(Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy)
Vladimir Putin’s ill-advised invasion of Ukraine last February has not produced the results that he expected. As the battlefield situation has degenerated for Russian army due to the commitment of the Ukrainian people and its armed forces, along with western assistance the Kremlin has resorted to bombastic statements from the Russian autocrat concerning the use of nuclear weapons. At this time there is no evidence by American intelligence that Moscow is preparing for that eventuality, however, we have learned the last few days that Russian commanders have discussed the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons. The conflict seems to produce new enhanced rhetoric on a daily basis, and the world finds itself facing a situation not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 amidst the Cold War.
(A map of Cuba annotated by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, displayed for the first time at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 13, 2005. Former President Kennedy wrote “Missile Sites” on the map and marked them with an X when he was first briefed by the CIA on the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 16, 1962.)
Since the possibility of nuclear war seems unfathomable the fears of many have put western intelligence agencies on high alert. To understand how we might solve the current impasse it might be useful to turn to Max Hastings latest book, ABYSS: THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS, but one must remember Vladimir Putin is no Nikita Khrushchev. The author of thirty books, most of which focus on topics related to World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam, Hastings is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable historians to tackle the confrontation that ended peacefully in 1962.
Hastings recounts the history of the crisis from the viewpoints of national leaders, Soviet officers, Cuban peasants, American pilots and British peacemakers. Hastings, success as an author has always rested upon eyewitness interviews, archival work, tape recordings, and insightful analysis – his current work is no exception. The positions, comments, and actions of President John F. Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro among many other important personalities are on full display.
(President Kennedy addresses the American people on October 24, 1962)
Hastings offers a very thoughtful approach to the study of history while applying his immense analytical skills. A major theme that Hastings carries throughout the narrative is that the American response to Soviet actions was based more on political considerations rather than threats to American national security. America was not more vulnerable with missiles in Cuba because “both sides submarine-launched ballistic missiles were becoming ubiquitous realities in the oceans of the world.” JFK is a controversial actor in the crisis according to historians. Did he act to reassure his reelection in 1964 and burnish his anti-communist credentials or was he the bulwark against an American military led by the Joint Chiefs of Staff with members such as General Curtis LeMay. Hastings’ conclusion is clear, JFK was a towering and inspirational figure during the crisis contributing some of its most memorable rhetoric.
The author introduces his topic by immediately delving into the Bay of Pigs fiasco which earned JFK the enmity of the Pentagon by calling off any air strikes to support the invaders. History has shown that the decision was correct and did not allow a possible crisis to spiral out of control. The problem that emerged is that Khrushchev could not understand the president’s lack of action. For the Soviet Premier, the president’s indecision and indecisiveness during the invasion confirmed that JFK was weak and rife for bullying as events a year later would reflect.
Hastings correctly argues that the Kennedy brothers became Castro haters due to the Bay of Pigs, an emotion they did not feel previously. They felt humiliated and became obsessed with Cuba as they sought revenge – hence Operation Mongoose to get rid of Castro which Robert Kennedy was put in charge of. As the narrative unfolds a true portrait of Castro emerges. He was considered a beloved politician in Cuba at the time but a poor administrator. He had overthrown Cuban President Fulgencio Batista and at the outset was a hero for his countrymen. However, the crisis highlighted a delusional individual who at times believed his own heightened rhetoric and whose actions scared Khrushchev.
(A spy photo of a medium-range ballistic missile base in San Cristobal, Cuba, with labels detailing various parts of the base, displayed in October of 1962.)
Once the background historical events are pursued Hastings settles in presenting an almost daily account of the crisis. The American response is presented through the actions of the Kennedy brothers, a series of advisors, the most important of which was Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, described as the “wizard of odds;” Chief of Staff, McGeorge Bundy; CIA head, John McCone; former ambassador to Moscow, Llewellyn Thompson; Maxwell Taylor, head of the Joint Chiefs; other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a host of others. The only foreign leader who demands a great deal of coverage in the narrative is British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan who comes across as an appeaser who believed in diplomacy, an approach much different from his Suez Crisis days, and held the view that England and Europe had lived for years under the threat of Russian nuclear attack and could not accept that missiles in Cuba was a menace for the United States. At times it appeared that JFK humored his British counterpart, but his respect for the man evaporated quickly.
In the Soviet Union, the crisis was caused, driven, and finally resolved because of the actions of Nikita Khrushchev, a man who survived Stalin’s purges and worked his way up the Kremlin bureaucracy. Khrushchev was an opportunist who launched the crisis without considering what would happen if his plan faltered. In foreign policy, it is quite clear that if you start something without a clear exit strategy it probably will result in disaster. The Soviet leader’s major errors were confusing two objectives: the defense of Cuba, and his plan to project Soviet power and threaten the United States by extending the Kremlin’s reach into the American backyard. Further, Khrushchev believed that the missiles could be hidden from American U2 flights and once the American election was over he would spring his surprise on Washington. When things began to unravel, Khrushchev resorted to bullying and threats dealing with nuclear war or at least a move on West Berlin. Khrushchev engaged in unbridled adventurism, and willingly took a risk that had little or no chance of success.
Hastings’ account is balanced as he also examines the role of important Soviet officials including Defense Minister, Rodion Malinovsky who prepared the strategy to place missiles in Cuba; Anastas Mikoyan, the First Deputy of the Soviet Council of Ministers; Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin; Alexandr Alekseev, the KGB station chief in Havana who had a close relationship with Castro; Andrei Gromyko, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and a number of others.
(President John F. Kennedy meets with Air Force Maj. Richard Heyser, left, and Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Curtis LeMay, center, at the White House in Washington to discuss U-2 spy plane flights over Cuba.)
What sets Hastings’ account apart from other historians is his integration of the views of everyday individuals in the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba. Cuban peasants, Russian workers, and American college students are all quoted as to their reactions and emotional state during the crisis. The result is a perspective that is missing from other accounts and educates the reader as to the mindset of ordinary citizens who would pay the ultimate price if the crisis had gone sideways.
The diplomatic and military dance presented places the reader inside the ExCom Committee in Washington, the Presidium in Russia, and the seat of the Cuban government in Havana, and interactions with NATO allies. We witness the strain on all participants, less so perhaps for Castro who seemed to seek martyrdom, and the delicate negotiations that led to a settlement. All the tools were used to reach a settlement. Backchannel talks, bringing in “the Wise Men” such as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, individual conversations between ordinary citizens who had influence on their governments, the role of U Thant and the United Nations, the bombastic approach advocated by the US military, and the strategic analysis of each communication are all included. Within this context, Hastings effectively delves into a number of controversial areas including the Kennedy brothers’ distrust of the Pentagon and at times fearing they would disobey his orders, and JFK’s role in combating Pentagon pressure to launch air strikes followed by an invasion to remove the missiles and overthrow Castro.
According to Hastings JFK’s major error was expecting Khrushchev to think and act like himself. “He assumed that the Kremlin would be deterred from shipping offensive nuclear weapons by the strength of his own public and private warnings….and its own consciousness of the USSR’s nuclear weakness.” The debate at the heart of the crisis was JFK’s need to convince the Russian leader that his actions in fact risked nuclear war, something Khrushchev was against. He wanted to test American resolve, not cause a nuclear conflagration.
(Cuban President Fidel Castro replies to President Kennedy’s naval blockade via Cuban radio and television, on October 23, 1962.)
Hastings corrects a number of myths associated with the crisis. One of the most famous was the idea that on October 24, 1962, as Soviet ships approached the quarantine line the White House held its breath as to whether they could stay the course. In reality no merchant ship carrying weapons or troops approached anywhere near the invisible line. Soviet ships had reversed course the previous day, only one of which was closer than 500 miles. This was due in large part because of the weakness American naval communications. Another area that historians have overlooked was events in the Atlantic Ocean – particularly concerning were four Soviet submarines, one carrying a nuclear warhead. Hastings explores this aspect of the crisis, and the reader can only cringe as to what Washington did not know and the slow communication process that existed throughout the crisis.
(U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, second from right, confronts Soviet delegate Valerian Zorin, first on left, with a display of reconnaissance photographs during emergency session of the U.N. Security Council at the United Nations headquarters in New York, on October 25, 1962.)
JFK had ample opportunity to resort to military action, but staid his hand despite pressure from members of the Joint Chiefs and others. The president was the driver of debate and became more of an “analyst-in-chief.” He pressed his colleagues to probe the implications of any actions the United States would take and offer reasonable solutions to end the crisis. For JFK it seemed as if he was in a chess match with Khrushchev countering each of his moves and trying to offer him a way out of the crisis he precipitated.
JS Tennant in his review of ABYSS in The Guardian, October 16, 2022 points out that “In January this year, Russia’s deputy foreign minister threatened to deploy “military assets” to Cuba if the US continued to support Ukrainian sovereignty. As has become all too apparent in the past weeks, tactical nuclear missiles are still a threat, along with chemical weapons and supersonic missiles. It’s as if Russia’s desperate scramble to maintain influence will stop at nothing and, as Hastings points out, ‘the scope for a catastrophic miscalculation is as great now as it was in 1914 Europe or in the 1962 Caribbean.’ Abyss provides chastening lessons on how easily things can spiral out of control but also how catastrophe can be averted.”
The book has arrived at a propitious moment in history as once again there is a nuclear threat from the Kremlin. One can only hope that our current crop of leaders will strive to avoid the worst with the same fervor of JFK and Khrushchev in October 1962.
(June 3, 1961, Vienna Summit)