Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962
Sixty years ago, for thirteen days in October 1962, the world gazed horrified into the abyss of nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest humanity came to thermonuclear catastrophe during the five decades of the Cold War. Sir Max Hastings’s new book, Abyss, tells the gripping story of how the world side-stepped disaster, but also of how close it came and how easily events might have provoked a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
It is appropriate, therefore, that Sir Max will be talking to the Sherborne Literary Society about Abyss on 25th October, sixty years to the day since one of the most dramatic events of the crisis. Much of what we now know about the events of those perilous days was at the time hidden from the public eye. The prolonged, agonised discussions in the White House between President Kennedy and his advisors, military and civilian, let alone the proceedings of the Russian Politburo, were entirely unknown to the wider world. The drama was largely a hidden one, conducted secretly in the corridors of power.
One exception to this was the stopping at sea on 25th October 1962 of the Russian tanker Bucharest. The presence of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba - a mere ninety miles from the coast of Florida - had been revealed on 15th October by aerial photographs taken from a U-2 surveillance aircraft. After five days of intense debate in the White House, on 20th October Kennedy imposed a blockade on Russian shipping bound for Cuba; the exclusion zone extended for 500 miles into the Atlantic to the east of the island. The blockade came into effect on 24th October.
The following morning, as the Bucharest approached the blockade line, she was intercepted by US warships. Until this moment, the crisis had unfolded behind closed doors in Washington and Moscow but this encounter in the Atlantic was reported on live network TV: as Hastings says, ‘Millions of people held their breath’ as the presenter counted down the miles as the Bucharest steamed towards the exclusion line. In the event, it was an anti-climax as the vessel when challenged declared that she was carrying petroleum products which were not covered by the blockade so she was allowed to pass. But the world had seen the confrontation between the two superpowers in action. This was the threat of war made real.
The deployment of Russian missiles in Cuba - codenamed ‘Operation Anadyr’ - began in the summer of 1962. Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Soviet government, had mixed, not to say confused, motives for deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba, so close to the United States. On the one hand, he wanted to defend Fidel Castro’s communist revolution - threatened the previous year by the Americans’ farcical attempted invasion at the Bay of Pigs - while on the other wishing to project Soviet power into the western hemisphere. As Khrushchev memorably asked his defence minister while considering the deployment, ‘What if we throw a hedgehog down Uncle Sam’s pants?’ The missile deployment was ‘pure adventurism’. His mistake was to imagine that the missiles could be hidden from the Americans and that, once discovered, they would not take the greatest exception to their presence.
In 1962 the Cold War was at its height; the two nuclear superpowers glowered at each other across the continent of Europe but stood toe-to-toe in the divided city of Berlin. Here it was that tensions between the two blocs were most strained: the previous summer, the Russians had begun constructing a barrier to stop eastern Germans leaving the communist utopia in droves. In 1948-49, Stain had cut the city off from the west altogether, forcing the Allies to supply it by air for nearly a year.
The United States in the early 1960s was ‘by far the richest and most powerful nation on earth’ but most Americans regarded the Soviet Union as a ‘force of cosmic evil’. Fear of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war occupied a place in the public imagination which is hard to recreate today. Kennedy knew that once Russian missiles had been discovered in Cuba, his administration would have to be seen to take action to nullify the threat.
In dealing with the crisis, Kennedy had to balance the demands of the American military for immediate, devastating and provocative action against the advice of those diplomats who favoured negotiation. The US military top brass, having cut their teeth during the Second World War, were particularly bellicose; one of them said, ‘The whole idea is to kill the bastards. At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian left, we win.’
In the end, after thirteen days of excruciating tension, Khrushchev backed down, agreeing to withdraw the Russian missiles from Cuba in exchange for an American undertaking to leave Castro’s regime unmolested. Nuclear war had been avoided; the world could breathe once more.
President Kennedy’s leadership of the United States during the crisis was, writes Hastings, ‘his finest and most courageous achievement’. In fact, as we now know, Khrushchev never wanted a war: he was all too aware of the overwhelming superiority of America’s nuclear arsenal. In 1962 America had around 5,000 nuclear warheads against the Soviet Union’s 300. Neither leader wanted a war but there remained a real possibility that one might have started by default as a result of the actions of a lowly commander on either side taking a split-second decision in the heat of the moment. Thankfully it never happened.