Book of the week: Nuclear Folly
Serhii Plokhy’s ‘gripping narrative’ reveals the bad decisions that led to the Cuban missile crisis
Over two weeks in October 1962, the world came as close as it ever has to nuclear catastrophe, said Victor Sebestyen in the FT. The Cuban missile crisis was triggered by the CIA discovering that the USSR had secretly installed nuclear warheads on Cuba, as part of a general build-up of munitions on the island. The weapons were just 90 miles from the US mainland, and John F. Kennedy “knew at once that his presidency would be over” if he didn’t remove the threat. Of the scores of books that have been written about the crisis, Nuclear Folly is “arguably the most authoritative and cleverly written”. Serhii Plokhy’s “gripping narrative” reveals the “series of bad judgement calls” that led to the stand-off – and the considerable luck that ultimately caused two superpowers to pull back from the brink.
The “main culprit” of the crisis was the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, said Jay Elwes in The Spectator. His “first error was to mistake the US president for a callow weakling”. “Don’t worry,” he assured the Cubans, “I’ll grab Kennedy by the balls.” A second was to underestimate how unacceptable America would find it to have Soviet warheads within striking distance of its territory. But the mistakes weren’t all on the Russian side. Wrongly believing the Soviet missiles weren’t battle-ready, Kennedy’s generals advised him to attack Cuba – a course which would almost certainly have prompted nuclear retaliation by the Russians. Instead, Kennedy decided to blockade the island: Khrushchev withdrew, and catastrophe was averted. (The US, for its part, agreed to remove its own nuclear missiles from near the Soviet border in Turkey.)
Plokhy, a Harvard professor, uses Soviet archives to colourful effect, said Julie McDowall in The Times. As well as highlighting Khrushchev’s “coarse language”, he reveals the misery of Soviet servicemen in Cuba, who found not a “tropical paradise” but an “unbearably hot” country “carpeted in poisonous plants”. His narrative does, however, sometimes become “bogged down with memos and meetings – the endless admin of an averted Armageddon”. While some historians have downplayed the “appalling” danger posed by the crisis, Plokhy makes no such mistake, said Max Hastings in The Sunday Times. There were many “terrifying moments” – such as the near-miss when a Russian submarine being stalked by American warships “almost unleashed a nuclear torpedo”. Accomplished and authoritative, Nuclear Folly suggests that Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was “closer to reality than anybody likes to suppose”.
Allen Lane 464pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99
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