James Blight on the Cuban Missile Crisis
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.
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. In 1986 the Harvard political scientist Eliot Cohen spoke for many younger scholars when he announced that he was fed up with endless rehashing of the great escape of October 1962. In a widely read article published in the January 1986 issue of The National Interest, entitled “Why We Should Stop Studying the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Cohen argued that the study of the missile crisis had become trite, repetitive, boring, misleading and irrelevant. Cohen called for an end to “the ceaseless pondering of the events of October 1962.” According to Cohen, the conditions no longer existed for the occurrence of anything remotely like another missile crisis, in which the superpowers play high-stakes poker as the world holds its breath. The crisis, he felt, was basically irrelevant to the contemporary world, however much some might enjoy delving into its arcane history. Not recognizing its irrelevance was itself a source of concern, according to Cohen. Threats to U.S. national security lay elsewhere, in 1986, in the less direct and highly variegated competition all over the world between Moscow and Washington. In Cohen’s opinion, the continued obsession with the missile crisis as the paradigm of Cold War competition between East and West was only an obstacle to addressing these and related problems. Scholars like Cohen could not have cared less whether Bob Dylan was right or wrong about the crisis. In their view, it was time to consign the missile crisis to the Jurassic Park of distantly remembered historical events, shove it into the history departments, and move on.
Ironically, Eliot Cohen’s call to abandon the study of the missile crisis was issued just as Gorbachev and his advisers became interested in joining Americans and Cubans in a joint historical inquiry into the crisis. The first discussions between U.S. and Russian scholars about a joint project on the crisis occurred in mid-1986. As a result of the research that followed, we in the West began to gain access to documents and oral testimony that had never before been available to us. Between 1987 and 1992, a series of international conferences were held in the U.S., the Soviet Union and Cuba, involving many officials from each of the three principal protagonist nations. A research method called critical oral history was developed to take advantage of the unprecedented simultaneous availability of these three elements: former officials from governments that during the events under scrutiny had been bitter enemies; declassified documentation from the governments in question; and top scholars from the U.S., the Soviet Union and Cuba whose familiarity with all three chronologies of decision-making helped ensure that oral testimony was bounded by the documentary record as far as it was known. “Stirring the soup” with these three elements in these critical oral history exercises proved surprising fruitful. By 1992, our historical understanding of the missile crisis bore little resemblance to the crisis of legend and myth that had accumulated and ossified in the quarter-century following October 1962.
Thus, in a weirdly postmodern parable, those of us working on the Cuban missile crisis had, de facto, abandoned the very missile crisis that Eliot Cohen was urging us to abandon. But we had done so not by moving away from the crisis, ignoring it, as if it were some dinosaur of an event, never to be seen again. We had abandoned the missile crisis of legend by moving more deeply into what actually happened, thanks to the sudden availability of information and people, mainly from the Soviet Union and Cuba. In so doing, the October 1962 fairy tale, the crisis management paradigm, began to crumble. As it happened, the missile crisis began to appear, in light of the new information, much scarier, the peaceful outcome much less determined, than anything implied by the mythology of the crisis. To our surprise, in addition, the crisis began to seem oddly contemporary, a cautionary tale of an event that, in some form, might happen again.
The picture of the crisis that had emerged by 1992 amounted to a revolution in the way the event is understood. The conventional wisdom was overturned in two principal ways. First, the crisis seemed far more dangerous, and its peaceful outcome far more miraculous, than ever before. Second, the principal sources of the heightened risk of nuclear war emanated from the circumstances on and around the island of Cuba — circumstances that were unanticipated and completely unknown or, at best, poorly understood, by officials in either Moscow or Washington. The deeper those of us working in the (then) fledgling field of Cold War history got into the details of the missile deployment on the island, the more dangerous the crisis seemed. We were repeatedly surprised by disconnects that emerged from both the documents and oral testimony regarding what leaders in Washington and Moscow believed they controlled or could control, versus what was driven on the ground, at sea and in the air by unforeseen events, unanticipated errors and local conditions in and around Cuba. These gaps in mutual understanding among Washington, Moscow and Havana revealed many points, previously unknown, at which war might have broken out and, if hostilities had begun, would almost certainly have involved the firing of nuclear weapons, which would have led to disastrous, possibly even catastrophic, results.
For example, the (then, in the late 1980s) first of the newly declassified “Kennedy Tapes” made secretly by JFK during the crisis revealed that many of the president’s civilian and military advisers pressed him relentlessly toward an air attack and an invasion of the island, and that it was Kennedy himself who was the major bulwark against the drift toward war. In addition, as the details of the Soviet deployment began at last to become available, we learned that, contrary to what the CIA believed at the time, the nuclear warheads had arrived on the island. Moreover, we learned that battlefield nuclear weapons (both warheads and launchers) were present on the island by the climactic weekend of the crisis, Oct. 26-28, and that in the event of a U.S. invasion the local Soviet commanders on the island would in all likelihood have ordered their use, thereby destroying large components of the invasion force, either at sea or on the beaches of Cuba.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.)Prelude. We have just learned in great detail the scope of the U.S. military buildup in south Florida, which has been transformed almost overnight into a huge armed encampment, all of it in service of an expected air attack and invasion of Cuba.
Whoosh to 1 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24 (noon in Havana). We zoom across the Straits of Florida to Havana, Cuba, roughly 100 miles south of Key West. Dobbs leads us into Fidel Castro’s personal underground bunker, which will be his command post during the expected U.S. attack and invasion. We learn precisely where it was, who was in it at that moment with Castro, and how difficult it was to breathe inside the bunker. We listen as Capt. Flavio Bravo briefs Castro on Cuban forces’ difficulties in communicating with one another, due to the U.S. having intercepted Soviet ships that were carrying advanced communication systems for use by the Cubans. We listen as Fidel issues an order: When the U.S. planes fly over at very low levels, as they have been doing for days, Castro says simply, “Dejalos fritos” — “fry them,” which is the phrase U.S. Air Force Chief Gen. Curtis LeMay has just used in his instructions to his subordinates, to be implemented when the president orders the air attack to begin. Whoosh.
Next we are loaded into a jeep with Castro and his bodyguards for a 30-minute ride eastward from the bunker to Tarara Beach, above and behind which is a fully operational Soviet surface-to-air (SAM) missile site. Along this five-mile stretch of sloping sand, Dobbs tells us in an aside, was the “tropical equivalent of the beaches of Normandy,” where the U.S. invasion of Cuba would be focused. U.S. warships are so close they are clearly visible to Castro on the horizon. After the Cuban leader confers with Soviet commanders near the beach, we return with Castro to Havana knowing that “if all else failed, his Soviet allies had tactical nuclear weapons hidden in the hills behind Tarara Beach and other likely landing spots that could wipe out an American beachhead in a matter of minutes.” Whoosh.
Now we are whisked away to join the U.S. Marine unit that will lead the invasion force at Tarara Beach, aboard their temporary headquarters on the helicopter carrier USS Okinawa. We watch and listen as the Marines march back and forth on the deck chanting,
“Where are we gonna go?” “Gonna go to Cuba.” “Whatta we gonna do?” “Gonna castrate Castro.”
The plans and preparations for invading Cuba are highly refined. The chaplain is scheduled to arrive on Tarara Beach at H-hour plus 27 minutes. The U.S. forces expect a long and difficult campaign during which they must fight their way westward to capture and occupy Havana. They do not expect a cakewalk. The Americans will arrive on the beaches of Cuba with 2,000 tons of canned chicken for the 120,000 troops participating in the invasion, along with 7,454 tons of rice and 138 tons of powdered eggs. Although the Marines expect to encounter stiff resistance from the Cubans, they do not expect either the Cubans or the Soviets to respond with tactical nuclear weapons. Astonished, we wonder what possible sense the Marines are able to make of the order that they simply “report every delivered nuclear fire” to headquarters. The official estimate is that U.S. invasion forces will sustain 18,000 casualties during the first 10 days of fighting, including 4,000 killed in action. (Note: In other words, roughly the same number of U.S. forces, 4,000, were predicted to perish in 10 days of fighting in Cuba as have lost their lives in Iraq during the five and half years since the March 2003 U.S. invasion.)
Whoosh. Dobbs adds: “And that was without the participation of Soviet combat troops or the use of nuclear weapons.” This brings goose bumps because, by this point in the book, we already understand that Soviet combat forces would be heavily involved in efforts to repel the invasion force, and that the nuclear incineration of thousands of Americans offshore and on Cuban beaches would be virtually certain. Where that would lead is anyone’s guess, but probably, at the least, to the destruction of Cuba and millions of Cubans in a U.S. retaliatory attack with nuclear weapons. In addition, escalation of the conflict to a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Soviet Union could not be excluded.
A Virtual Hiroshima
Michael Dobbs demonstrates dramatically, exhaustively and convincingly how phenomenally dangerous the missile crisis was, how many ways it could have spun into global nuclear destruction, and how fortunate we are that civilization survived. The missile crisis, in his telling, is the catastrophic event that didn’t quite happen. “One Minute to Midnight” is the capstone of a nearly 25-year effort to demythologize the Cuban missile crisis, and to transform our understanding of it from just another tedious case study of Cold War antiquity into the shockingly catastrophic event it nearly became. This missile crisis — the crisis that nearly destroyed civilization — should be visited at least once by every literate, informed person, for the same reason that people visit Hiroshima: to develop a deeper commitment to the sentiment “Never again.” The “visit” to the missile crisis, of course, must be virtual, not literal, a visit of the imagination, because the event we wish to visit is the event that did not happen. That journey can fruitfully begin with “One Minute to Midnight.” When you are finished, listen again to Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall.” Notice that Dobbs provides the documentation and justification for Dylan’s approach to songwriting during that moment in October 1962. With the world possibly coming to an end, Dylan felt the song should be written as if each line might be its last.
Finally, after absorbing Dobbs and Dylan, whoosh yourself back to the present moment and ask yourself where you stand now with regard to a possible — some have said probable — U.S. and/or Israeli attack on Iran with the objective of eliminating its nuclear sites.
James G. Blight is a professor of international relations at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, and the author or co-author of a half-dozen books on the Cuban missile crisis. He is the author most recently of “Vietnam, if Kennedy Had Lived: Virtual JFK” (with Janet M. Lang and David A. Welch), which will be published in January by Rowman & Littlefield. He is also a producer of the Koji Masutani film based on the book.Wait, before you go…
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