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``ONE HELL OF A GAMBLE'' by Aleksandr Fursenko


Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964

by Aleksandr Fursenko & Timothy Naftali

Pub Date: June 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-393-04070-4
Publisher: Norton

 One of the best pieces of research to have emerged as a result of the opening of the Russian archives, a subtle, nuanced, and vivid history of the Cuban missile crisis--the East-West showdown that brought the world close to nuclear war. The story from the US side is fairly well known, but historians Fursenko (Russian Academy of Sciences) and Naftali (Yale) have made good use of KGB records and Khrushchev's own files to convey the sense of inferiority, uncertainty, belligerence, and, ultimately, prudence that characterized the Soviet leader's approach. In the early stages of Castro's revolution, Moscow was no more sure about the Cuban leader than the US was. But the triumph of the Cuban revolution, a contempt for Kennedy (thought to be weak), and a certain recklessness seem to have persuaded Khrushchev to station missiles in Cuba. As an avid reader of intelligence reports, he was aware of the U-2 flights, but he and his closest advisers seem to have dismissed the likelihood that the presence of the missiles would be discovered. His initial reaction on learning that Kennedy was aware of the lurking threat was to hurry the delivery of the warheads. The first were delivered (though not installed) just before the blockade was imposed. This was the critical moment: Senior members of Congress were pressing for an invasion. But Kennedy had become convinced that an air strike preceding the invasion could not take out all the missiles. It would be, he said, ``one hell of a gamble.'' Khrushchev, for his part, had become aware of the extent of Soviet military inferiority. As the authors put it, he ``did not have the desire to threaten nuclear war when it might actually lead to one.'' The story traces with rich detail the maneuvering, the calculations, the human errors, and the enormous stakes involved in the most serious crisis of the last 50 years.