nuclear powers and offers the close calls of Operation Anadyr as a cautionary tale.

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