One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War
By Michael Dobbs
(Vintage Books, 426 pages, $17 paper)
Anyone old enough to recall the fortnight in October 1962 when all-out nuclear war between the United States and the former Soviet Union seemed a terrifyingly real prospect, might feel no need to seek added instruction on the dangers then narrowly averted. They would be mistaken. Reporter Michael Dobbs has written a magisterial account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with chilling revelations.
In particular, two revelations are most compelling: that Soviet tactical nuclear weapons were deployed in Cuba, with the prospect of unauthorized use; that Fidel Castro, a romantic revolutionary intoxicated with the prospect of war versus the United States, was prepared to initiate an all-out nuclear holocaust, knowing his island country would be obliterated.
Much of the book focuses, necessarily, on President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet Union’s General Secretary, Nikita S. Khrushchev, the principal protagonists. The author notes that both had lost close kin during the Second World War, JFK older brother Joe Jr. and a brother-in-law, Khrushchev a son. They had been personally blooded by war, themselves — Khrushchev served in World War I on the Eastern Front. JFK, far more famously, commanded PT 109 in the Pacific, where his boat was cleaved in two by a Japanese destroyer. Yet early in the crisis the Soviet dictator told an American industrialist: “I’m not interested in the destruction of the world, but if you want us all to meet in Hell it’s up to you.”
Initially they each leaned towards strong action. Having successfully bullied his younger counterpart in the June 1961 Vienna Summit, the Soviet leader concluded — correctly — that JFK would be passive were the East Germans to erect a wall separating East from West Berlin. In September 1961 the Soviet Union ended a three-year superpower moratorium on nuclear tests in the atmosphere. Its series of tests culminated in late October 1961 with detonation of the 50-megaton “Tsar Bomba,” whose Big Bang set the stage for the Crisis a year later. Though too large to be a practical weapon, the apocalyptic symbolism was unmistakable.
Much of the story of October 1962, and the months leading up to it, is well known, and merits brief mention. Reconnaissance photos taken in August and September 1962 showed that, contrary to assurances given the Kennedy administration, the Soviet Union was clandestinely deploying nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles in Cuba. On October 15, President Kennedy convened thirteen top present and former national security officials, creating ExComm, short for Executive Committee. JFK began the first meeting: “Gentlemen, today we’re going to earn our pay.”
Initially sharply divided between pro-invasion hawks (pre-emption, in today’s lingo) and pro-negotiation-only doves, the group decided to impose a “quarantine” preventing ships carrying military cargo from docking at Cuban ports. ExComm came around over the fortnight to acceptance of a crisis-ending compromise. Russia would remove offensive weapons permanently in return for a public American pledge not to invade Cuba. Quietly, six months later so as not to appear as a quid pro quo (which in fact it was), Kennedy was to withdraw nuclear-armed ballistic missiles from Turkey, though keeping its intelligence and surveillance bases there.
Also well known is the dramatic confrontation between Russia’s UN Ambassador, the aging Valerian Zorin, and US Ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson. In a dramatic exchange in which Stevenson’s aggressive stance surprised JFK, Stevenson asked Zorin if he denied that his country had secretly shipped ballistic missiles to Cuba, snapping at Zorin, “Don’t wait for the translation, yes or no?” After Zorin balked, Stevenson pronounced that Russia was “in the court of world opinion” (plausible in 1962, before the UN went haywire) and eventually put incriminating photographs on an easel in the Security Council chamber, thus scoring a huge public relations win for the United States.
But Dobbs gives harrowing details hitherto never disclosed. On October 27, what the White House called “Black Saturday,” things seemed to spin out of control. A U-2 pilot was downed at Castro’s orders; another U-2 pilot on an Arctic surveillance mission was tricked by an intense aurora borealis into taking a wrong turn, penetrating Soviet airspace to the tune of 300 miles. The U-2 eluded Russian interceptors and by a major miracle made it back to friendly territory, but for a while the “Fail Safe” scenario (inability to recall a hostile plane in time) of accidental war looked as too real. A Russian submarine carrying a torpedo with a 10-kiloton warhead was depth-charged by an American destroyer; the charges were intended not to sink the sub but to force it to the surface, but the Russian commander, completely unable to communicate with Moscow, considered firing the torpedo.
And then there is the news about just how many nuclear warheads and types of nuclear-capable delivery systems were on the island. Dobbs says (surely accurately) that the nuclear arsenal “far exceeded the worst nightmares of anyone in Washington.” Specifically, deployed or en route to Cuba by ship were no less than 164 warheads. There were 90 already on the island: 36 one-megaton warheads for the R-12 medium-range (1,292 miles) ballistic missiles (MRBMs); 36 fourteen-kiloton warheads (Hiroshima-size) for the FROG (Free Rocket Over Ground) tactical nuclear missile; 12 two-kiloton warheads for the FKR, a jerry-built cruise missile fashioned out of a MiG-15 chassis, which were aimed at Guantanamo Naval Base; and six 12-kiloton weapons for the Il-28 tactical bombers, which were to target these “Tatyanas” (nicknamed for one of the engineers) at an invasion force. An estimated 150,000 troops were to be sent to take the island, and 1,397 separate targets had been marked for destruction as part of the invasion. The carnage that would have been inflicted by a nuclear-capable Russian force of some 45,000, plus a much larger volunteer Cuban contingent on the invasion force alone would have been the worst in American military history–even without nuclear missile strikes on American soil. More Americans could have perished in one day than were killed by enemy fire in Korea and Vietnam combined.
En route on ships that never reached Cuba were 68 more warheads: 44 fourteen-kiloton cruise missile warheads and 24 one-megaton warheads for the R-14 intermediate-range (2,800 miles) ballistic missiles (IRBMs). Khrushchev during the Crisis recalled the R-14 warheads. Weapon security on Cuba was dicey; there was hardly anyone on guard, and the island heat made storage hotter than was safe for the warheads; accidental megaton-level ground detonation was a serious possibility. The truth was that virtually every nuclear weapon on Cuba could, in a pinch, be released by the local commander — in some cases, a lieutenant — ignoring orders to the contrary from Moscow, as there were no trigger locks. Had an invasion come, as one Russian former soldier stationed in Cuba then put it, “You have to understand the psychology of the military person. If you are being attacked, why shouldn’t you reciprocate?” Ironically, the minimal level of perimeter and site security at the Bejucal nuclear storage bunker led CIA analysts to conclude that the facility would not house nuclear weapons.
Things were better, but far from secure, on our side. Pilots had unilateral release discretion for nuclear-armed air-to-air missiles, designed to vaporize strategic bomber squadrons. A nuclear-armed B-47 strategic bomber — carrying a pair of 20-megaton hydrogen bombs, each able to devastate a major city — crashed on take-off, while a nuclear-armed F-106 interceptor had a near mishap taking off, armed with the MB-1 Genie air-to-air missile, a 1-kiloton device called by one pilot “the dumbest weapons system ever purchased.” F-102 interceptors had similar armament, and F-100 Super Sabres based in Europe carried hydrogen bombs to drop inside Russia. Poor communications — the Russian ambassador in Washington sent telegrams via Western Union, complete with pick-up via bicycle messenger — made matters worse, and led to establishment of the Washington-Moscow Hot Line in 1963.
The Crisis ended on October 28, 1962, with a whimper rather than a bang. Contrary to popular myth, America and Russia were never literally “eyeball to eyeball,” but the Kennedy administration was only too happy to promote that version, to dramatize its public triumph. To be fair, considering some of his more hawkish advisers, Kennedy deserved credit for reining them in while not caving completely. Strategic Air Command chief General Curtis LeMay — the model for the hilarious, insane General Buck Turgidson played by actor George C. Scott in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove — said of Cuba that we should “Fry it.” Asked to define victory in a nuclear exchange, LeMay answered (anticipatorily channeling Donald Trump’s “He who dies with the most toys wins”) that whoever had the most nuclear weapons left wins. In the same vein, Air Force chief General Thomas Power said that if at the end of an exchange there were two Americans and one Russian, we win. (Power did not specify that the two Americans must be boy and girl.) In a neat historical touch, Dobbs notes that in 1945 one of LeMay’s analysts who helped plan the March 1945 fire raid that destroyed one quarter of Tokyo and killed at least 100,000 civilians was one Robert Strange McNamara.
Kennedy’s decisive leadership surprised Khrushchev, who had said after he bullied a frightened JFK at the Vienna summit that the young, charismatic President was “not strong enough, too intelligent and too weak.” Perhaps Kennedy was fortified by knowledge that his vast arsenal — nearly 3,000 nuclear weapons, deliverable via ICBM, submarine launch or manned bomber (mostly the bombers) — dwarfed the Soviet Union’s estimated few hundred deliverable missile and bomber nukes.
Yet Kennedy’s weakness at Vienna nearly led to nuclear war, because his flinching caused his adversary in Moscow to take a gamble, confident that no major confrontation would ensue. We may see a replay of this with the new President — like JFK, young, charismatic, untested — leading foreign adversaries to see him as too weak and intellectual. Betraying allies like Poland and the Czech Republic by caving to Moscow on missile defense, and failing to apply sufficient pressure on Iran, could lead to future conflict, possibly nuclear, involving America or Israel. In contrast, John McCain, who sat in his A-4 Skyhawk carrier plane on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise, armed with nuclear bombs and ready to hit targets in Cuba, would be less likely to be tested, as his threats to use force would be far more credible.
Which brings us to perhaps the most important personality of the Crisis. No, not JFK, nor Khrushchev. Fidel Castro, flush with his improbable revolutionary triumph and seething with rage at the United States, partly borne of ideological Marxist fervor, and partly due to the efforts of the Kennedy administration to get rid of him. As recently as the summer of 1955, less than four years before he marched victorious into Havana in January 1959, Fidel’s comrades had dwindled to seven diehards. Fidel wanted the Russians to incinerate the United States, and was willing, even eager, to sacrifice his six million subjects in a nuclear holocaust.
It is today’s Islamic Castro who should worry us the most. Religious messianism can be as lethal as romantic revolutionary fervor. Compound this with several new Mideast nuclear powers, in the arms race that Iran’s march towards the nuclear club is triggering, and the recipe for accidental nuclear war is cooking in the regional pot. Dobbs takes as the primary theme of the Cuban Missile Crisis he so ably recounts, that the two superpower leaders exercised restraint that pulled their countries back from the nuclear precipice. Fair enough. But it is Fidel who may well be the future augury of nuclear crises — and wars — to come.