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March 9, 2010

One Minute to Midnight

Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War
Michael Dobbs - ISBN - 9781400078912

Dobbs does his usual masterful job with the subject at hand. It's wonderfully informative and well worth the read.

It is a compelling assessment of both Kennedy and Khrushchev, and makes clear just how close we came to a nuclear conflict. As a result of the Bay of Pigs disaster Khrushchev determined that Kennedy was a man of mush and decided that the USSR could field missiles in Cuba. Fortunately it became a grown-up moment for JFK. His original miscalculation could not be compounded by yet another which was orders of magnitude more hazardous than trying to overthrow Castro.

He chronicles the minutes, hours and days of the confrontation. Too minutely, I think, since he eliminated only the potty breaks (though, on consideration, there must have been quite a few!). Virtually everything which happened over the frightful days is discussed, from the discovery of missile installation, thru the naval blockade, to the removal of the offending warheads from Cuba--at very little cost. The missiles in Turkey, dismantled in exchange for those in Cuba, were about to be removed in any event (though unbeknownst to the Turks.) Thru back channels he had promised Khrushchev they'd be removed 6 months later, and they were. As for the promise not to invade Cuba, another attempt is doubtful after the first fiasco.

When the counterrevolutionaries took over Hungary the USSR stood down for several days, waiting for Eisenhower to act. He did not--Eisenhower's mistake in my estimation--so Russia crushed the revolution. Khrushchev felt that the missiles would make Cuba invulnerable to American attack and equalize the balance of power. He understood that the missile placement represented something the U.S. could not permit, but he tried, hoping that Kennedy would back down as had Eisenhower. He couldn't, and didn't!

JFK calculated that whether blown up by a missile from Russia or from Cuba was ultimately not the issue. The decision was political. To do nothing was to submit to blackmail. He drew the proverbial "line in the sand" and stood by it, whatever the cost. And there very nearly was! So many variables, so many players and so much at risk. Castro wanted to "go for broke," prepared to risk being annihilated to make the point. Fortunately he was not in charge. Even Khrushchev was appalled by Castro's attitude. Khrushchev had seen much destruction in his time, and was reluctant to risk more. In the end his humanity is exposed. I, for one, have a more kindly view of the man after this book. He was a bully, but a brilliant politician-shoe banging and all. Here he is a sensate human.

"Despite their personal and ideological differences the two men had reached similar conclusions about the nature of nuclear war. They both understood that such a war would be far more terrible than anything mankind had known. Having witnessed war themselves, they also understood that a commander in chief was not always in control. They were awed, frightened, and sobered by their power to raze the world. The risks of modern war were unacceptably high, and it was necessary to intercede in whatever way possible.

"The history of the Cuban missile crisis is replete with accidental figures whose role in history is often overlooked: pilots and submariners, spies and missileers, bureaucrats and propagandists, radio operators and saboteurs," Dobbs observes. No longer. Every detail is included in this presentation.

It is the definitive volume on the crises, one never before carefully explored (and likely never again.)

Not incidentally he also discusses Kennedy's myriad and very serious illnesses, long kept secret from the public. He also lays the groundwork for Viet Nam, exposing the foibles and weaknesses of Kennedy's brain trust--especially McNamara. It is clear that if ever there was "the best and the brightest," or "the dream team," it was the brain trust created by Ronald Reagan. He assembled the best cabinet in 20th century history, one comparable to Lincoln's during the Civil War.

Even now, few will acknowledge that fact, but some of the best Washington minds of the era have certified it, including more than a handful important Democrats. Robert Strauss--long a power in Democrat party circles, and chairman of the DNC--described the cabinet as "simply spectacular. It's the best White House staff I've ever seen."

Posted by Curmudgeon at March 9, 2010 1:14 PM