On May 21, 1962, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev called a meeting of the Defense Council of the USSR to present an idea that had attached to his restless imagination on a recent seaside stroll in Bulgaria: installing missiles with nuclear warheads in Fidel Castro’s Cuba to protect the Soviet satellite against a U.S. military invasion. Khrushchev’s first deputy, Anastas Mikoyan, immediately raised a practical objection to the proposal. The United States would easily detect the missile launchers, he pointed out, because there was no good place to hide them on a subtropical island notable for its thin canopy of palm trees. And once the launchers were discovered, Mikoyan added, the U.S. military would take them out by air and likely kill Soviet soldiers in the strike. And then what would Moscow do?
As internal discussions proceeded over the next few days, Mikoyan repeated his warnings of “dangerous or even catastrophic consequences” to Khrushchev’s contemplated move, but the premier stuck to his plan: “Let’s not talk about it anymore,” Khrushchev finally told Mikoyan. “We will ask Fidel Castro and then we will decide.”
The missiles were installed with Castro’s grateful acceptance and the result was the 35-day confrontation that soon came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is tempting to think that, 60 years and multiple historical accounts later, there is nothing new to be learned or said about this seminal episode of the Cold War, the closest the world’s two superpowers of that tense era came to an outright nuclear exchange. But Serhii Plokhy’s authoritative new book, Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis, demonstrates otherwise.
Primary source materials from previously untapped KGB archives help Plokhy, the director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, to weave a narrative that feels fresh, especially for the light it sheds on the Soviet side of the deliberations, as in the anecdote on Mikoyan’s reservations. But most of all, his story profits from his decision to focus his lens not on what the decision makers got right, in the end, to avert nuclear war, but, as he puts it, on “the myriad situations in which they got things wrong.” This perspective yields a kind of dark comedy of miscalculations, near fiascoes, and outright blunders, and that spectacle is the true tale of the crisis by the author’s account.
Mikoyan’s disregarded yet prescient warning of Cuba’s “naked” palm-trees cover is one such example: The Americans did quickly detect the missile sites through overflight photography. U-2 incursions into Cuban airspace continued, but even as Khrushchev became more cautious in his posture toward Washington, a middle-rank Soviet military officer on the ground in Cuba gave an order for a surface-to-air missile strike on an American reconnaissance plane. He did so without authorization from his indisposed superior, Colonel General Issa Pliev, the nominal commander of the Group of Soviet Troops in Cuba, who was confined to his bed by a painful kidney ailment. Perhaps Soviet troops felt mutinous because, left unprepared for the humid, mosquito-plagued climate, they had been reduced to eating worm-infested borscht. The U-2 was shot down and the pilot killed, but luckily the incident did not ignite wider hostilities.
The Americans also had their trigger-happy hotheads. General Curtis LeMay, the air force chief of staff, stayed wedded to the axiom, even as diplomacy was showing promise, that the only solution was an all-out invasion of Cuba—an air strike followed by an amphibious assault with tanks. Castro would be toppled, the Soviets would be driven out, the Cuban people would be liberated from Communist rule, and perhaps not least, the failed Bay of Pigs operation of the year before, involving U.S.-backed Cuban exiles, would be avenged.
LeMay, the mastermind of the firebombing of Tokyo in World War II, evinced scant respect for his commander in chief, President John F. Kennedy, 11 years younger, whose PT boat mishap during that war was magically spun by the Kennedy clan into a fable of national heroism. “You are in a pretty bad fix,” he told JFK. “You are in there with me,” the president retorted. Unknown to Washington, the Soviets had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba, not just longer range ones, and Moscow was prepared to use them against a U.S. invasion force: LeMay’s reckless plan could well have set off all-out nuclear war.
Plokhy’s grand thesis can be challenged: Folly, after all, was not the ultimate victor in the Cuban Missile Crisis. In Washington, JFK had the finesse to steer around belligerents like LeMay to negotiate through back channels with the Soviet premier, despite privately disparaging him as an “immoral gangster.” In Moscow, the excitable Khrushchev calmed down and extracted from “that viper,” as he had once called Kennedy behind closed doors, a secret pledge to remove U.S. medium-range nuclear missiles from Turkey in exchange for the withdrawal of the Soviet nuclear weapons from Cuba. Castro had no say in the matter. Feeling betrayed by his putative patron, he boiled over into a fury—that “bastard” Khrushchev was an “asshole,” he exclaimed to a Cuban newspaper editor—but the cooler heads of the two principals prevailed. The true winner in the end was realism: The mutual recognition that nuclear war was unwinnable. Still, as this treatment of the harrowing affair persuasively shows, that triumph was only narrowly gained.
Paul Starobin is a former Moscow bureau chief of Business Week. His most recent book is A Most Wicked Conspiracy: The Last Great Swindle of the Gilded Age (PublicAffairs, 2020).
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