Not The End Of The World: Misreading the Cuban Missile Crisis

Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. New York: Knopf, 2008.

The Cold War has receded so far into the dim past that many of its “crises” now seem abstract and even puzzling—and the question of who “won” is no longer so easy to answer. However, it once mattered greatly to American officials, and to their counterparts in Moscow and Beijing whether one of their impoverished satellite states fell into the clutches of their rival. At one point it mattered so profoundly that in order to prevent it, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union were willing to make perilous gambles, taking their nations to the precipice of a nuclear war that would have obliterated their major cities, killed tens of millions of their citizens, and rendered uninhabitable vast stretches of their homelands.

The most dangerous of all these gambles—though it involved no armies engaged in combat, nor lives expended in battle—took place not in Asia, but only a few miles from American shores. The deadly face-off that we label the Cuban Missile Crisis (no doubt from a reluctance to describe it in more suitably apocalyptic terms) occurred when new leaders in both Washington and Moscow were intent on demonstrating their authority and their willingness to defend the “national interest” of their respective societies.

At the time, Nikita Khrushchev had fought off Kremlin rivals to succeed Joseph Stalin as the new Russian tsar. John F. Kennedy had come to the presidency promising not only vigorous new leadership after the Eisenhower years, but also a willingness to “pay any price, bear any burden . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” as he declared in his greatly admired inaugural address. To demonstrate this resolve, Kennedy dispatched the first military “advisers” to South Vietnam, and launched a crash program to remedy what he had labeled during his election campaign as an alarming “missile gap” with the Soviet Union.

As Kennedy learned on taking office, the gap was Moscow’s problem. The U.S. in fact enjoyed a significant advantage in missiles capable of striking the Soviet Union from American bases. Indeed, one of the reasons why Khrushchev deployed his missiles in Cuba was to compensate for American nuclear superiority.

Ronald Steel is professor of international relations and history at the University of Southern California.

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