THE CRISIS IN MEMORY
For most americans who experienced it, or relived it in books and films, the Cuban Missile Crisis is a tale of nuclear chicken-the Cold War world recklessly flirting with suicide.
We remember a bellicose Soviet dictator, who had vowed to bury us, pointing his missiles at the American heartland from a Cuba turned hostile and communist.
We remember a glamorous president, standing desperately against the threat, risking World War III to get the missiles withdrawn.
We remember the Russians blinking on the brink, compelled to retreat by a naked display of American power, brilliantly deployed, unerringly managed.
The crisis was real enough, but for the most part, we remember it wrong.
No episode of the last century has been so elaborately documented, so often reenacted in print and on film, and so many times earnestly reexamined at extraordinary reunions of Russian, American, and Cuban veterans of the drama.1 As one of them, McGeorge Bundy, has observed, "forests have been felled to print the reflections and conclusions of participants, observers and scholars" of the crisis. And most recently, their views and recollections have been augmented by voluminous government records of the United States, some from old Soviet archives, and even a few from Cuban dossiers.
Yet over the decades, even the most attentive scholars and participants kept debating the main questions surrounding this sensational event. They failed to agree on why it happened, and they lacked the facts about how it really ended. And they have still not overcome the popular misconceptions about the motives and conduct of the two Cold War antagonists-Nikita Khrushchev, the wily old peasant ruling the Soviet empire, and John F. Kennedy, the jaunty young president leading the Western democracies. Nor have the many histories overcome the temptation to enrich the drama with alarmist claims that these two supercharged men came within hours, even minutes, of igniting an all-out nuclear war.
The fear of war during the crisis week of October 22-28, 1962, was palpable, in the Kremlin as in the White House. It was even greater among populations that could read uncensored accounts of the chilling, intimidating rhetoric with which Khrushchev and Kennedy bargained for concessions to resolve the crisis. Yet with all the information now available, it is clear that Khrushchev and Kennedy were effectively deterred by their fear of war and took great care to avoid even minor military clashes. In the end, both were ready to betray important alÓlies, resist the counsel of chafing military commanders, and endure political humiliation to find a way out of the crisis. Their anxiety was real. But with the benefit of time and distance from the emotions of the Cold War, we can now see that their reciprocal alarm kept them well away from a nuclear showdown.
Time and distance also serve to illuminate the causes of the fateful events of 1962 that Americans call the Cuban Missile Crisis.2
As I first sensed in reporting from Moscow at the height of Khrushchev's power, his pugnacity was born of a typically Russian insecurity. His most aggressive actions against the West tended to mask a deeply defensive purpose. The evidence now available, though still debated, shows that it was to offset a debilitating weakness, not to imperil America, that Khrushchev careered into the crisis.
And as I slowly learned in covering Kennedy's Washington, the imperative of protecting himself politically inevitably shapes a president's perception of the nation's security. The cumulative record shows that Kennedy's decision to challenge the Soviet missiles in Cuba was rooted in a need to prove himself, more even than in any threat posed by the missiles themselves. Yet in reporting the day-to-day events of the crisis, and reading the many Washington-centered accounts in later years, I never fully appreciated the extent of Kennedy's statesmanlike restraint in steering his team to a diplomatic resolution. Though haunted by domestic critics, he nonetheless weighed every move with respect for his adversary and showed a decent regard for the opinions of other affected nations and the judgment of history.
Luck played a role in averting disaster, in preventing events from racing out of control. The crisis owed its origin to miscalculation, misinterpretation, and misjudgment. Yet the record now available shows that once they understood their predicament, two dissimilar statesmen commanding disparate societies reasoned their way back to a recognition that nothing vital, nothing truly affecting their nations' well-being was at stake. Unlike Fidel Castro, the charismatic and dogmatic Cuban leader around whom the crisis swirled, they had no desire to sacrifice lives to a Pyrrhic cause.
Now that we can peer into the minds of both the Soviet and American leaders at a crucial junction, the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis shifts from a merely fateful dance at the nuclear brink to a truly great drama. It is a tale of intricate, psychological combat, of men beating a path from dangerous ignorance to enlightened awareness, defining their values and preserving their balance in the midst of a storm. Driven by fear of the inhuman power they had to share, they found, if only for a moment, a shared humanity and yen to survive. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from High Noon in the Cold War by Max Frankel. Copyright © 2004 by Max Frankel. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.