Apocalypse Then


Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964

By Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali

Norton 420pp $27.50

For months, the Cubans had expected an invasion. On four separate occasions in 1960 and early '61, war scares shook the island. During one of these, in October, 1960, Cuba mobilized thousands of soldiers to combat an imminent U.S.-backed landing. Despite a lack of evidence, the Soviets, who were then wooing Cuba, accepted the idea of a looming invasion, too.

But no attack materialized. Elated, Fidel Castro and his inner circle believed that Soviet threats of retaliation had caused the U.S. to back down. In fact, neither the KGB nor the Cuban security forces knew much at all about U.S. plans. So when the true invasion came, on Apr. 15 at Playa de Giron, the small Cuban garrison there was taken completely by surprise. But President John F. Kennedy's ambivalence about the operation and the fatal lack of air support for the Cuban-exile invaders allowed the Castroites to triumph. Ironically, near-disaster still led to a consolidation of power for the KGB, which soon took control of Cuban security operations.

Missteps, misunderstandings, wishful thinking, and profound terror. Such are the ingredients of "One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964, by Russian Academy of Sciences historian Aleksandr Fursenko and Yale University historian Timothy Naftali. The book is a trove of fresh information, partly gleaned from newly accessible Soviet archives--including Premier Nikita Khrushchev's office files--and partly from interviews with surviving players. It is an engrossing if somewhat academic read.

The events of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis provide the title's quote from Kennedy and serve as the book's climax. Many of these are well-known: In October, high-altitude U.S. reconnaissance flights revealed the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. In ensuing U.S. National Security Council meetings, participants debated a U.S. response ranging from air strikes to blockades to outright invasion. Kennedy opted for a Navy-enforced "strict quarantine" of Cuba--announced in a dramatic speech on national television. But Khrushchev refused to call back ships steaming toward the island with additional nukes aboard. Castro mobilized 350,000 soldiers, and the U.S. Strategic Air Command was placed on nuclear alert. Armageddon loomed.

Then, four nerve-flagellating days after JFK's speech, Khrushchev began proposing a compromise, and two days later, the outlines of a settlement were in place. The Soviets would remove the missiles; Kennedy would end the quarantine and pledge not to invade Cuba. And--although it was not publicized-- the U.S. would also withdraw similar ballistic missiles from Turkey.

While detailing all of this, "One Hell of a Gamble" delivers several revelations: KGB sources say that initially noncommunist Fidel Castro did not learn until 1962 that both his brother Raul and comrade Ernesto "Che" Guevara had long been secret members of the Cuban Communist Party. Moreover, from the earliest days of the revolutionary regime, Raul was working to engineer closer ties to the Soviet Union.

We also learn that during the missile crisis, the world came very close to holocaust indeed. For at one point, the Kremlin signed orders allowing the Soviet commander in Cuba to use tactical missiles in the event of a U.S. invasion. These were armed with nuclear warheads--not, as Washington believed, with conventional explosives.

The authors provide intriguing interpretations of each side's Cuba policy. Kennedy could discover no quick fix: Following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he settled for covert action against Cuba (including assassination plans) since every other approach seemed problematic. A dearth of ideas also lay behind the Soviets' nuclear gambit. It would, Khrushchev believed, "answer the American threat but...also avoid war," since he expected Kennedy simply to swallow a fait accompli.

The book offers fly-on-the-wall excitement. But its very strengths also produce a key flaw: At times, the source material seems to be writing the book, as the authors fail to counter their documents' biases and flaws. For example, Kennedy Administration materials portray outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower as tired and unimaginative in foreign affairs--and the authors offer no more balanced perspective. Quotes from Castro appear as English translations of Russian translations of the original Spanish. There's little character development, particularly of JFK.

Why did Khrushchev remove his missiles? On this matter, Fursenko and Naftali have no original answer. The Premier, they say, just recognized that the Soviets would be outgunned in a nuclear exchange.

The settlement, reached without Castro's involvement or approval, left him enraged. He was not appeased by Khrushchev's postmortem logic: "The Americans wanted to wipe you off the face of the earth. So who suffered defeat?...We attained our goal; so they lost, we won...." Neither, it seems, were the Kremlin conspirators who, as they brought an end to Khrushchev's reign in 1964, vilified him for his Cuban "adventure." But, as the authors point out, Castro should be gratified by one undeniable fact: Of all the key players in this seminal event of the cold war, he alone is left standing today.

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