“One Minute To Midnight” is an hour-by-hour account of the 13 days in October 1962 during which the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. Organized by days and times the scene shifts between Washington, Havana, Moscow, many sites in the United States where invasion forces assembled and across Cuba where defenders dug in and prepared their counter attacks.
I have read a much of history, including about the Kennedy Administration, but learned a lot from this book. What I like most about it is the in-depth research into released archives that enabled the author to present a perspective unavailable to earlier historians. The portrayals of the principal players are based on the evidence and does not always follow a party line. JFK seems wiser than some advisors but luckier than wise. Bobby Kennedy is depicted as more an assistant president than merely the attorney general. Readers will conclude that he was obsessed with trying to overthrow Castro through Operation Mongoose, the program to destabilize Cuba by sabotage. It was out of this that many plots to assassinate Castro were hatched and plans to “sink the Maine again” by sinking a U. S. ship, shooting down a commercial airliner, invading a Caribbean neighbor or conducting acts of terror in Miami or Washington and blaming it on Cubans. Vice-President Lyndon Johnson is seen as more hawkish than the President and excluded from some of the more crucial meetings. Adlai Stevenson is seen as an indecisive character who surprises JFK with his splendid performance at the United Nations. Rather than the prestigious Secretary of State that his eight years of service would suggest, this tome reports that Kennedy was dissatisfied with Dean Rusk and planned to replace him in a second term. I remember the Missile Crisis but did not appreciate the movement of forces into Florida and the degree of alert under which our military was placed.
On the other side, Khrushchev is painted as one who never had any intention of going to war over Cuba while Castro is the hyperactive ideologue who is willing to lead his country into nuclear incineration in order to fight the yanquis.
Nameless individuals including suffering crews of Soviet submarines and an intruding bear in Minnesota that almost launched nuclear armed aircraft were part of the volatile mix.
The issues were bigger than Cuba or a few missiles. It is opined that the missiles really did not alter the strategic balance. With no defense to missiles launched from Russia, Cuban launch sites served more as a tripwire to prevent an invasion of Cuba and a potential tradeoff for Berlin. They had a much greater impact on the political world than on the military.
This 2008 researcher reveals information that not only astonishes contemporary readers but is much different from what was appreciated by the actors at the time. The politicians, admirals and generals planning their strikes against Cuba had no idea of the numbers of Soviet forces, including combat troops, on the island and the number of tactical nuclear weapons that could have been used to destroy Guantanamo, beach heads and targets throughout the southeastern United States. Readers are left with the impression that airstrikes followed by invasion would have been a much costlier enterprise than was anticipated at the time. Settlement was reached when Soviet vessels turned around hundreds of miles from the quarantine line, some two days before an attack on Cuba was planned.
By the end, a reader is grateful that JFK had judgement enough, can understand how Johnson became embroiled in Vietnam, Castro was a nut job and, for all his bombastic outbursts, Khrushchev may have been the one with the sense to restrain Castro and cut his deal with Kennedy on acceptable terms and at the right time. The missiles were removed, the status quo was maintained in Berlin, obsolete missiles were removed from Turkey and the world lived on. Looking back on situations like this I sometimes regret the lost opportunities to rid the world of the likes of Castro but, after reading this book I think that we are lucky that leaders decided to leave well enough alone.
Author Michael Dobbs has publicized the crucial facts of a critical time in world history in captivating prose that is both educational and a great read. I recommend it for anyone interested in the Cold War, the Kennedy Administration, Cuban-American relations, or who is just looking for a reason to bless our good fortune in being alive.
The Cuban missile crisis began and ended 50 years ago. Although it covered just a brief span of time - 13 days in October 1962 - its impact is still influential to U.S. policy toward proliferation in general and todays nuclear ambitions in Iran or North Korea in particular.
During these thirteen days, the future seemed to hang on a thread, U.S. military forces around the world were placed on high alert, and the huge fleet of B-52 Stratofortress nuclear bombers as well as land-based missiles under General Curtis LeMay of the SAC (Strategic Air Command) were moved to DEFCON-2 (Defense Condition Two), the highest state of readiness short of war.
This was the first and only time during the Cold War that the SAC reached such a level and that the U.S. and the Soviet Union came close to using nuclear weapons against each other. Shortly after the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, Nikita Khrushchev made the famous statement that he had a factory producing ballistic missiles “like sausages.” While this was patently untrue, the rest of the world had no way to see through this bluff; Khrushchev had his timing right because everybody was awed by the successful Sputnik mission. Only a handful of intelligence, military and political leaders knew that Soviet strategic forces were actually inferior to those of the United States. Troubled by this strategic imbalance, Khrushchev was convinced that there was enormous waste in the Soviet missile program. When he learned, in mid 1962, that the U.S. continued its deployment of intermediate-range Jupiter missiles pointed at Moscow (30 in Italy and 15 in Turkey), he was feeling encircled. “What about throwing one of our hedgehogs down the pants of Uncle Sam?” Khrushchev asked his defense minister Malinovsky (according to historian Colonel General Dmitri Volkogonov). The hedgehog was a Soviet nuclear missile, and by “down the pants of Uncle Sam,” he meant in the Caribbean.
A few months later, the ever-crafty Khrushchev connected the two ideas of Soviet military assistance for Cuban defense (in April 1961 John F. Kennedy had given the go ahead for the famously disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and a new operation, code-named “Mongoose” was already on the planning board) and the strategic advantages for the Soviet Union – Cuba would become Moscow’s Italy or Turkey.
Michael Dobbs has studied American, Soviet, and Cuban sources to write a well informed book about the crisis that followed Khrushchev’s grand strategic design – and perhaps his greatest bluff. The author describes in great detail, day-by-day and in parts even hour-by-hour what Arthur Schlesinger jr. called “the most dangerous moment in human history.” Of course, when we look back on those thirteen tumultuous days in October 1962, we do so with the knowledge we have today. We know for example that Khrushchev would never have started a nuclear war; in the middle of the crisis he even ordered his commanders in Cuba to disobey any order to fire a single missile. One is forced to reconsider if President Kennedy really was the clear winner of this “Hell of a Gamble”. After all he had to make important concessions, like removing the Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Khrushchev had convinced the Americans to take Soviet strategic needs seriously.
Recommended reading Beschloss, Michael R.: The Crisis Years Brugioni, Dino: Eyeball to Eyeball Fursenko, Aleksander and Timothy Naftali: One Hell of a Gamble Gibson, David R.: Talk at the Brink Khrushchev, Sergei: Nikita Khrushchev
The book covers the events of the Cuba missile crisis, the options political leaders had and their decisions - everything on a high level of detail. The really scary thing about this crisis - and what the public is probably not aware or - is that it might easily have run out of control of Kennedy and Krushchev. For instance: Tactical nuclear missiles (to repel a US invasion) to were under control of hot-blooded Cuban (not Russian) front-line commanders. A Soviet sub that was forced to surface by US naval forces had nuclear torpedoes on bord that could have been fired by its commander even without re-confirmation from Soviet high command. So functioning command and control was not established at both conflicting parties.
Das Buch besticht durch seine außergewöhnliche Aufmerksamkeit gegenüber den vielfältigen Details der Kuba-Krise, was durch die Schilderung in chronologischer Abfolge der Ereignisse sehr gut unterstützt wird. Dennoch gerät das Werk dadurch nicht zu einer dumpfen Aufzählung historischer Fakten, vielmehr versteht es der Autor ein lebendiges Bild der Geschehnisse entstehen zu lassen, geprägt durch das Spannungsfeld zwischen kurzfristigen Entscheidungen auf der einen Seite und andererseits den Erwägungen, die - ohne Übertreibung - die Zukunft der gesamten Menschheit betreffen. Faszinierend und ebenso erschreckend ist dabei, wie häufig die obersten Entscheidungsträger die äußerst angespannte Lage nicht unter vollständiger Kontrolle hatten, wo der Fehler eines einzelnen Soldaten der Auslöser für einen nuklearen Schlagabtausch hätte sein können. Obwohl es sich trotz guter Ausgewogenheit dennoch um eine historische Aufarbeitung handelt, die den Fokus auf das Agieren der USA legt, womit manche Aspekte der historischen Einbettung in den Hintergrund treten (stellvertretend sei die Stationierung der Jupiter-Raketen in der Türkei genannt), gebührt dem Autor Anerkennung für die Leistung, die er mit diesem Buch vorgelegt hat.