On the brink of Armageddon

On the brink of Armageddon: As Putin warns he’s willing to unleash nuclear war, Max Hastings’ gripping account of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a terrifying reminder of the last time Russia threatened to obliterate the West

  • Max Hastings recounts U.S.’s 1962 historic blockade of its Fidel Castro’s Cuba 
  • Tony Rennell describes this reconstruction of Cuban Missile Crisis as ‘superb’
  • He says the book reads ‘like a thriller’, while playing out Cold War power politics

HISTORY

ABYSS: THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS 1962 

by Max Hastings (William Collins £30, 576pp)

The schoolmaster was not just angry, he was white with fear. ‘Don’t you stupid boys know how serious this is?’ he yelled. ‘At any minute, we could all be dead.’ It was October 1962 and the news was grim. Apocalyptically so.

The U.S. had imposed a blockade of its troublesome and defiant Caribbean neighbour, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, in order to stop the Soviet Union, Cuba’s communist ally, delivering any more nuclear missiles to the island — just 100 miles away across the Florida Straits and now threatening the U.S. in its own backyard.

Out at sea, Russian ships were approaching the exclusion zone. Would they stop? And if not, would the American warships tracking them blow them out of the water, triggering World War III and nuclear oblivion?

As the clock counted down, we 14-year-olds sang out mockingly (and nervously): ‘We’ll all go together when we go, yes, we’ll all…’ That was when the teacher burst in and told us to shut up.

President John F. Kennedy pictured meeting with U.S. Army officials during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962

But what else was there to do at this incomprehensibly precarious moment in our short lives and in the whole of human history?

We were a boys-only school but apparently in mixed-sex schools partners were being eyed up for a desperate last (and probably first) fling if and when the warning came that Russian missiles were heading in Britain’s direction.

All this came back to me as I read Abyss, Max Hastings’s superb reconstruction of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We all know the outcome — thankfully common sense prevailed after 13 days of tension and the world breathed again — yet this still reads like a thriller, as the gripping drama of Cold War power politics plays out behind closed doors in Washington, Moscow and Havana.

When the Americans first spotted missiles with nuclear warheads on the ground in Cuba, President John Kennedy and his advisers were in almost continuous session in the White House.

Tapes of those sessions are Hastings’s primary source, following every twist and turn as some of America’s keenest minds (and some pretty dumb ones as well) tried to fathom what Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev — Stalin’s short, podgy, tub-thumping, crude, hard-to-read successor — was really up to in daring to arm his protege Castro in this way. They assumed he must have a master plan, otherwise why risk nuclear war and Armageddon, the obliteration of his own country along with the rest of the world?

Russian president Vladimir Putin pictured chairing a Security Council meeting via a video link in Moscow this month

A group of protesters from Women Strike for Peace pictured holding placards in New York, in 1962

Was it West Berlin — the free half of the former German capital marooned inside communist East Germany — he was after? Was he looking for a trade-off? Or was the old fox just testing the mettle of America’s young, charismatic but inexperienced president?

What particularly riled Kennedy was Khrushchev’s blatant lying. For weeks he had been denying any plans for Cuba while secretly sending in the first of the missiles, along with a 50,000-strong Soviet army to man them and bolster the island’s defences. Kennedy took this deception personally.

Plenty of his advisers were leaning on him to meet aggression with aggression, led by the military, whose gung-ho attitude — put simply, let’s bomb the hell out of Cuba and then nuke the Ruskies if we have to, go, go, go — was an unrelenting pressure on him.

But he tempered his initial belligerence and decided on the blockade, to buy time. Five-star generals such as the war-monger air force chief Curtis LeMay — with his 1,436 nuclear-armed bombers and 134 ballistic missiles at Defcon 2 alert, one below the order to go — went ape, deriding him for ducking the fight.

The president was proved right when all 16 Russian ships carrying missiles turned back and confrontation at sea was averted, but they still pressed him for seven days of air strikes followed by invasion to ensure the missiles already in Cuba were neutralised.

And even when Khrushchev backed down completely and in full view pulled his missiles and his soldiers out of Cuba, some never-trust-a-commie generals still wanted to send in the Marines to check that nuclear weapons were not being hidden among the sugar cane.

Kennedy, proclaiming that ‘the military are mad’, bravely resisted their constant hankering to go to war and damn the consequences, summed up by the general who argued that, in the event of nuclear war, ‘if there are two Americans and one Russian left at the end, we win’. As for the Soviet leader, the irony was that he never had the master plan that the Americans tied themselves in knots trying to discover. He wasn’t interested in West Berlin and he was, it turned out later, never going to risk nuclear confrontation, for all his public threats and violent language.

Fidel Castro pictured giving a radio and televised speech during which he spoke about the measures taken by the U.S. regarding Cuba

For him, arming Cuba with missiles was an adventure. Let’s poke the bear to see what happens. He had not bothered to think it through and when everything threatened to escalate out of control, he was scared and even more desperate than Kennedy to find a peaceful solution.

There was a quid pro quo: the U.S. had a small battery of nuclear missiles in Turkey, virtually on its border with Russia. Khrushchev used to complain they were deliberately pointed at his dacha on the Black Sea. But Washington now considered them obsolete, and Kennedy was happy to pull them out if Khrushchev would do the same in Cuba.

The deal was done — though it remained a highly guarded secret for more than a quarter of century because neither leader wanted to risk wrath at home that they had compromised with the devil.

As Khrushchev’s missiles and his weary troops returned to Russia, leaving Castro fuming that he had been dumped on and betrayed, the world had no doubt who had come out on top in the crisis. Kennedy had stood his ground. Khrushchev had blinked.

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) demonstrators pictured in Whitehall, London, in October 1962

But with the Turkey deal, the Soviet leader had the face-saver he needed to keep sweet the back-stabbers in the politburo in Moscow, never keen on his Cuban folly, not least because he hadn’t consulted them. (It didn’t work for long. Two years later they knifed him anyway and he was gone.)

The crisis was, thankfully, over. But it is chilling to read how close to the brink the world came.

The slowness of communications back then was a major problem. It was taking four hours for the U.S. Navy to decrypt messages from its ships at sea.

Meanwhile, the Soviet ambassador in Washington was reduced to cabling coded updates to Moscow via the local Western Union office. ‘They would send a messenger on a bicycle,’ he recalled.

But the greatest danger of all was not so much in the head-butting and eye-balling between Kennedy and Khrushchev but the question posed afterwards by that wise head, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert McNamara: ‘What about the Second Lieutenant?’

In a hair-trigger situation with many moving parts, uncontrollable escalation can be sparked by just one stressed-out individual panicking — such as the captain of Soviet submarine B-59, tracked by U.S. warships for two days and nights and bombarded with grenades that rocked its hull.

President Kennedy pictured discussing the surveillance of Cuba. When the Americans first spotted missiles with nuclear warheads on the ground in Cuba, the president and his advisers were in almost continuous session in the White House

The sub finally had to surface to recharge its batteries and take in fresh air for its gasping crew — only to find itself in the glare of searchlights from an American destroyer. And a low-flying American anti-submarine plane roared over dropping explosive incendiary devices.

The exhausted captain flipped. Concluding war had broken out, he ordered the sub’s nuclear torpedo to be armed. Mercifully, he was talked out of firing by one of his officers. But if he had pressed his button, there is every chance that thousands more buttons would pretty soon be pushed and the world would be incinerated.

That’s how close we came.

In the end, we survived. But did the world learn its lesson about the dangers of brinkmanship? As we watch another Russian leader chancing his arm by invading Ukraine, it seems not. In my head I can hear my boyhood voice again: ‘We’ll all go together…’

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