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nuclear folly

2 november 2021

Somewhere there's an album with Polaroids of me doing little-kid stuff in the fall of 1962, luckily oblivious to the fact that civilization was about to go up in a mushroom cloud at any minute.

As Serhii Plokhy recounts in Nuclear Folly, the newest history of the Cuban missile crisis, annihilation really was that close. Tensions reached firing point on several occasions: Cubans shot at American surveillance planes and the Soviets brought one U2 down with a missile. American sailors dropped flares and "practice" depth charges on Soviet submarines: Lyndon Johnson's one appearance in Nuclear Folly sees the Vice President trying to explain to his warmongering peers that practice can look like the real thing:

I have been afraid of those damned flares ever since they mentioned them … Imagine some crazy Russian captain doing it. The damn thing goes "blooey" and lights up the skies. He might just pull a trigger. (270)
Others in the American leadership, notably Curtis LeMay, the Air Force general who thought of the whole world in terms of bombing targets, wanted to invade Cuba without delay, whatever the nuclear consequences. There were hawks on the other side too, Soviet military who didn't see the point of stocking Cuba with weapons unless those weapons were going to be used. Fidel Castro was spoiling for a fight; Plokhy emphasizes Castro's independence (at least in 1962) from Soviet commands, a counter to the received view that sees the Cubans as mere objects in the superpower tussle.

But John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, Plokhy argues, ultimately had the same priority: whatever other pissing-contest elements transpired, the important thing was not to engage in nuclear war. The two leaders feared war, Plokhy says, in a healthy fear-of-God sense; unlike their heirs 60 years later, they had lived through the Second World War and were not eager to start a Third.

Nobody comes across particularly well in Nuclear Folly, and Plokhy admits that he is wary of heroic interpretations. Kennedy was initially a hawk, frustrated by the Bay of Pigs debacle and his apparent one-on-one failures in personal (though figurative, one hopes) dick-measuring contests with Khrushchev. Meanwhile Khrushchev was mercurial and seemed to make up objectives in the course of, or even after, taking action.

Plokhy points out an interesting, counter-intuitive difference between Presidential and Soviet decision-making. The U.S. is a democracy … well, it's at least a place where some people vote and even in 2021, some of its leaders acknowledge election results. Yet the inner circle of advisers to John Kennedy were just that: directly appointed (except arguably LBJ) by the President, loyal to his retaining power in the 1962 midterm elections and his prospects for re-election in 1964. By contrast, Khrushchev was a dictator, but the personal loyalties of his inner circle were not necessarily to him; the Soviet brain trust consisted of men (no women figured in any of this decision-making) who had their own constituencies and power bases. One might say that Khrushchev filled the interim role of dictator in an autocratic but impersonal system, as did his various successors. Stalinism had been such a surreal descent into tyranny that none of these former Stalinists were eager to revive it in the form of a new personality cult. There may have been more genuine dissent in Kremlin discussions of the missile crisis than there was at the White House.

Nevertheless, the whole missiles-to-Cuba power play seems to have been Khrushchev's idea, the brinksmanship that followed was his work, the eventual settlement without a war was his as well, and the perceived weakness of the USSR in its aftermath was seen as his fault, leading to Khrushchev's cashiering a couple of years later. Oddly enough, Lee Harvey Oswald's obsession with Cuba led to Kennedy's death even sooner. Few people died in the missile crisis itself, but its effects rippled across subsequent governments around the world.

The plan to stock Cuba with nuclear missiles was fairly crazy. Plokhy describes its comic-opera elements well, like the insistence by Soviet intelligence agents that Cuba was a grand place to hide huge missiles, while in fact the Americans saw them immediately. In one of the strangest incidents, a group of Soviet missile experts flew to Cuba but were rerouted to the Bahamas, where they deplaned to find scores of American tourists taking their photographs. Of course they weren't wearing jackets that said "Rocket Men"; they were supposedly agronomists (81). None of them knew a mango from a sugar beet, but there they were chatting to curious Americans about the wonders of Russo-Cuban agricultural cooperation.

But the potential American military response was not nearly so humorous. Plokhy describes days in Washington ending with the assumption that war would begin the next morning, only to see JFK continually drawing back from final authorization of the planned strikes. Robert Kennedy and Dean Rusk eventually (by Plokhy's account) were among the advisors who were best able to translate Kennedy's reluctance into a show of diplomatic and political strength. Part of that illusion came by decoupling the eventual withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey (where they were useless anyway) from the Soviet withdrawal from Cuba. It was a true quid pro quo, but its nature was kept secret for a long time.

RFK would go on to write a self-serving book, Thirteen Days, about his own part in saving the world, and part of Plokhy's task here is to tease out the younger Kennedy's actual contributions from his rhetoric. Plokhy seems to do this objectively, and in the process Nuclear Folly becomes literally, as of 2021 anyway, the last word on the missiles of October.

Plokhy, Serhii. Nuclear Folly: A history of the Cuban missile crisis. New York: Norton, 2021. E 841 .P55