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How close we came to The End

February 14, 2023

I have no idea whether Buckingham, where I was at school, or Blandford Forum in Dorset, where my elder brother was, would have been wiped out in October 1962. But I’m pretty sure that my parents and younger siblings, who lived in Birmingham, wouldn’t have made it.

The context is the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the US and the Soviet Union came within a hair’s breath of nuclear war. Britain, as a nuclear power and a NATO ally of the US, would inevitably have been dragged in.

I’ve thought about the Cuba Crisis often during the sixty years following its resolution. I suppose you could call me a child of the Cold War, which is why I was happy to bury myself in Max Hastings’ latest book Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis. Hastings is one of my favourite historians. He does his reputation no harm with his description of the crisis and how it came about.

The story is relatively well known: how Nikita Khrushchev sought to even up the military balance between the Soviet Union and the United States by secretly installing nuclear weapons 50 miles from the American coast, and how Kennedy resisted overwhelming pressure from his military to bomb the newly-discovered installations and then invade the island. Instead he opted for a blockade, which gave the two parties (Cuba had little say in the matter, and nor did Britain) the chance to negotiate.

Hastings takes us through the potential flash-points on the way. The shooting down of a US spy plane over Cuba on the initiative of a local Soviet commander. The Russian submarine captain, whose boat was equipped with a nuclear torpedo, driven half-crazy both by the heat within his malfunctioning boat and by the US Navy destroyer dropping practice depth charges around his boat, preparing to launch the weapon, only to be countermanded by another officer (Archipov, later lionised as the man who saved the world).

He also reminds us of other factors. The decrepitude of Pliev, Khrushchev’s commander in Cuba, which weakened the chain of command on the ground. What now seems the absurd length of time – up to eleven hours – for communications between Kennedy and Khrushchev to reach each other, which led both parties to make public announcements as a way of sending immediate messages. And, most significantly, the fact that a number of the weapons were operational by the time Kennedy and his generals contemplated military action. An invasion would most probably have precipitated a general – in other words, nuclear – war.

Hastings is also convincing on the characters of the main dramatis personae. Khrushchev, blunt, sometimes brutal, impulsive but ultimately sane enough to step back from the brink. Kennedy, highly intelligent, well-read, an effective chairman and an excellent listener. And Castro, the romantic revolutionary, also impulsive and increasingly megalomaniac – an ally of convenience for the Soviets but never wholly trusted by them. A significant part of the book describes the ascent to power of each of them, and the encounters between the Soviet leadership and their American counterparts which led to Khrushchev fatally underestimating Kennedy.

He’s equally strong on the deliberations of Kennedy’s Excom – the executive committee formed to advise the President on the US response to the crisis, as well as the characters of the main players: especially Robert Kennedy, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and the bull-headed generals who reported to him, of whom Curtis LeMay, the Air Force Chief, emerged as the most outspoken, and potentially most demented, of the lot.

Whereas Hastings had a wealth of source material to draw on describing the Excom discussions – which Kennedy, unbeknown to some of them, recorded, his material on the Soviet deliberations is somewhat light. He draws heavily on Khrushchev’s autobiography and that of his son Sergei. The other members of the Politburo, apart from Andrei Gromyko and Anastas Mikoyan, rarely emerge from the shadows.

As Vladimir Putin and his wilder supporters in the media keep flying their nuclear kites to intimidate those countries coming to the aid of Ukraine, do we learn any useful lessons from the Cuba crisis?

Possibly. Those who urge Putin to unleash his nuclear arsenal against Ukraine are of a generation that have no personal memory of 1962, let alone the horrors of the Great Patriotic War that the likes of Khrushchev lived through. Yet the craving for respect for their country as a superpower rival to the US was and is embedded into the mindset of both men. Likewise the concept of spheres of influence, first tacitly agreed in the wartime conferences between Stalin and western leaders in Tehran and Yalta, was a factor in the US determining that it could not tolerate the presence of nuclear missiles in an independent state a few miles from its own shores, just as the same principle lies partly beneath Putin’s decision to invade a neighbour determined to join what he sees as a rival political alliance.

Another common theme is the use by both leaders of deception and disinformation to mask their intentions. Just as Khrushchev and Gromyko, his foreign minister, flatly denied any intention to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, so Putin made the same denials of his intention to invade Ukraine. The difference is that Russia under Putin has turned disinformation into an art form, setting the stage for the morass of confusion and distrust that now characterises the social media. The nature of truth has been turned on its head.

In one other key area, the world that survived the Cuba crisis is not the one we live in today. In 1962, there were four nuclear powers: The USSR, the US, France and Britain. Now there are nine, with Iran looking to become the tenth. The compact America made with would-be nuclear powers – such as Germany, Japan, South Korea and others – under which the US would place these countries under the protection of its nuclear umbrella – is weakening. Little wonder that in the face of an aggressive Russia and the isolationist noises emanating most strongly from Donald Trump, some countries are starting to wonder whether they too should be equipping themselves with their own nuclear shield. A recent article from the Carnegie Endowment for International for Peace provides a convincing background on this dynamic.

Despite the shrieking of Putin’s harpies, the man himself is old enough to remember Cuba. He knows the risks of nuclear deployment. But does he share Khrushchev’s recognition of its futility? A problem for Russia’s adversaries is that a coherent understanding of thinking in the Kremlin – let alone the rivalries among those closest to Putin – seems as far away from us as it was in Khrushchev’s time. The blizzard of open-source information (and disinformation) that was unavailable in 1962 leaves most of us none the wiser.

And while governments will have teams of analysts dedicated to interpreting the signs coming from Russia’s leaders, the rest of us, as in 1962, have to make do with informational chicken feed. Battlefield analysts, of which there are plenty, are one thing, but psychologists who can peer into Putin’s mind and predict with any certainty what he will do next are entirely another. We, the bystanders and onlookers, are left to choose which “experts” we believe.

And finally, in the wake of a conclusion to the Ukraine conflict, will we, as our parents and grandparents did in 1962, breathe a sigh of relief, only to realise that the way ahead is infinitely more complicated. After Cuba, the road for the United States led to Vietnam. And today, even if Russia abandons its costly Ukrainian adventure, is another crisis comparable with Cuba germinating in the West’s relationship with China?

After sixty years of nuclear proliferation, the potential for miscalculation and accidental detonation are surely even higher than when the nuclear button remained in the hands of only two main protagonists.

Yet despite the parallels that might be drawn between October 1962 and where we are today, Abyss is not a tale of doom and gloom. After all, we did make it through the crisis, thanks to both parties stepping back from the brink. And although we’ve flown by the seat of our pants on occasions since then, the fact remains that for sixty years the ghastly events foreseen both by Khrushchev and Kennedy have not come to pass. So it’s right that we should still remember and celebrate our close escape.

Whether the current inheritors of the nuclear mantle have the sense and sanity to keep their weapons safely in their bunkers remains to be seen. At the risk of stating the obvious, let’s hope so.

From → Books, History, Politics, UK, USA

  1. roddy bourke permalink

    Steve thank you. Great book which I have just completed. It will be a miracle if mankind survives another century with the numbers of nuclear weapons in so many dangerous hands nowadays.

  2. roddy bourke permalink

    Actually Steve scrub that comment – I don’t like to spread pessimism! Best wishes for the year ahead.

    • Thanks Roddy. I think both statements are valid. Hope for the best while not forgetting the worst! S


    Reading today’s press, it looks like fact, fiction and history are all meeting to end the world as we know it! In 1983 the USSR reckoned that NATO’s Able Archer exercise was a smokescreen and that NATO was planning to deliver a genuine nuclear first strike. So we have to ask, was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis “the most perilous event in history”? When compared with NATO’s Able Archer Exercise in 1983, we doubt the Cuban Missile crisis was “the most perilous event in history” but such a comparison may be splitting hairs as both events came perilously close to starting a nuclear war and today with Putin on edge matters might be even worse.

    As to be expected though, Max Hastings certainly did his chosen non-fiction topic justice in his book about the Abyss we all faced in 1962. Mind you the subject matter would be riveting had you not read about it beforehand. The extent to which John F Kennedy took his NATO partners into his confidence during the Cuban crisis remains debatable. In 1962, the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, colloquially known as SuperMac, was supposedly JFK’s chief confidant and adviser throughout the crisis. What were the consequences of that?

    For starters it meant that anything JFK (via the CIA) and/or SuperMac shared with MI6 about how best to manage the crisis may have been shared with Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro via Kim Philby (or others unknown in his circle) who was then still of importance to the USSR albeit no longer in MI6. In addition, Dr Richard Alan Fairclough (ex MI1 and a leading British scientist) was a close confidant of SuperMac. Since then Richard Fairclough (aka Roger Burlington) featured in The Burlington Files series of fact based spy novels which were centred on the life and times of his son Bill Fairclough (aka Edward Burlington, MI6 codename JJ).

    The absence of some of the forgoing information in any book of note about the Cuban missile crisis might raise questions as to its completeness. On the other hand, one could ask were the Fairclough family involved in the seventies in the Haitian equivalent to the Cuban Bay of Pigs? Who knows but just because someone claims they know the truth is never the whole story! Before it’s too late we had all best read Beyond Enkription, the only novel published to date in The Burlington Files series, to find out what has been disclosed to date on all these issues. As for today’s concerns, hopefully in 50 years from now we can read about today’s Kim Philby and Oleg Penkovsky. In the meantime, if you think you know all there is to know about these things, have a look at a brief but intriguing news article dated 31 October 2022 about Pemberton’s People in MI6 in TheBurlingtonFiles website.

    • Thanks for your comments. In reviewing Abyss I only scratched the surface of what Hastings had to say. He was certainly quite scathing about Macmillan’s role in the crisis, though ultimately it was resolved in a manner that the PM always advocated: by diplomacy, even if the diplomatic effort was backed up by the threat of overwhelming force.

      As you say, there is no doubt much more to discover about the Crisis. Will it ever come to light? Probably not in my lifetime. And yes, Able Archer was an equally perilous episode. Not far behind it were the nuclear alerts on both sides (and Israel) during the Yom Kippur War.

      Will look at the article and book you mentioned.

      Thanks again for taking the trouble to comment at length.

    • By the way, for a compendium of nuclear near misses since WW2, I’ve found The Dead Hand by David Hoffman to be exceptionally informative. My review of the book is here: S

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