July 25, 2014
James Blight on the Cuban Missile Crisis
Posted on Aug 21, 2008
By James Blight
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.
—Bob Dylan, composed in late October 1962
In his riveting new book, “One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War,” Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs shows us why Bob Dylan was right all along. Dylan, as Dobbs reports, was holed up during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 in a Greenwich Village apartment, writing his apocalyptic masterpiece “A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall.” Dylan told an interviewer, “People sat around wondering if it was the end, and so did I.” It was that scary, or at least it seemed so at the time, a near miss to nuclear oblivion. Yet in the quarter-century following the crisis, it became the fashion among many memoirists and academics, the members of what was to become a substantial literary cottage industry on the crisis, to try to explain the miss while minimizing, or even ignoring, just how near to catastrophe the world had come during the crisis. Michael Dobbs, marshaling a virtual Everest of evidence from a dizzying array of sources, convincingly reverses the emphasis, by describing the American, Russian and Cuban details of the nearness—some of the evidence never before available—while attributing the miss to a mixture of last-minute caution on the part of the leaders in Washington, Moscow and Havana, along with good luck. This is the Cuban missile crisis up close, and very personal. There is no disputing Dobbs’ conclusion: Bob Dylan, along with much of the rest of the world, was right to be afraid in October 1962. It might all have ended right then and there, via any number of scenarios that, in Dobbs’ reconstruction, seem frighteningly plausible.
Mythologizing the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962-1986
What happened during those 25 years during which the crisis seemed to many to become less dangerous than Dylan and Dobbs believe it was? Why the rush to explain why President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev managed to escape without a war of any kind? Several possibilities come to mind. Some memoirists, notably White House aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr., gushed convincingly about the significance of Kennedy’s steely demeanor in getting Khrushchev to back down. Moreover, even the most basic information about Soviet decision-making and operations was almost entirely unavailable in the West, which reinforced the inclinations of Western scholars to focus on Kennedy and his inner circle. So did the posthumous publication of Robert Kennedy’s “Thirteen Days,” which gave a virtual presidential seal to accounts such as Schlesinger’s. In addition, the most widely read scholarly account of the crisis ever written, Graham Allison’s “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis” (1971), derived in large part from a Harvard seminar during the 1960s in which Kennedy administration officials related their experiences in the crisis, further reinforced what had already become the conventional wisdom about the crisis: It was a great escape that “dazzled the world,” as Dobbs quotes Schlesinger, made possible through a “combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated.” According to the developing consensus, therefore, Bob Dylan was wrong. Sure, the crisis was obviously dangerous, but JFK and his colleagues, with some help from Khrushchev, were up to the task of resolving it without a war.
By the mid-1980s, the conventional wisdom regarding the events of October 1962 had become a canonical story of, one might say, a hail crisis, well met and managed. In a nutshell, the story goes like this. In October 1962, out of the blue, the Soviet Union (the bad guys) precipitated a crisis with the United States (the good guys) by attempting to install nuclear missiles in Cuba (the irrelevant guys who happened to own the “parking lot” for Soviet missiles), 90 miles from the Florida keys. Luckily, U.S. intelligence discovered this provocative plan before its completion—in fact, before the nuclear warheads had even arrived in Cuba. And so, with steady, well-calibrated coercion, Kennedy compelled Khrushchev to back down and remove the missiles. Kennedy stood tall and strong; he did not compromise; and in just 13 days he secured an unequivocal victory for the U.S. over the Soviet Union. He rightly ignored revolutionary Cuba and its leader, the firebrand Fidel Castro, since Cuba and Castro were obviously irrelevant to both the deployment and the removal of the missiles. In this way, the Cuban missile crisis became the historical sine qua non for the new field of “crisis management.”
There were notable dissenters from this storyline, including Noam Chomsky, Garry Wills, Seymour Hersh and E.P. Thompson. But by the 1970s the Schlesinger view, buttressed by Allison’s analysis, was firmly established as the received wisdom.
Demythologizing the Missile Crisis, 1986-2002
The outcome of this quarter-century of celebrating JFK’s cool, crisp crisis management skills, thereby draining the missile crisis of its emotion and its multifaceted riskiness, is what Dobbs calls “the mythologization of the Cuban missile crisis.” His objective is to demythologize the crisis by replacing legends with verifiable facts. Dobbs believes that myth-making about the crisis has been both pernicious and unending. He cites the 2000 movie “Thirteen Days,” for example, as one of the latest in a long line of efforts to portray the crisis in heroic terms by omitting a great deal of what we now know about October 1962. He is not against heroism. He emphatically singles out JFK, for example, for heroically resisting many of his senior advisers who recommended throughout the crisis that he authorize a U.S. air attack and invasion of Cuba. But, to Michael Dobbs, the principal fact about October 1962 is not the heroism of the crisis managers, but the supreme danger into which these managers inadvertently plunged their countries and the world.
Demythologizing the missile crisis did not begin with Dobbs. It has a history of its own, which missile crisis aficionados know in detail, but which the general reading public, for which Dobbs’ book has been written, can hardly be expected to know. So in order to situate Dobbs’ achievement within a (by now) longstanding tradition of demythologizing the events of October 1962, and also to make sense of the vehemence with which Dobbs often objects to the myths he seeks to demolish, we need to go back to 1986, the year after the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union (and two years before Dobbs joined the Moscow bureau of The Washington Post). Though no one knew it at the time, the study of the Cuban missile crisis was about to change fundamentally. It would become the leading historical edge of glasnost, of the openness and self-criticism that Gorbachev championed.
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