June 20, 2013
James Blight on the Cuban Missile Crisis
Posted on Aug 21, 2008
By James Blight
We also learned a good deal about the deeply disturbing Cuban trajectory toward a kind of fatalistic martyrdom. Believing that a U.S. air attack and invasion was virtually inevitable ever since the U.S.-backed failed invasion of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, the Cuban forces on the island undertook a series of provocative measures that greatly raised the odds of a military clash of major proportions. Feeling they had nothing to lose, for example, the Cubans began trying to shoot down low-level U.S. reconnaissance planes. Moreover, they urged their Soviet allies on the island, all 43,000 of them, to follow their lead in striking the Americans first, in whatever ways were available to them, rather than simply waiting, as they believed, to be destroyed. The Soviet shoot-down of an American U-2 spy plane with a surface-to-air missile on the morning of Oct. 27, we learned, was directly attributable to the impact the voluble Cubans were exerting on their Soviet allies on the island. Cubans and Soviets, after all, were in the same fix. Almost all of the Cubans, together with the Soviet forces on the island, seem to have concluded that they were about to die in a U.S. nuclear attack, and thus they called for two responses: The Soviets should prepare a nuclear attack on the invading U.S. forces, while a portion of the Cuban and Soviet forces would retreat to the mountains and jungles of Cuba from which they would wage, under Cuban leadership, a guerrilla war against the American occupation force. This much was known by October 2002, when Fidel Castro convened the last in the series of international conferences on the crisis in Havana.
From these and similar revelations, the scariest of all the lessons from the missile crisis began to emerge: In October 1962, a nuclear war that might have destroyed the societies of Cuba, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and perhaps would have escalated to a global nuclear holocaust, was actually quite possible, even probable, even though none of the principal political leaders desired such an outcome or, indeed, sought such a crisis in the first place. Having learned all this as a participant in the research process that generated these revelations, Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara, concluded in “The Fog of War,” the Academy Award-winning 2004 documentary film by Errol Morris, that “at the end, we lucked out! It was luck that prevented nuclear war at the end! [Gestures by bringing thumb and forefinger together until they almost touch.] Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to the total destruction of their societies.” “One Minute to Midnight” is, one might say, a 400-plus-page explication of just how close “that close” actually was.
Michael Dobbs’ Time and Space Machine
“One Minute to Midnight” is the heir to, and in some respects the capstone of, the revolution in our understanding that began in the mid-1980s in regard to the missile crisis. Dobbs begins with the proposition that the crisis was supremely dangerous, far more dangerous than has been heretofore revealed even to those of us who are willing to concede the basic point that the crisis has no true analogue in recorded history regarding the danger it posed to human civilization. Dobbs earns the right to instruct us in this matter because he has brought to this historical case the instincts of an investigative reporter and deep knowledge of American and Russian decision-making in the early 1960s and he has, in addition, crisscrossed Cuba, interviewing dozens of people who remember the crisis, who participated in it in one way or another. He has delved more deeply than anyone ever had into the many layers of misperceptions, misunderstandings and false assumptions—the American, Russian and Cuban—that led up to, through and beyond that epic encounter. He has done so by interviewing many people whose names will be largely unknown even to seasoned missile crisis aficionados: U.S. pilots, U.S. Marines who were preparing to invade Cuba, Soviet and Cuban soldiers and sailors, ordinary citizens (especially in Cuba, the principal theater of military operations, where everyone was, in effect, on the front lines) and even, in some cases, family members of deceased individuals who Dobbs has reason to believe unwittingly played important roles in ratcheting up the danger in 1962. This is nuclear danger with a human face. What Dobbs demonstrates, time and again, is how little control or understanding of events rested in the hands of Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro and their colleagues in the three leaderships, and how any of the misperceptions, either individually or in combination, might have led to nuclear disaster.
Dobbs’ book is the first to aspire to what he calls a “minute-by-minute account of the drama in the tradition of The Longest Day or Death of a President” (referring to Cornelius Ryan’s book on the D-Day invasion and William Manchester’s account of JFK’s assassination, respectively). The effect of reading “One Minute to Midnight” is as cinematic as the printed word can get, as it vicariously transports the reader from point to dangerous point on the apparent trajectory toward war. On virtually every page, the reader is jerked not only backward and forward in time—this is to be expected of a book dealing with events of nearly a half-century ago that claims relevance, as this book does, to contemporary affairs. Dobbs’ time machine is also a space machine, as he catapults his readers from place to place, revealing not only the breadth and depth of his research, but also the palpable and scary conviction that events are unfolding at an accelerating pace toward a catastrophic conclusion. One measure of Dobbs’ achievement is that he scares the hell out of his readers even though they begin the book knowing the outcome was peaceful.
Considerations of length permit only a brief summary of the several “scenes” that make up but one “act” in Dobbs’ nuclear morality play. It offers just a glimpse of Dobbs’ technique, which is made possible by his mastery of the vast missile crisis database, and made all the more convincing by his understated, stick-to-the-facts prose style of a working journalist. Welcome to your test ride in his time and space machine. (Note: the word whoosh does not appear in Dobbs’ book, but the feeling of whoosh is generated on nearly every page.)
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