“We are eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked,” whispered Secretary of State Dean Rusk to national security adviser McGeorge Bundy when he heard that Soviet ships carrying missiles had turned away from Cuba. It was October 24, 1962, in the midst of the most dangerous nuclear missile crisis in history. President John F. Kennedy had given the order to attack Soviet ships before he realized they’d changed course 24 hours earlier. Kennedy was greatly influenced by Barbara W. Tuchman’s The Guns of August and wanted to avoid the kind of misunderstandings, misinformation, stupidity and individual complexes of inferiority and grandeur that had led to World War I. But here was a communication problem.
The dominant narrative in the U.S. has long been that when the missiles in Cuba were removed, it was because Kennedy’s grace under pressure and skillful diplomacy had prevailed. Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy takes a different approach as he considers the many instances when both sides got things wrong in his riveting Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Drawing on KGB documents, Soviet military memoirs and more American and Cuban sources, he outlines all the times catastrophe was averted.
This excellent re-creation of events begins by explaining the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. and placing the U.S.-Soviet relationship in the context of the Cold War. We see how changing details drove the daily debates as diplomatic, military and political assumptions were tested. As the meetings with his advisers dragged on for almost two weeks, Kennedy went from being a “dove” to a “reluctant hawk” and back again, always hoping for a diplomatic solution while remaining tough. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev shared a fear of nuclear weapons, and neither was prepared to pay the price for a nuclear war victory. Throughout Nuclear Folly, Kennedy “plays for time” as he considers his next move in the complex and tense negotiations.
In February of 2021, the U.S. and Russia formally agreed to extend the last remaining nuclear arms treaty between their countries. This well-told account is a timely reminder of a danger we must still live with today.