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The Book That Stopped an Outbreak of Nuclear War

A new history of the Cuban missile crisis emphasizes how close the world came to destruction—and how severe a threat the weapons still pose.

Ralph Crane/LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
People watching President John F. Kennedy’s TV announcement of the Cuban “quarantine” during the missile crisis, in a department store in 1962.

It is very likely that no work of popular history has ever informed an American president’s actions in a crisis as much as The Guns of August did in the fall of 1962. Published that spring, Barbara W. Tuchman’s account of the outbreak of World War I made a lasting impression on John F. Kennedy. “In reading the history of past wars and how they began,” he wrote to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in July 1962, “we cannot help but be impressed how frequently the failure of communication, misunderstanding and mutual irritation have played an important role in the events leading up to fateful decisions for war.”

Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis
by Serhii Plokhy
W.W. Norton & Company, 464 pp., $35.00

Academic historians may have sneered at the bestseller, which won the Pulitzer Prize the following year, but they grudgingly lauded its vivid rendering of anxious rivals, buffeted by misapprehension, as they plunged headlong into the pointless hellfire of modern industrial warfare. The young commander in chief insisted the book be read by his inner circle and had copies delivered to officers at U.S. bases around the world. Robert Kennedy later recalled that during the Cuban missile crisis the president committed himself to avoiding “a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] The Missiles of October.

The story of those tense days in the fall of 1962 is well known. On October 14, an American U-2 spy plane discovered medium-range Soviet missiles in Cuba, where three years earlier a band of rebels toppled a U.S.-friendly despot. Fidel Castro, the leader of the revolution, initially sought a rapprochement with Washington, or at least a tacit commitment to noninterference. But after the bungled U.S.-supported invasion of Cuba in 1961, Castro declared himself a Marxist-Leninist and appealed to the Soviet Union for protection. Although Khrushchev was initially cool on the Cuban revolutionaries—he was committed to reducing the temperature of the Cold War and avoiding unnecessary confrontation with the United States—he embraced Castro’s government in April 1962. Soon Soviet soldiers, military equipment, and armaments were moved into position 90 miles off the coast of Florida. The American reconnaissance pilot who first spotted the missiles worried he might be responsible for starting World War III.

As recounted in works with titles like One Hell of a Gamble, One Minute to Midnight, and Gambling With Armageddon, the two global superpowers at the center of the Cold War locked eyes and tensed up, bringing the world to the brink of devastation. What followed, in one telling, was the victory of American resolve. Kennedy made clear that he knew about the missiles in Cuba and declared their presence unacceptable. After consulting with advisers, he declared a quarantine of the island (Kennedy studiously avoided calling the measure a blockade, which is an act of war). The missiles were removed shortly thereafter. The real story was less sensational if no less impressive, involving intensive back-channel communications and U.S. concessions. Most importantly, Kennedy agreed to relocate U.S. missiles in Turkey in exchange for Soviet missiles being removed from Cuba. However one shades the episode’s conclusion, the competing hegemons prevented an outcome befitting a Tuchman sequel.

What they did not do, of course, was banish nuclear war from the realm of possibility. Indeed, the prospect of nuclear calamity looms in the background of current geopolitics. The end of the Cold War scattered seeds of discord as several nations raced to develop nukes of their own, Iran and North Korea being only the most recent and worrisome examples. While the Obama administration successfully negotiated with Iran to contain its nuclear ambitions—a feat Trump scuttled and that Biden hopes to restore—any progress with North Korea has remained elusive. A frustrated Obama warned his successor that Kim Jong Un’s regime would be his most vexing foreign policy challenge. By 2017, amid loose talk of fire and fury, there were “multiple realistic pathways” to the disaster of a nuclear war with North Korea, according to one expert. The Trump presidency is over, but the existential danger of nuclear weapons persists.

With this simmering predicament in mind, Serhii Plokhy has written a new account of the incident that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Plokhy, a professor of history and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard, has written prize-winning accounts of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown and the implosion of the Soviet Union. In Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he brings a deep understanding of Soviet political reality to the oft-told story of those 13 dicey days in October 1962, a narrative still defined much more by Camelot than the Kremlin in the popular imagination. The result is a magisterial work based on a bevy of U.S. and Soviet archival sources, including previously classified KGB documents. The perspective Plokhy provides exposes the perverse incentives that fueled dangerous nuclear power plays during the Cold War and, he suggests, beyond. Understanding how the most famous near miss of the Cold War was peacefully resolved can, he believes, bring us some reassurance—and perhaps offer crucial life-saving insights.

In early 1962, Khrushchev needed a win. During a trip to Bulgaria, he fretted about the prospect of “losing” Cuba to a second, more organized U.S. invasion. On top of that, in April, the U.S. had successfully tested a new kind of intercontinental ballistic missile called the Minuteman. Unlike previous missiles, which took hours to fill up with liquid propellants, during which time they were vulnerable to enemy strikes, this one used solid fuel and could be launched at a moment’s notice. The Soviets were caught sleeping as the arms race was upended.

One of Khrushchev’s first moves in response was to fire Marshal Kirill Moskalenko, commander in chief of the Soviet Strategic Missile Forces. This pained the Soviet premier. Moskalenko had been a loyal officer, arresting Khrushchev’s main rival during the succession crisis following Stalin’s death and mobilizing to quash a coup against Khrushchev four years later. He had overseen triumphs like Yuri Gagarin’s unprecedented space orbit and the detonation of the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever created. Now he was blamed for falling behind the U.S. What good were nuclear weapons if they could not be deployed in time? Plokhy notes that “very few of the missiles that Khrushchev had at his disposal were intercontinental ones capable of reaching the United States.… The Soviets thus had nothing to deter a possible attack.” Khrushchev needed a quick fix. In Bulgaria, obsessing over the fate of Cuba, he had an idea.

On the flight back to Moscow, Khrushchev told his foreign minister that they would be sending missiles to Cuba. He reasoned that the Soviet Union wouldn’t need rapidly deployable ICBMs if they could station their existing payload a stone’s throw from the U.S. mainland. Kennedy wouldn’t dare take another crack at Castro with Soviet weapons on the island. “I think that’s the only thing that can save the country,” he said, presenting the move primarily as an act of international solidarity with the besieged Cuban people. His interlocutor expressed concern about how Washington would react to missiles at its doorstep. Khrushchev reassured him: “We don’t need a nuclear war, and we are not about to fight.” Despite his generally combative demeanor, Khrushchev was acting out of insecurity. After all, Plokhy writes, he “had presented himself publicly as the defender of world communism and leader of a country that was outdoing the Americans in missile technology. Now he had to deliver.”

What follows is a cautionary tale of frictionless authority. Plokhy finds just one early dissenter identified in the notes of a Defense Council secretary. Anastas Mikoyan was Khrushchev’s first deputy in the Council of Ministers. Crucially, he had been to Cuba and was convinced there was no way to keep the missiles a secret for long. Kennedy would surely strike if weapons were found so close to U.S. territory. “What are we supposed to do in such a case—respond with a strike on U.S. soil?” he asked. Khrushchev recognized the risk but believed he could avoid disaster. He would later assert his belief that “sensible politicians in the USA” would not overreact once the missiles were discovered, considering that the Soviets had taken the placement of U.S. missiles in Turkey a year earlier in stride. On May 21, 1962, with no real checks on his power, the premier’s plan went ahead. “One-man rule gave Khrushchev enormous latitude to be quick, decisive, and flexible in crisis situations,” Plokhy observes, “but it also gave him opportunities to create crises at will.” He assumed both that Castro would welcome the help and that U.S. leaders would keep their cool. Hazardous assumptions, to say the least.

On May 29, the Soviet delegation arrived on “the island of freedom” to confer with Castro. Sensing that something unusual was afoot, the Cubans took notes as the Soviets spoke, the first time the KGB’s top Cuba expert saw them do so in an official meeting. What Castro wanted was something like Article 5 of the NATO charter, a public statement that an attack on one was an attack on all. “Well, if the United States were to understand that an invasion of Cuba would mean war with the Soviet Union,” Castro later recalled saying, “that would be the best way to keep it from invading Cuba.” He did not ask for armaments, let alone a surge in Soviet troops on the island. The Soviets insisted that the missiles were but an insurance policy for the revolution, not an attempt to dictate its course. The USSR had no interest in replacing the U.S. as hemispheric hegemon. “Don’t worry,” Khrushchev told a skeptical Raúl Castro, “I’ll grab Kennedy by the balls and make him negotiate.” Khrushchev was certain of his diplomatic prowess and was offering to deploy it on Cuba’s behalf.

Of course, Khrushchev was not motivated merely by goodwill toward Castro’s upstart regime. With short-, medium-, and long-range missiles in Cuba, the Soviets could strike almost anywhere in the contiguous U.S. This was exactly the credible threat Khrushchev believed he would need in any future dealings with Washington. Backed into a corner, Castro stressed internationalist motives for accepting Soviet military aid, arguing that doing so strengthened the cause of socialism worldwide. Operation Anadyr, as the effort to surreptitiously place Soviet missiles in Cuba was dubbed, could thus proceed. 

The Kennedy administration did not foresee anything at all like Operation Anadyr unfolding so close to the U.S. While Robert Kennedy oversaw ongoing sabotage attempts against the Cuban government (Operation Mongoose), the president fixated on the situation in Europe, especially escalating tensions in Berlin. On August 1, 1962, a CIA report found that Soviet military aid to Cuba was “essentially defensive.” Khrushchev was not likely to “provide Cuba with capability to undertake major independent military operations overseas.” Six days later, Cuban radio programs in Miami reported that 4,000 Soviet soldiers had landed in Cuba the month before. Racing to verify the reporting, the CIA found that 21 ships from the USSR had reached Cuba in July, with 17 more either on their way or already docked. Almost overnight, surface-to-air missiles in Cuba were a real possibility. Washington was now the one caught flat-footed as the terrain of geopolitical conflict shifted.  

On August 21, Robert Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs McGeorge Bundy were scheduled to discuss Operation Mongoose. In the wake of the CIA’s alarming findings, however, the agenda changed. “They turned the meeting,” Plokhy writes, “into a brainstorming session on what should be done under the circumstances.” Bobby mused about staging a Cuban attack on the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay, a pretext for direct intervention. CIA chief John McCone dismissed this idea immediately, citing the difficulty of carrying out clandestine operations in a climate of increasing surveillance on the island. By the end of the month, when CIA overflights obtained incontrovertible evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, the president remained obsessed with the situation in Berlin. Plokhy writes that “the worst thing that could happen, in Kennedy’s view, was that his actions in Cuba might provoke a crisis in West Berlin, leading to a Soviet blockade of the city, a U.S.-Soviet military confrontation, and eventually a nuclear war.” Heeding what he saw as the lesson of Tuchman, Kennedy was thinking two or three moves ahead, worrying about the potential ramifications of any action.

Most accounts of the Cuban missile crisis revolve around the decisions that Kennedy got right in response to Soviet provocations. The 2000 film Thirteen Days is a prominent example, depicting an alarmed but steady commander in chief being pressured by his military brass to use force. The film shows Kennedy, in close consultation with his brother, pushing back against the hollow certainties of gung-ho military advisers—a lesson, it is often said, he had drawn from The Guns of August. But Plokhy is more interested in the “ideological hubris and overriding political agendas” that the missile crisis laid bare, along with demonstrations of “poor judgment often due to the lack of good intelligence, and cultural misunderstandings.”

The successful resolution to the crisis meant that Kennedy and Khrushchev alike could claim to have prevailed. Kennedy, of course, had forced the USSR to stand down. The president’s ecstatic advisers pushed him to use his renewed standing on the world stage to press for foreign policy breakthroughs in other areas. When the president demurred, Ted Sorensen complained: “But Mr. President, today you’re more than ten feet tall.” Kennedy chuckled and replied, “That will last about a couple of weeks.” For his part, Khrushchev insisted he had come out on top, securing a commitment that the U.S. would not invade Cuba and demonstrating to the world how to avoid nuclear war (never mind his role in almost bringing it about).

The Cuban missile crisis illustrated the very real danger of nuclear war, instilling a sobriety in policymakers on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It marked a shift in attitudes that would mostly endure for the rest of the Cold War. Just two years earlier, in 1960, RAND Corporation futurist Herman Kahn had been shockingly cavalier in his technical treatise On Thermonuclear War, arguing that nuclear war was, for the U.S., perfectly winnable. “Will the survivors envy the dead?” Not necessarily, he argued. He did not believe that such a conflict would inevitably end human civilization. As for the health effects of nuclear fallout, he coldly posited that “the high risk of an additional one percent of our children being born deformed” might be acceptable “if that meant not giving up Europe to Soviet Russia.” For Kahn, deterrence would only work if the U.S. communicated a genuine willingness to engage in nuclear war; that, he argued, was the only way to ensure the Soviets never called Washington’s bluff.  

Fortunately, it was Tuchman’s arguments, not Kahn’s, that prevailed. As Plokhy puts it, “What saved the world during the Cuban crisis was that both leaders considered a nuclear war unwinnable.” After the world had come so close to an unthinkable conflict, ideas like Kahn’s were never again taken seriously. In the years that followed, they would find a hearing only in Hollywood movies. Stanley Kubrick met with Kahn several times as he developed Dr. Strangelove. That the film’s absurdist spectacle never played out in real life suggests that presidential reading lists matter.

Plokhy fears that the circumspection Kennedy and Khrushchev showed is in short supply today. Although the two leaders sidestepped disaster in Cuba, they didn’t clear the proverbial minefield. The world’s nuclear arsenal has only grown since then. As Plokhy notes with both resignation and alarm, “There is little doubt that today there are world leaders prepared to take a more cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons and nuclear war than Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1962.” While the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran dominate headlines, experts worry about tensions between India, which tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974, and Pakistan, which declared itself a nuclear weapon state in 1998. The neighboring nations went to war four times in the twentieth century. Israel, for its part, is widely believed to possess an ample nuclear stockpile of its own. In The Sum of All Fears, Tom Clancy imagined what would happen if one of those Israeli weapons ended up on the black market and was used to provoke a nuclear war between Russia and the U.S. (spoiler alert: Goodbye Baltimore).

The dispersal of nuclear know-how in recent decades has led many observers to pine for the relative stability of the Cold War, which was ultimately defined by the power plays of two competing superpowers who could communicate quite efficiently with one another through back channels in a pinch. The way Kennedy and Khrushchev resolved the 1962 crisis—by placing decisive negotiating power in the hands of trusted intermediaries—has been rendered obsolete.    

Considering current geopolitical realities, the U.S. should, at a minimum, adopt a no-first-use policy, making clear to the world that it would never initiate a nuclear war.* When Elizabeth Warren embraced this position in last year’s Democratic primary, she was needled by Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who proclaimed, “I don’t want to turn around and say, ‘Well, Detroit has to be gone before we would ever use [nuclear weapons].’” Such reluctance to take nuclear weapons off the table mistakes an obdurate lack of imagination for principle. “As long as they continue to maintain nuclear arsenals, the security ‘policy’ of the nuclear-armed states is essentially a hope for continued good luck,” according to Ira Helfand, a leader of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. That year, 122 nations voted to abolish nuclear weapons outright. Washington ignored the negotiations. 

The terrible bind that the belligerent and paranoid leaders of the past have placed us in is striking. Yet the creeping advance of nuclear arms around the world is remarkably overlooked today. While there are measures the Biden administration could take to mitigate the chances of disaster, the issue of nuclear disarmament does not currently register as a priority. In his first major address on March 3, Secretary of State Antony Blinken mentioned nuclear weapons once and only as part of the broader challenge of U.S.-Iranian relations. On February 4, discussing the U.S. role in global affairs, Biden touched on the issue of nuclear proliferation just twice. To borrow Tuchman’s description of the early days of World War I, the nuclear age remains “a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.”

* This article originally misstated that China, Russia, and North Korea never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.