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Kennedy, Krushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War

by Michael Dobbs

Pub Date: June 5th, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4000-4358-3
Publisher: Knopf

A nuanced account of the events of October 1962, when the Cold War almost ran hot.

Countless historians have noted that the United States and the Soviet Union stood on the brink of nuclear catastrophe, but Washington Post reporter Dobbs (Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid on America, 2004, etc.) gives a vivid account of just how close to the brink the world truly came. The story begins at the Bay of Pigs, with John F. Kennedy’s disastrous effort to land CIA-trained Cuban exiles in Cuba and bring down Fidel Castro’s government. Castro’s victory there, Kennedy was convinced, gave Nikita Khrushchev cause to devalue the American president: “Probably thinks I’m stupid. Maybe most important, he thinks that I had no guts.” JFK had no love for his Soviet counterpart, to be sure, and less so when Khrushchev, citing treaty obligations, installed missiles on Cuba easily capable of delivering nuclear warheads anywhere in America. JFK was prepared to go to war to keep the missiles from going online. Khrushchev may not really have been, though, as Dobbs sagely observes: “Once set in motion, the machinery of war quickly acquired its own logic and momentum,” adding that the unwritten protocol that neither side could appear hesitant made it difficult to back away from a martial stance once it was assumed. There were other difficulties, the author observes, including the slow speed of communications in those days, often still through letters delivered by hand. So it was when Khrushchev, having almost unleashed an attack on the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay, finally stepped back, writing to JFK that he had ordered the offensive missiles to be crated and sent back home. That decision, Dobbs notes, gave the Soviet Union an edge in public relations, “yet another triumph for Moscow’s peace-loving foreign policy over warmongering imperialists.” Hard-line Soviets saw it as surrender, though, which contributed to Khrushchev’s later fall.

Dobbs’s careful narrative supposes no prior knowledge of those long-ago events, making it a welcome introduction to that perilous time.