HIGH NOON IN THE COLD WAR: KENNEDY, KHRUSHCHEV, AND THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS
By Max Frankel
Random House, $23.95, 206 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY ARNOLD BEICHMAN
There were five chronological successors to Joseph Stalin after his mysterious death in 1953 — Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko and Mikhail Gorbachev. Of these, the most dangerous to world peace was Khrushchev, a quasi-master of brinksmanship.
Had Andropov been a well man when he took over in December 1982, and had he lived a little longer past 1984, he might have been an even greater danger than Khrushchev. After all, it was on Andropov’s watch that in August 1983, without warning, a Soviet fighter plane destroyed a Korean jumbo jetliner with 269 passengers and crew aboard. That tragedy did not unleash World War III, but Khrushchev’s 1962 actions in Cuba might well have.
What becomes quite clear from Max Frankel’s riveting retrospective examination of the Cuban missile crisis — the third Soviet-American confrontation, preceded by the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the Berlin blockade in 1948 — is that Khrushchev the Shoe-Pounder simply had no idea of what American politics was all about.
Had Harry Truman wilted before the Stalin-ordered Berlin blockade, he would without doubt have been impeached and probably removed. John F. Kennedy knew (and said so) that if he had surrendered to Khrushchev on Cuba, he too would have been impeached.
Khrushchev was a fool, a dangerous fool: dangerous because he was a practicing sociopath, protected, he thought, by the shield of Leninism and thousands of nuclear weapons. When he was finally ousted in October 1964, he was denounced by his onetime subordinates for his “hare-brained schemes.” Meaning despite his boastful rantings that “we’ll bury you,” in the end he buried himself.
Khrushchev’s hare-brained scheme that brought the world close to war (or so it seemed) was planting Soviet nuclear missile weapons — secretly, he thought — in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. I have used the precautionary phrase “or so it seemed” because Khrushchev was rather nimble at jumping off the wagon before it went over the cliff.
Mr. Frankel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times editor, calls Khrushchev “a wily old peasant,” a rather maudlin cliche. Khrushchev’s only connection with the Russian peasantry was helping Stalin starve the peasants and their families, the so-called kulaks, by the hundreds of thousands.
The author is going back over what is to him old ground. As a young reporter in the New York Times’ Washington bureau, he covered some of the Cuba story and also watched James Reston, the then-bureau chief, talking to everybody from JFK down and deciding what was and was not off the record. In fact, what Mr. Frankel doesn’t quite say is that the New York Times was part of JFK’s decision-making apparatus on Cuba. Mr. Frankel omits the important Bay of Pigs conversations between Kennedy and Orvil Dryfoos, then the newspaper’s publisher.
Another significant omission from this account is what happened in the cabinet room of the White House on Oct. 28, 1962, when Khrushchev finally agreed to remove the nuclear missiles he had installed on Cuba. In “The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963,” Michael R. Beschloss describes how a triumphant President Kennedy had called in two members of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. George Anderson and Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis Le May. He thanked them, in his words, “for your advice and your counsel and your behavior during this very, very difficult period.”
Then, according to Mr. Beschloss, there ensued a stunning display of rage by two military subordinates directly aimed at their commander in chief:
“Admiral Anderson cried out, ‘We have been had.’ General Le May pounded the table: ‘It’s the greatest defeat in our history, Mr. President … We should invade today!’ McNamara looked at Kennedy and noticed that ‘he was absolutely shocked. He was stuttering in reply.’”
In any evaluation of JFK’s leadership, such an event is an important part of the story of the 13 days. I cannot understand why, in what is an otherwise encyclopedic recounting of that confrontation, Mr. Frankel has omitted it.
Mr. Frankel further errs in his restrained references to Herbert L. Matthews, the New York Times correspondent who filled pages of that newspaper in 1957 and thereafter with plain and simple lies about the democracy-loving Mr. Castro. Without a Mr. Castro in Cuba there would not have been a 1962 war crisis in which one false move might have precipitated an exchange of nuclear weapons.
Although Mr. Frankel is dealing with the Cuban crisis in a historical fashion, it is important to remember that in Matthews’ covering up for Mr. Castro, the New York Times had not learned its lesson from the shameful years of Walter Duranty and Harold Denny, when they warped the coverage of Stalin’s purges and the harvests of sorrow he visited on the hapless Russian and Ukrainian peoples.
It’s possible that I may be guilty of criticizing Mr. Frankel for not having written the book I would write. So I will conclude by recounting his anecdote about the time when then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk was asked by Khrushchev: Since West Germany, Britain and France would not fight a nuclear war over Berlin, “Why should I believe that you Americans could fight a nuclear war over Berlin?”
As Rusk told Mr. Frankel: “With Khrushchev staring at me with his little pig eyes, I couldn’t call Kennedy and ask, ‘What do I tell the son of a bitch now?’ So I stared back at him, ‘Mr. Chairman, you will have to take into account the possibility we Americans are just goddamn fools.”
Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times. His updated biography, “Herman Wouk, the Novelist as Social Historian,” will be published next month.