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How the third world war was narrowly averted

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis Serhii Plokhy

Allen Lane, pp.464, 25

Nuclear weapons carry a payload of cold logic: if both sides have them, neither will ever use them. But in 1962, when the Soviet Union and US squared up to one another over Cuba, that logic broke down. As this superb new book shows, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the product of miscalculation, ignorance and staggering recklessness.

The main culprit was Nikita Khrushchev. His first error was to mistake the US president for a callow weakling. ‘Don’t worry,’ he assured his Cuban friends, ‘I’ll grab Kennedy by the balls.’ After their first meeting, JFK remarked that negotiations with Khrushchev had been the ‘roughest thing in my life’. The argument concerned Berlin: Khrushchev wanted the city to himself and Kennedy worried that the Soviets might use force to get it. But this was just a diversion. Khrushchev’s real focus lay further west.

The US has a long history with Cuba. In 1820, Jefferson had considered it a candidate for US statehood. In 1901, a new US law gave Washington a legal basis for intervening in Cuba and when, in 1959, Castro’s revolution tempered this US influence, Eisenhower wanted to get rid of him. Kennedy tried regime change, but this ended disastrously in 1961 at the Bay of Pigs.

Khrushchev said he wanted nuclear weapons on Cuba to prevent a second US invasion — that’s what he told Castro, at least. But his real priority was to close the Soviet-US missile gap. The Americans had atomic weapons in Turkey which could hit targets deep inside the USSR, whereas for Khrushchev the US mainland was out of range. Getting warheads onto Cuba, 90 miles off the Florida coast, would change all that.

Soviet arms and advisers had been heading into Cuba since 1960; but in September 1962 things changed. Khrushchev sent in the 27th anti-aircraft missile division, whose rockets were meant to deter overflights by the CIA’s U-2 spy planes. He didn’t want them to see what was coming next. The nuclear arms arrived in two phases — the rockets, then the warheads, the first of which reached Cuba on 4 October.

When the rocket men arrived in Cuba, they were in for a shock. The heat was so intense that their cans of rations swelled up and exploded. The Soviets had also failed to appreciate that the Caribbean has a hurricane season, a complicating factor when installing — and using — nuclear weapons. Nor had the military planners grasped that Cuban roads were often little more than lanes, making it tricky for a lorry carrying a 70ft-long nuclear missile to turn corners. Soldiers, bivouacking in the shade, soon discovered that the island had several varieties of poisonous tree, which caused ‘swellings, blisters under the eyes and festering wounds’. More seriously, missile experts were dismayed to find that Cuban palm trees had very light foliage, offering almost no cover for their launch sites.

The Americans spotted the missiles almost immediately and knew precisely what they were. Kennedy’s reaction was one of horror, and his first instinct was to launch a conventional attack. His advisers managed to talk him out of it. If they hadn’t, the outcome could have been catastrophic.

The scenario he faced was nightmarish. Soviet missiles were on Cuba and ready to fire. More ships were heading for the Caribbean carrying more nuclear weapons. The situation was slipping out of control. Kennedy announced that he was blockading Cuba and in a TV address he warned that a nuclear missile fired from Cuba would trigger a ‘full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union’. Khrushchev tried writing to Kennedy, offering to withdraw his missiles as part of a wider deal on disarmament. But the letter ended by saying ‘if any aggressor should attack Cuba, in that case the weapons themselves would start firing’. Khrushchev’s attempted peace overture caused the US military to raise its state of alert to DEFCON2, one step below all-out war.

The Americans showed pictures of the missile sites at the UN, and global opinion turned against Moscow. Under relentless pressure from Kennedy, whom he came grudgingly to respect, Khrushchev realised he needed a way out. After a frantic round of deal-making with Bobby Kennedy, the Soviets agreed to withdraw from Cuba. In return, the US would remove its missiles from Turkey.

As part of the deal, the Americans would inspect the departing missiles, but Castro wouldn’t let US personnel into Cuba. He was furious. He thought the Kremlin had used him — and he was right. This meant the inspections had to take place at sea, an arrangement that led to perhaps the most terrifying moment of all. A Soviet submarine commander, who was communicating with a US inspection ship, mistakenly thought the Americans were attacking. The captain ordered a nuclear-tipped torpedo to be loaded, a weapon with an explosive yield approximately two-thirds that of the Hiroshima bomb. The sub turned towards the American ship, preparing to fire, but a Soviet crew member who got stuck in the shaft of the upper hatch happened to see the flashing signal from the American ship, apologising and explaining it was a mistake. If the submarine had fired, it would have been the first shot of the third world war. Instead, the Soviet captain shut his torpedo tubes and moved on.

In Moscow, Khrushchev tried to frame the Cuban confrontation as a great victory, but for him it was a disaster. When in 1964 the Central Committee voted to remove him for his ‘arrogance, adventurism and mistakes’, the Cuban crisis ‘received special attention’.

Serhii Plokhy’s book is remarkable and troubling, especially for the insight it gives into Khrushchev’s thinking. But it is when the author turns to the present day that the writing becomes most urgent. Modern atomic weapons, of the sort the British government now intends to develop, are more efficient and precise than their Cold War predecessors. This has given rise to the idea of the nuke as a limited, tactical device, a change that, the author writes, has ‘lowered the psychological barrier for using nuclear arms, making nuclear confrontation more likely’.

Humankind survived the Cuban Missile Crisis in part because the US and USSR held one another in check. Both leaders knew
a nuclear war could have no winner. But what lingers is the question of how present-day nuclear-armed states such as China, Pakistan and India would act if a similar crisis were to arise. There is no answer to that, but what is certain is that the Cold War ‘balance of terror’ has gone. For that reason, in the author’s view, our current time ‘is one of the most dangerous moments in the history of nuclear arms’.

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