- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

KENNEDY, KHRUSHCHEV AND CASTRO ON THE BRINK OF NUCLEAR WAR

By Michael Dobbs

Knopf, $28.95, 426 pages

REVIEWED BY MARTIN SIEFF

The Cuban Missile Crisis was arguably the greatest crisis ever to potentially threaten the human race: The United States and the Soviet Union came within hours and a few score miles of inflicting all-out thermonuclear war on each other. This traumatic event lastingly sobered up leaders in Washington and Moscow. In the 46 years since that momentous drama, neither nation has dared to come close to risking anything similar.

The story of the crisis is widely known and many books have been written about it, but Michael Dobbs’ new history stands out head and shoulders among them. Mr. Dobbs, who covered the Soviet Union for many years with distinction for The Washington Post during the collapse of communism, speaks fluent Russian and carried out extensive and original research in the Russian archives. As a result, this book tells the most comprehensive account of the crisis yet written by a Western historian from the Soviet point of view.

But Mr. Dobbs also challenges. And demolishes many hoary myths that have obscured the true history of the crisis on the U.S. side over the decades as well. Most of all, he destroys the image of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy’s brother, as a wise, consistent force of moderation throughout the crisis. On the contrary in its early stages, RFK was one of the most unstable, shoot-from-the-hip advisers surrounding the president. “On the first day of the crisis, he was one of the leading advocates for invading Cuba and even ruminated aloud about staging a ‘Sink the Maine’-type incident as a pretext for getting rid of Castro,” Mr. Dobbs writes. Bobby Kennedy also played a much smaller role in the resolution of the crisis than Theodore Sorensen, the recently deceased lifelong hagiographer of the Kennedy clan, claimed, Mr. Dobbs proves.

Kennedy and Khrushchev, Mr. Dobbs concludes, half blundered into their sane resolution of the crisis. At one point, Mr. Dobbs writes, “An American U-2 was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet air defense unit without Khrushchev’s authorization within a few moments of another U-2 blundering over the Soviet Union without Kennedy knowing anything about it.” It was a blunder that could have destroyed this nation and human civilization throughout the Northern Hemisphere. As Kennedy, wise in the ways of potentially atrophic screw-ups from his own combat service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, rightly noted at the time, “There’s always some sonofabitch that doesn’t get the word.”

Some of Mr. Dobbs’ most vivid and alarming discoveries serve to confirm and heighten popular perceptions over recent decades: Historian Victor Davis Hansen has written a deeply admiring portrait of Gen. Curtis LeMay, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force through the crisis and the real architect of the Strategic Air Command. Gen. LeMay has long been ridiculed and caricatured as a prototype for George C. Scott’s withering portrayal of Gen. Buck Turgidson, the fateful SAC commander who unleashes the end of the world in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy movie masterpiece “Dr. Strangelove.” Mr. Dobbs’ remarkable research reveals that the caricature, if anything, understated the reality. Gen. Le May openly despised his own president at fateful meetings of the ExComm - the Executive Committee of the National Security Council convened to deal with the crisis - and he energetically planned to carry out an annihilating pre-emptive strike on the Soviets even though his own president and secretary of defense were adamantly opposed to the idea.

Mr. Dobbs’ outstanding book could not be more timely. Today, the proliferation of nuclear weapons means that a much more limited, but still devastating nuclear exchange between two powers is far more likely than it was 40 or 50 years ago. But the shadow of an annihilating thermonuclear exchange between the United States and Russia today is not widely feared compared with the terror such a possibility inspired in the 1950s and 1960s.

Also, the ultimate restraint of both JFK and Khrushchev is too often underestimated or taken for granted. Both men were immensely experienced and seasoned war veterans who had experienced its horrors firsthand, and neither of them wanted, when the chips were down, to unleash a thermonuclear catastrophe on the human race. As Mr. Dobbs makes clear in this first-class book, we remain in their debt.

  • Martin Sieff is defense security editor of United Press International and a former veteran foreign correspondent for The Washington Times, where he received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting. His most recent book, the “Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East,” was published in January.
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