Friday, August 19, 2011

Jack, Nikita & some nukes

I don't remember when we learned about the Cuban missile crisis in school. Probably in 8th grade, likely in the final 10 minutes of the hour-long class, perhaps after the 11 minutes spent on the Korean War. The teacher likely left us with a message of, "And tomorrow, we'll cover Vietnam, Watergate and the Iran hostage ordeal."

The story always fascinated me, even when I only knew the broad strokes and simplistic version: Dastardly Soviets sneak nukes onto Cuba; U.S. discovers it; John F. Kennedy appears on TV to tell Americans they'll all die; generals want to invade the island; blockade; Soviets back down; America wins; USA! USA!

Learning about the crisis nearly 30 years later made it impossible to really understand what it must have been like in the country during those days. It was laughable thinking about my parents hiding under school desks as a mushroom cloud rose outside of Fulda - "True, these shoddily made desks collapse under the weight of our heftier students, but they will shield our youngsters from a thermonuclear device." Kids still feared nuclear annihilation, primarily because of the TV movie The Day After. But the Soviet Union's eventual collapse meant there was no longer an ever-present enemy waiting to hit the button and send us scurrying into bunkers or under desks. We had 30, 40 years of living with Mutual Assured Destruction and most people felt confident leaders for both countries really did understand the theory. Students felt scared because of what happened to Jason Robards on TV, not because of what nearly happened in real life three decades earlier. At that stage, America seemed protected, isolated from danger, if not the world.

Certainly September 11 changed that view. But even in the aftermath of the horror of the worst day in the country's history, I didn't ever feel - and I don't think the majority of people did either - that the entire country was in danger of total destruction. In so many ways the danger was more terrifying than the Cold War, because it was random, unpredictable, and could seemingly happen anyplace, and at anytime. Even with that, there wasn't the fear that the entire country - the whole world, for that matter - could be brought down in the matter of hours, with just a push of a button.

That was what I imagined life was like in the early '60s, as the United States and Soviet Union escalated their arms battle and it all came to a (war)head in Cuba. But still I only knew the children's book version.

Several years ago I watched - and thoroughly enjoyed - the movie Thirteen Days, though I was somewhat surprised to learn Kevin Costner (or at least his character, Kenneth O'Donnell) had saved the world back in 1962. For the most part, the movie received praise for its accuracy. There were a few notable exceptions, the main one probably being that O'Donnell, who served as Kennedy's special assistant, didn't have much of a role during the two-week drama, even if he had a big one in the subsequent two-hour one that came to theaters.

Still, entertaining flick.

But now I finally feel like I've read the definitive account of the crisis. Michael Dobbs' One Minute to Midnight came out in 2008 and has been called "extraordinary," "fast-paced, suspenseful," and a "welcome introduction to that perilous time." Those were some of the official reviews and I can't add much to those. The book filled in any missing gaps I had and shed new light on old issues I thought had been settled long ago. It's literally a minute-by-minute account of the crisis. Half of the book focuses on one day - Saturday, October 27 - when the world really did come close to witnessing a nuclear exchange between a pair of superpowers who would have been anything but in the aftermath of another world war.

Dobbs' book puts the reader in the moment. Now I feel like I do know what it was like and why it was so terrifying, even though the most frightening aspect of the book isn't necessarily the fact the world came so close to the brink, but how it came so close to destruction.

One of the primary strengths of the book is it tells the story from all perspectives - American, Soviet, Cuban. Dobbs gets into the heads of Soviet soldiers in Cuba and leaders back in Moscow. He takes you inside the cockpit of a U-2 and into the White House. He explains Fidel Castro's motivations and the obsessions of the politicians who were determined to eliminate him, seemingly at any cost.

The book opens with some amazing anecdotes, which any conspiracy theorist would read and exclaim, "Told ya so!" On the first pages, Robert Kennedy meets with a group focused on eliminating Castro. These were the folks who brainstormed the idea of using "chemical agents to destroy Castro's beard, so that he would become a laughingstock among the Cuban people." It's not known if a night of heavy pot use prompted that idea. But Dobbs reports on how far the U.S. was willing to go to rid itself of the former baseball player turned ruler:

"The State Department drafted plans for the sabotage of the Cuban economy; the Pentagon came up with a scheme for a wave of bombings in Miami and Washington that could be blamed on Castro." Fake bombings blamed on a stooge? Okay.

RFK was meeting with that group when the missile crisis started. From there, Dobbs meticulously documents why events escalated, culminating in "Black Saturday," when nuclear war seemed possible.

The American generals were eager for some action. General Thomas Power told an aide to defense secretary Robert McNamara, "The whole idea is to kill the bastards." If there were "Two Americans and one Russian" left alive at the end of the war, "we win." Dobbs writes that McNamara's aide replied, "You had better make sure the two Americans are a man and a woman." And, preferably, attractive ones.

At the time, the United States did possess an advantage in sheer number of nukes. We could have blasted the Soviets and "won" a war, while losing tens of millions of Americans. And, terrifyingly, some in the military seemed all right with that proposition.

Looking back, it's frightening to see how a little thing could have led to a big war, whether it was the Soviets shooting down a plane in Cuba or an American spy plane accidentally venturing into Russian airspace. Imagine WW3 starting because of a befuddled pilot. It's absurd. And was completely possible. Fortunately, John Kennedy also spent time looking back during those crucial days. He reflected on how World War I started because of "mistakes, misunderstandings and miscommunication" and how that unleashed "an unpredictable chain of events, causing governments to go to war with little understanding of the consequences."

If nothing else, Dobbs' book is a great reminder about the benefits of civilian control over the military. Support the troops? Sure. But make sure you oversee their leaders. Their job is to win wars, but it's the politicians who have to be trusted with knowing when they should begin.

And that goes for the Soviets too. Nikita Krushchev, like Kennedy, fought to control a situation that had first spiraled out of control because of his own actions. For eventually pulling the missiles out of Cuba, Krushchev was basically labeled the loser in the event, by people on both sides. What a wimp! Didn't have the guts to go through with a war! Actually, he helped save the world, after almost helping destroy it. Just like Kennedy.

Dobbs writes:

"The question the world confronted during what came to be known as the Cuban missile crisis was who controlled history: the men in suits, the men with beards, the men in uniform, or nobody at all. In this drama, Kennedy ended up on the same side as his ideological nemesis, Nikita Krushchev. Neither man wanted war. They both felt an obligation to future generations to rein in the dark, destructive demons they themselves had helped to unleash. ...Something more than dumb luck was involved in sidestepping a nuclear apocalypse. The real good fortune is that men as sane and level-headed as John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Nikita Sergeyevich Krushchev occupied the White House and the Kremlin in October 1962."

We should all be thankful for Krushchev? I think we missed that part in school.


Jerry said...

I first learned of the crisis watching a TV movie - The Missiles of October. William Devane played the president and Martin Sheen played Bobby Kennedy. I had never heard of the whole thing until I watched that movie. It was very accurate I cannot say but it was based in part on Bobby's book 'Thirteen Days'. Plus having grandpa there to ask him about it made it even more riveting.

Shawn Fury said...

I think I've seen parts of that one, or I'm confusing it with the JFK movie where Martin Sheen played JFK or with the West Wing. The movie thirteen Days apparently was based on a different book than Kennedy's, even though it had the same title. It'd be interesting to read RKF's book; I'm sure the parts in it are accurate, but would be intriguing to see what was left out (like the whole taking out Castro thing, perhaps).