It was 60 years ago, but for those old enough to remember, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a seminal moment in their lives. Just like the assassination of President Kennedy only a year later, people can remember where they were and what they were doing during the crisis. Those 13 days in October 1962 threatened the survival of the world as they knew it. There are several shelves of books about the crisis, and yet another one has to justify its appearance. Serhii Plokhy’s Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis deserves more than a place on those already crowded shelves; it deserves to be read, and its lessons attended to in an increasingly dangerous world of proliferating nuclear arsenals.
The key parts of the story are well-known. From the Soviet Union’s blockade of West Berlin in 1948 until the rapid construction of a dividing wall across the city in 1961, East-West tensions registered most acutely in Berlin. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 were still fresh in the memory, and the increasing numbers and potency of post-war atmospheric nuclear tests by the US and the Soviet Union made everyone aware of the risks nuclear weaponry posed to global peace.
The Caribbean island and the communist republic of Cuba – only 90 miles from the US mainland – injected a new hazard into already complex geopolitics; one the US had partly generated but one they were determined to throttle at birth. US efforts to do so and the Soviet Union’s attempt to exploit the situation to its advantage generated a wholly unexpected focus of Cold War rivalry.
Following Fidel Castro’s seizure of power in Cuba in 1959, the Eisenhower administration devised a plan for an invasion by Cuban exiles to overthrow the new regime. Kennedy inherited the plan and chose to go ahead with it. Only a matter of months after his election, several thousand exiles landed in an area known as the Bay of Pigs. It was a complete disaster in which several hundred exiles died, and Castro’s hold on power was strengthened. The relatively new leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, saw a chance after that to steal a march on his US counterpart.
At their first summit meeting in Vienna, Kennedy arrived damaged by the Bay of Pigs debacle, and Khrushchev sniffed weakness and schemed to exploit this by drawing Castro ever more tightly within the Soviet net. Anxious to compensate for the Soviet Union’s lack of intercontinental range missiles to threaten the territory of the US directly, Khrushchev grabbed the chance to base shorter range nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba.
These were capable of hitting a wide range of US targets, including Washington DC. But his adventurism went horribly wrong. Kennedy showed unexpectedly subtle negotiating skills and used a naval blockade around Cuba to force Khrushchev to withdraw the Soviet missiles in return for a secret undertaking by the US to remove their ageing missiles from Turkey.
Serhii Plokhy – whose last book was a much-admired account of the Chernobyl disaster – tells a fast-paced story deepened by using Ukrainian and Russian sources, many only recently made available. He re-balances the standard accounts by tracing – in detail – the complex interplay between Khrushchev, fellow members of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, leading military advisors and members of the Soviet mission to Cuba.
He draws out the difficult relationship Khrushchev had with Castro, who resisted what he saw as an abject Soviet surrender to US pressure which was deeply damaging to Cuba’s international reputation. In successive chapters, Plokhy tracks developments in Moscow, Washington and to a lesser extent in Havana. The effect is that Nuclear Folly is more richly and subtly textured than earlier accounts of the Missile Crisis.
Khrushchev emerges as an intuitive leader prone to bluster and patronising towards the inexperienced Kennedy. Having had to back-channel exchanges with the Kennedy team during the earlier election campaign (‘collusion’ did not seem to start with Putin and Trump), he considered Kennedy ‘owed him’.
The Kennedy administration’s maladroit handling of the Bay of Pigs fiasco reinforced Khrushchev’s misreading of the new President’s ability and resolve. But whilst Plokhy identifies Khrushchev as the fundamental initiator of the Missile Crisis, he also sees him as instrumental to its eventual resolution.
With the start of the US naval blockade, Khrushchev saw the writing on the wall. He panicked into reverse gear by ordering the removal of all Soviet offensive weapons from Cuba. His military commanders felt wrong-footed and humiliated by his speedy and comprehensive climbdown. This was not forgotten and played a significant part in Khrushchev’s fall from power only two years later.
Plokhy carefully plays out the roles of the respective armed forces. Kennedy generally held his sometimes reckless military advisors (Curtis LeMay as Air Force Chief the stand-out example) in check. However, Khrushchev’s political direction of the Soviet military sometimes went awry, notably on the nuclear arming of missiles in Cuba and at sea. Luck played a disturbingly large part in the US and Soviet military actions; there were a number of risk-laden decisions that could have gone badly wrong.
The possibility of nuclear exchanges was never absent and often far too close for comfort. Each side also had allies or satellites to keep on side. Whereas the US retained the support of its NATO partners throughout, the Soviet Union had more difficulties with its Cuban clients than might have been expected.
Castro was the leader of a nationalist revolution only three years earlier and sought more leverage than Khrushchev was ready to allow him. Castro wanted to have more control over Soviet missiles on the islands and to retain offensive aircraft when Khrushchev was ready to concede to US demands for their removal. Indeed, it is striking how ready Castro was to bridle at Soviet control, but the Soviet Union, of course, retained all the real levers of power.
What is striking today is how, on the one hand, so little has changed in the nuclear situation since 1962, whilst on the other, how much is worryingly novel. There are still disturbingly high levels of nuclear armament on the parts of the US and Russia. It is far from clear also that potential combatants are any better equipped to avoid nuclear miscalculation than they were in 1962.
Whereas the Cuban Missile Crisis helped move the nuclear powers along paths of arms control, starting with the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, that era seems to be coming to an end. Most conspicuously of all, the number of states with nuclear weapons has increased significantly since 1962 and sometimes they are held by neighbouring countries in unstable bilateral relationships.
Speaking with Serhii Plokhy last week, I explored some of his thinking further. I began by asking him why he had called his book “Nuclear Folly” and what exactly he saw to be the nature of the “folly”?
“The ‘folly’ in my book refers to the way in which both sides handled the crisis. It involved misunderstanding each other’s objectives, political systems, cultural sensitivities, and outright bad intelligence,” explains Plokhy. “Kennedy never grasped why Khrushchev had put his missiles on Cuba, and Khrushchev never realised why Kennedy had reacted to the discovery of the missiles in such an aggressive way.”
Ukrainian military and specialists played such important roles in 1962 and that thirty years after the Missile Crisis, their homeland would regain its independence. As a Ukrainian, I ask just how supportive or patriotic Ukrainians, as opposed to Russians, were in 1962?
“Many of the military commanders in the story were of Ukrainian background, something that came to me as a surprise,” he says. “Khrushchev, who had served as the Communist Party boss of Ukraine, was an outsider in Moscow and relied on the Ukrainian cadres to cement his power over the central apparatus. That was also true for the military. But the Ukrainian generals, while developing a strong sense of solidarity with each other and assisting each other careers, were first and foremost loyal Soviet patriots. The informal networks that they created played a role in the disintegration of the Soviet armed forces in 1991, but the top Soviet commanders with Ukrainian backgrounds did not think about an independent Ukraine in 1962.”
This is the second book Plokhy has written about nuclear issues. His masterly study of the Chernobyl disaster addressed some of the risks attached to civil nuclear energy, whilst his new book reflects on the risks posed by nuclear weapons.
“After writing both books I understand much better the danger posed by nuclear energy and especially by nuclear weapons,” Plokhy says. “My books were conceived and pretty much written as works of history. I did not expect them to resonate so profoundly with the key issues we confront today, from the possible role that nuclear energy can play in fighting climate change to the new nuclear arms race that we are all in today. So I discovered the challenges of the present by studying the past.”
The last sentence of Plokhy’s book reads: “Looking back is an essential prerequisite for moving forward”. This suggests there are lessons to be drawn from the Cuban Missile Crisis, which can serve as practical guides to moving forward in the very different international circumstances that exist today.” The question is, are risks that exist today, not of an altogether different level of complexity than was the case in 1962?
“We are doing better when it comes to communication technologies, but other than that, the nuclear weapons and the threat posed by them is pretty much the same,” he tells me. “It is all old, twentieth-century technology. The new nuclear re-armament is based on completing some of the projects that started during the Cold War and were shelved back then.”
The most important thing moving forward, of course, is nuclear arms control. “It was slowly built up after the nuclear war scare of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it is all but dismantled now,” he says. “We are back in pre-Cuban Crisis times when the arms race was going full speed, pretty much unregulated. If anything, we are in a more dangerous situation today, as there are more drivers on the barely regulated nuclear highway.”
Plokhy’s new book is a work of history, yet it offers little comfort to those fearful of the continuing risks posed by nuclear weapons today. If anything, its contemporary relevance makes for very worrying reading.