The folly of the Cuban missile crisis

How the world came to the brink of nuclear apocalypse

May 03, 2021
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President Kennedy and his generals discuss the Cuban Missile Crisis Credit: Alamy

As tensions again cloud relations between America and Russia, Serhii Plokhy’s masterful new book takes us back to the worst flashpoint in the 20th century: the autumn of 1962 when a crisis over Cuba nearly ignited a nuclear war.

This terrifying and brilliantly readable tale is drawn from material in US and Russian archives. It brings the reader nose to nose with the untested US president John F Kennedy along with the more experienced Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro in Havana as they postured, bluffed and floundered through weeks that could have destroyed humanity.

The prologue sets out the stakes. Unbeknown to Washington, the Soviets had deployed 43,000 men on the Caribbean island in the summer and autumn of 1962. Washington based its invasion plan on there being no more than 10,000 troops. The US had no idea, either, that the Soviets had deployed tactical nuclear weapons on the island: six Luna missile launchers with nine missiles and nuclear warheads. At one stage in the crisis, it was up to the Soviet commander in the field to decide whether or not to use the Luna missiles. Years later Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s secretary of defence, concluded: “had a US invasion been carried out, if the missiles had not been pulled out, there was a 99 per cent probability that nuclear war would have been initiated.”

Plokhy, a Ukrainian-American professor at Harvard best known for his history of the Chernobyl disaster, makes painfully clear just how little, in an age of slow communication and ideological confrontation, any of the protagonists understood what the others were saying, thinking or doing.

While Plokhy notes that the fear of nuclear war that the crisis prompted led to several decades of relative prudence, his trenchant conclusion is that the world is—dangerously—now forgetting the lessons of 1962. “Today we are back to a period resembling the one that preceded the Cuban missile crisis,” he warns. “We should return to the negotiating table and renew the arms-control process,” and “we can’t wait for another crisis of such proportions to bring leaders back to their senses, as the next crisis may prove much worse.”

Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis by Serhii Plokhy (Allen Lane, £25)