Cold War Follies

The Cuban missile crisis was scarier than we thought.

“One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964
By Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali
W.W. Norton; 420 pages; $27.50

In October 1962, after the Soviet Union stationed nuclear missiles in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, President John F. Kennedy called upon Dean Acheson for advice. With typical self-assurance, the grand old man of the Cold War bellowed his recommendation at a meeting of the so-called ExComm of top Kennedy aides: a swift U.S. airstrike to take out the nukes. When asked what the result would be, Acheson replied that Moscow would then destroy a cache of NATO nuclear missiles in Turkey. Then what? he was asked. Under our NATO obligations, Acheson said, Washington would have to attack a nuclear base within the Soviet Union itself. And then? Acheson paused. “That’s when we hope,” the magisterial wise man said, “that cooler heads will prevail, and they’ll stop and talk.”

Mercifully, the end of the Cold War has brought an end to this type of hair-raising exchange. But those readers looking to remember the bad old days can find this sort of thing, and plenty of it, in Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali’s important new book on the Cuban missile crisis, “One Hell of a Gamble. It would be nice to report that their account packs the pleasure and thrills of a spy novel, but that’s not exactly the case. Spy novels induce a frisson of tension that’s enjoyable because the reader knows nothing is really at stake. But Fursenko and Naftali’s book, while it will leave readers’ knuckles white, is no fun at all to read, because the events it describes are so frightening.

Their impressive account is one of the best of a flood of new books about the Cold War, triggered by the end of the superpowers’ long struggle. These have ranged from the triumphalist (such as Jay Winik’s On the Brink, a hagiographic account of the Reagan-era officials he sees as the Cold War’s victors) to the tendentious (say, Peter Schweizer’s simplistic Victory, giving all the credit, again, to Reagan) to the thoughtful (such as We Now Know, by the dean of Cold War historians, John Lewis Gaddis). “One Hell of a Gamble” belongs in the last category. Fursenko and Naftali resist the urge to gloat or sermonize, and instead let their research speak for them. It has quite a bit to say, little of it soothing. Fursenko, a leading Russian historian and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Naftali, a fellow in international-security studies at Yale, add much to what we know about the coldest days of the Cold War from careful digging in newly opened Soviet archives.

In particular, the popular image of the missile crisis as a triumph for JFK’s diplomacy gets badly dented. Kennedy began his term hoping to establish a new detente with Moscow, but he also sought to rid the Western Hemisphere of communism by ousting Castro. These goals soon proved incompatible. In his 1960 campaign, Kennedy talked up a fictional missile gap in order to show up the GOP as flaccid on communism. During the Eisenhower administration, Castro had begun moving deeper into the Soviet orbit out of fear of a U.S. invasion; Kennedy’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 aggravated Castro’s anxieties and gave him a rallying cry for a pro-Soviet tilt. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, fearing the loss of his model for a new path of socialist development, got mischievous. “Why not throw a hedgehog at Uncle Sam’s pants?” he asked, and decided to move missiles into Cuba. The gambit would, at a stroke, deter Kennedy from invading Cuba, cement Moscow’s alliance with Havana, and shift the world strategic balance. Washington would learn to live with the missiles, Khrushchev figured, just as Moscow lived with NATO’s nuclear missiles on its Turkish frontier.

B ut Kennedy had no intention of doing so. Instead of Acheson’s airstrike, the ExComm chose to blockade Cuba with warships. After several harrowing days, Khrushchev blinked and agreed to remove the missiles in return for an American pledge not to invade Cuba and a secret pact to remove the Turkish missiles. The superpowers subsequently entered a brief era of eased tensions, installing the famous Kremlin-White House hot line and signing a nuclear test ban treaty. “’One Hell of a Gamble,’” writes Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Camelot’s court historian, shows “an American president doggedly bent on the avoidance of nuclear war.” Actually, it shows that mixed politics send mixed signals. True, the planet was not destroyed, for which we should be grateful, but Kennedy’s maladroit foreign policy helped create the conditions for the crisis. The world was brought to the verge of nuclear catastrophe because of a missile gap that did not exist, Turkish missiles that were not supposed to be there, and an invasion that was not coming.

Khrushchev doesn’t come off looking any better. Fursenko and Naftali offer a wealth of new details about Soviet and Cuban motives, including the most comprehensive picture yet of Havana’s slow entry into the Soviet orbit. We also get a better look at the roots of Khrushchev’s decision to back down. In the “X” article, the landmark 1947 essay that spelled out the fundamentals of America’s Cold War strategy, George Kennan argued that “the Kremlin has no compunction about retreating in the face of superior force. And being under the compulsion of no timetable, it does not get panicky under the necessity for such retreat. … [I]f it finds unassailable barriers in its path, it accepts these philosophically and accommodates itself to them.” Sure enough, confronted with such a barrier in 1962, Khrushchev decided to give way. He retreated as philosophically as he could, although he described his reaction to the setback in rather less elegant language. There was no need for the Kremlin, he said, to “act like the czarist officer who farted at the ball and then shot himself.”

Fursenko and Naftali’s book is full of this type of gripping new detail, including the book’s biggest, scariest revelation. The Kremlin, we learn, had decided to use tactical battlefield nuclear weapons against U.S. troops if Kennedy invaded Cuba. Had Kennedy not opted for the blockade, it’s clear that the first combat use of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki could have prompted a terrifying cycle of escalation. The Cuban missile crisis, it seems, may have been even worse than we had thought.

Facing a more complex world, some diplomats and conservative scholars seem to long nostalgically for the era of Mutual Assured Destruction. “One Hell of a Gamble” comes as a welcome corrective. Bad as today’s global uncertainties may seem, the Cold War system always had an even more dangerous potential for getting out of control. Even after the superpowers’$2 1962 showdown led to an easing of tensions, the planet still had a series of nuclear scares, such as the October 1973 nuclear alert–which happened on the detente-minded watch of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. The inherent problem with Cold War brinkmanship, as the Harvard theorist Thomas C. Schelling has noted, is that it could elicit concessions only if one’s opponent didn’t know exactly where the brink was. “One Hell of a Gamble” reminds us just how terrifying that game could be. “Any fool could start a war,” Khrushchev used to like to say. In 1962, Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy almost did.