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James Blight on the Cuban Missile Crisis

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Posted on Aug 21, 2008
book cover

By James Blight

I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard. ...
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

—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.

 

book cover

 

One Minute to Midnight

 

By Michael Dobbs

 

Knopf, 448 pages

 

Buy the book

 

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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By loans, December 11, 2011 at 8:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Different people in the world get the business loans from various creditors, just because it’s comfortable and fast.

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By omniadeo, August 28, 2008 at 6:01 pm Link to this comment

I want to get this book, but one thing that I have read elsewhere is that the crisis was averted by a back channel contact (Dobrynin) between the Kennedy’s and Kruschev. You can read Dobrynin’s fascinating notes here:

http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/Cuba/dobrynincable.shtml

It is very telling that the Kennedys had to back channel. They did not trust their own ambassador, or possibly believed that he was being spied on, and they were afraid that they were losing control of the US Military and Intelligence apparati.

On November 22nd they did. And so did we.

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By BobZ, August 26, 2008 at 10:12 am Link to this comment

Ralph-O-Matic,

I don’t disagree with your comments about AF generals. I was in SAC and we heard about “bombs away Lemay” all the time. Kennedy thought LeMay was nuts and he was the general satirized in the Dr. Strangelove movie. You may be a little hard on your dad. The military does a good job of programming to obey orders, although in Vietnam, the officer corp was so bad in come cases, the grunts rebelled against them to the point of “fragging” them.

With this in mind, I am amazed at the number of Americans who think McCain would make a better commander in chief than Obama. I don’t see a hot head like McCain being able to control the gung ho military leaders. Thank God, we had Kennedy in charge in 62. I look at Obama as being more Kennedy-like in his maturity and coolness. McCain has already tried to up the ante on the Russia Georgia situation, when we have very few chips to play with. That is not a good sign. And the “we are all Georgians” was way over the top. Most Americans still think Georgia is a state in the union.

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By Ralph -O-Matic, August 26, 2008 at 9:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Hey, BobZ: Think again. 

It wasn’t THEY who were going to start a war; it was US.  The Air Force generals in particular.  In that sense, JFK was an actual hero. 

BTW:
I was a 6th-grader in Jacksonville, Fla then.  Navy aviator neighborhood and school.  Our dads all disappeared overnight and were gone for days.  Our moms wouldn’t answer our questions and they acted worried and it rubbed off on us.  We kids began to look at the news and our worry snowballed.  At school, we had a “fire drill” where they drove us 6o miles to the west to have lunch in a state park for most of the day. Gee, that had never happened before. Practice for the post-nuke evacuation, do doubt. Ha.

35 years later, my dad explained he and his squadron of A-1 Skyraiders had camped in Homestead, Fl.  They were to have been the first to depart for Cuba, being slower props, and their job was to drop tac nukes on to the various Cuban antiaircraft sites.  They were scheduled for 3 to 4 passes per site and really didn’t expect to return home.  I asked him his thoughts today, with hindsight.  He would have had no regrets; just doing his duty.  I repeat, DUTY. As it turns out, his DUTY would have guaranteed the obliteration of the State of Florida, as the Ruskies already had nuke missles operational—unbeknownst to US intelligence.  My Dad, without conscience, would have signed the death warrant of at least the state of Florida, his own family and god knows what else—just to do his DUTY for a threat that was negotiated away.  Good christian dad. Honor.  DUTY.  Bunk.

Well, let me just tell you all.  My dad is an idolator.  He worships at the altar of the military myth in this country. Most of us do.  He worships violence.  He killed people for a living.  He is a decorated hero.  He will be held accountable.

Be prepared all of you.  All self-proclaimed christians will be held accountable. Better actually read the Book before its too late.

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By BobZ, August 25, 2008 at 11:29 am Link to this comment

I had just gotten out of the Air Force in July 62, and still lived close to March AFB home of the 15th AF and B47 and B52 long range bombers. In October the bombers were redeployed to Homestead AFB in Florida, and as one politician observed at the time, Florida was lucky is didn’t sink under the weight of all the military resources in the state. A lot of my buddies at the time, got a six month extension of their enlistments, and I was worried I would be called back in, which I would have if a real war started. Even so, I can’t say that most people were overly worried at the time - we just didn’t believe a real shooting war would break out that close to home. We didn’t think Russia and Cuba would be that dumb to start a war in our backyard. I guess we were fortunate in our ignorance of just how close we really came. Great review.

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By Double U, August 22, 2008 at 10:07 pm Link to this comment

Nino Baldino es mucho loco.

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By Xntrk, August 22, 2008 at 8:51 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Blackspere said
>>Ah, just what we need another rehash of history.  The historical question to be answered is why would the Soviets place nuclear armed missiles in Cuba knowing that the US would learn of them sooner or later and take umbrage to put it mildly.  The answer is relatively simple——it was tit-for-tat.  The US had placed missiles in Turkey and to counter that the Soviets used Cuba.  The Soviets knew the US would not tolerate such action and a compromise was always the Soviet’s aim.  Taking matters to the brink was a bargaining ploy on both sides——both sides knew what the other wanted and in the end that’s what they got and in the process making each side look like the victor.  Nothing beats a win-win situation. << and several others voiced similar opinions.

But, the books I’ve read and McNamara’s interview with Castro, all emphasize that Fidel was the hidden factor that neither the Russians nor Kennedy were considering.

Fidel told/asked the Russians to bring the missiles to Cuba, on the grounds that he had nothing to offer the USSR but a close-in base in their chess match with the US. In the take-outs from the book, the author makes it clear that Castro ordered the attempts to shoot down the spy planes.

In his interview, MacNamarra asked if Fidel had been aware of the position he was putting Cuba in. His reply was along the lines of ‘So? We were dead either way.’ He told other interviewers []Tad Tdulz in ‘Fidel’] that he believed he had to have a quid pro quo with the Russians or become nothing more then a vassal state.

In the Angolan war, Castro obligated the Russians to committing more arms and equipment then they ever planned - Same idea. The Angolan War was Castro’s baby, the USSR would never have committed troops to fight it.

I think the US has always underestimated Fidel Castro, assuming he was never more then a South American Dictator along the lines of Peron. Fifty years later, The Revolution is still going strong and we’ve gone thru 9 different Presidents; each one of them failing to bring about the long-promised restoration of the Mafia to Havana.

Have you been following the Cuban Boxers in the Olympics? Eight medals for 11 boxers who have never fought in the International Boxing matches - Talk about underestimating!

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By LarSim, August 22, 2008 at 3:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis well.  I was a U.S. Marine deployed aboard an amphibious landing ship sailing around in circles off the coast of Cuba during October, 1962.

We had no idea what we were in for, or how dangerous the situation.  The possible employment of tactical nukes scares me even now.

I tend to agree with the “tit-for-tat” crowd.  I think the Soviets wanted to give the United States a taste of their own medicine.  The deployment of US missiles in Turkey along the USSR border countered by the deployment of USSR missiles in Cuba.

Stalemate.  Both batteries of missiles, Turkey and Cuba, removed.  Although removal of the US missiles in Turkey didn’t quite make the splash in the U.S. news media that the removal of the USSR missiles from Cuba did.

So it goes.

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By oregoncharles, August 22, 2008 at 12:37 pm Link to this comment

I remember that period vividly - I was a high school senior.  As soon as I and my cohort entered college, things started to pop.  Is that a coincidence?

Not exactly.  Whatever we THOUGHT about Kennedy’s actions, we FELT that a beloved leader was playing “Chicken” with our lives at stake.  I think that fuelled a fundamental cynicism about our political leadership that then exploded in the later 60’s.  Of course, the inspiration of the Civil Rights Movement, which Kennedy supported only reluctantly, was at least as important.

But the Missile Crisis was responsible for the undertone of despair and nihilism that ran through the youth rebellion - witness the Bob Dylan song.

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By basho, August 22, 2008 at 9:28 am Link to this comment

’ to think that if this happened today instead of Jack Kennedy, Bobby, Salinger, Sorenson, Stevenson being the names dealing with the crisis, that those names would be Bush, Cheney, Rice, Negroponte, Hadley.’

imo it is happening today.
the gulf of hormuz full of the u.s. navy, reports of israel and u.s. soldiers killed in the georgian offensive, russia cutting all ties with nato, russia re-arming syria, russian navy welcomed by chavez and the list goes on. it’s one minute to midnite all over again. the u.s. mindset of total war is still in play and no one in ‘the land of the free’ knows it. it’s more than scary. it’s the last cry from a country whose economy is ravaged, where it’s people are in debt over their heads, whose mfg. base is non-existent, whose politics are those of war. it’s 30 seconds to midnite

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By Blackspeare, August 22, 2008 at 8:47 am Link to this comment

Ah, just what we need another rehash of history.  The historical question to be answered is why would the Soviets place nuclear armed missiles in Cuba knowing that the US would learn of them sooner or later and take umbrage to put it mildly.  The answer is relatively simple——it was tit-for-tat.  The US had placed missiles in Turkey and to counter that the Soviets used Cuba.  The Soviets knew the US would not tolerate such action and a compromise was always the Soviet’s aim.  Taking matters to the brink was a bargaining ploy on both sides——both sides knew what the other wanted and in the end that’s what they got and in the process making each side look like the victor.  Nothing beats a win-win situation.

Today, the US has signed a document with Poland to place interceptor missiles near their border with Russia.  Here we go again——another bargaining ploy.  Of course the plan is only on paper so there’s a way to go yet and a new US administration may take a different view.

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By Fahrenheit 451, August 22, 2008 at 8:29 am Link to this comment

Ah, these were rational men in full control of reality; unlike the minions of today; controlled by the oligarchs of the present times.  Make no mistake:  Even full out nuclear war is acceptable as long as “they” survive to finish their vision of the future; a world of their making and control.  A world devoid of humanity; a world we would not recognize and likely would not want to live in.  Buyer beware!

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By Big B, August 22, 2008 at 7:40 am Link to this comment

I’ll have to order this book today as I have always found this to be one of the most provocative events of the 20th century. While the human race has been on the brink of nuclear war for decades, everyone possessing nukes (even the wackos in Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) seems to have developed a more acute sense of responsibility, a little voice in their heads that says “if you use these weapons, you most likley will bring destruction to your own door”. This “balance of terror” (MAD, whatever) has maintained a least a nuclear peace since Nagasaki.
After doing extensive reading about the crisis for a termpaper in the early 80’s, I was always taken aback that the “nuke Russia now” crowd seem to out number the voices of reason. Gen. Lamay in particular seemed to welcome a confrontation with the Soviets. His behavior during the crisis still makes me wonder to this day, how many war hawks in the pentagon even today hold onto the wet dream that a nuclear war is winable?
Another more sobering thought always comes to mind when I look back on the Cuban Missle Crisis, and that is, how would a George Bush or Reagan, or even Clinton or Carter handled this? It is frighening beyond conprehension to think that if this happened today instead of Jack Kennedy, Bobby, Salinger, Sorenson, Stevenson being the names dealing with the crisis, that those names would be Bush, Cheney, Rice, Negroponte, Hadley…
Kinda scares the shit out of you, doesn’t it?
My grandmother always used the phrase “there but for the grace of God go I” Amen, grandma!

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By Nino Baldino, August 22, 2008 at 3:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

..this was the perfect October surprise..ie: a whole lotter bunk. Lets see,we have a president who while serving as a PT commander was so derelict in his duty the fastest vessle afloat..it could do some 80knots an hour..was cut into by a destroyer,which could do some 35 an hour.MacArthur declared he should have been given a courts martial for that. Then he ,as president,removes air cover for the cuban freedom fighters at the bay of pigs thus insuring their defeat.but also encouraging anti-castro fighters to come out of hiding in cuba ,reveal themsleves and thus get shot or captured..many were..then this great leader arranges to pay Castro some 54 million dollars in money and tanks etc in exchange for these prisoners,whom he caused to get captured! He then sends some 35,000 troops down to Oxford Mississipi to help a kid get into a southern college..(which he did have the right to get into)muzzles the military causing Major General Walker to resign out of protest,he later was a target for Oswald..then came this crisis..brrrrr..just before election day too..did any one see wealthy folks leave the seacoast and head inland..when the so called silos were dismantled did anyone see what was inside those mysterious crates hauled aboard those ships..nooooo it was all theatre..and so by the time it was all over,Communism was firmly intrenched in our hemisphere..Sen.Goldwater ran for president and was smeared as a war monger by the peace candidate LBJ..and guess what,,within 6 months of winning LBJ sent 300,000 troops to Nam etc etc..all theatre…

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