Max Hastings, Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 (London: William Collins, 2022)

IT is generally agreed that the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 was the closest the planet has come in the nuclear age to an apocalyptic confrontation that could have cost millions of lives. Current events in Ukraine tempt close comparison, but circumstances are very different today in what is now a multi- rather than a bipolar world. And in spite of historians’ reluctance to focus on individuals, the close call of 1962 had much to do with three.

Neither John F. Kennedy (JFK) nor Nikita Khrushchev, both of whom had served in World War II, welcomed hostilities having had direct experience of the consequences. But there were numerous hawks in the United States military itching for action and Kennedy, ostensibly a liberal, had proved weak in the past in the face of McCarthyism’s right-wing provocation. He also had an eye on re-election. In Moscow the canny, but ill-educated and often crude, Khrushchev’s unpredictable behaviour tempted some to doubt his sanity. And Havana was run by narcissistic (Fidel Castro) and psychopathic (Che Guevara) revolutionaries high on rhetoric keen to seize an historic moment to punch above the weight of an obscure Caribbean nation. It was a truly volatile mix.

The missile crisis was not only about Cuba; but the greater prize of Berlin. Khrushchev and his praesidium aimed to remove Western forces from East Germany and saw the situation in Cuba as an opportunity. Their support for Castro had certain justification. The Americans had already backed a farcical invasion at the Bay of Pigs (Operation Zapata, April 1961 at Playa Giron) that should have led to thorough retrospection. Instead, it seems to have encouraged the hawks in the CIA and military to greater heights of reckless ambition that suggested further American interference.

Europe played a minor role in this crisis, and NATO was barely involved, but public opinion in the West outside the United States is instructive. It felt that Cuba was entitled to pick allies and defend her sovereignty; and that Europe and the Soviet Union had lived alongside nuclear arsenals for nearly two decades. There was a justifiable element of anti-Americanism involved, but as the crisis developed this was tempered by growing distrust of Soviet behaviour.

Its deployment of nuclear weapons to Cuba was ill-conceived and bungled. Operation Anadyr was variously disguised as an Arctic operation and agricultural aid. The transport of military hardware and over 40 000 personnel required a small armada that could hardly pass unnoticed or be easily hidden in Cuba. The Soviets made the mistake of working clandestinely instead of operating openly as the Americans did in Europe and Turkey. And ultimately, had the USA decided to act against Cuba militarily the Soviet forces there would have proved insufficient, provoking almost certain global nuclear war.

There was a surprising time lapse before the Americans identified SS-4 missiles in Cuba on 15 October because of previous reluctance to deploy U2 surveillance aircraft. Even then the Soviet Union continued to lie brazenly about them. Hastings makes a telling contrast between the authoritarian methods of the Kremlin and the collegial discussions of the group of advisors around JFK over the famous thirteen days. Ultimately, he managed to rein in the military hawks while Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara made it very clear that politicians would exercise control of any conflict. The decision to impose a 800 kilometre blockade on Cuba with the aim of stopping any further military build-up was the wisest meaningful option, although technically an act of war.

On the Soviet side, Khrushchev blustered. Circumstances and the nature of his military gave a dangerous measure of autonomy to officers in the field. On either side, nuclear conflagration was most likely to be triggered by misjudgement by a junior officer. Ironically, it was the Soviet blunder in shooting down Rudy Anderson’s U2 surveillance aircraft, creating the only American casualty of the crisis, that focused Soviet minds on the compromise being brokered by the United Nations: withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba in exchange for removal of (soon-to-be redundant) Jupiter missiles from Turkey. The other flashpoint around the depth-charging of submarine B59, Hastings argues, remains unexplained and will probably remain so.

Three-way brinkmanship brought the world near Max Hastings’ abyss. The US military backed by a large segment of public opinion maintained an arrogant and febrile desire for a shooting match in the Caribbean. This was equalled by Cuban rhetoric backed by misguided Western left-wing opinion – Socialismo o Muerte … Venceremos – that appeared to glory in the idea of incinerating millions of people in celebration of revolutionary machismo. Then there was Soviet bluster, military and political ineptitude, and consistent lying. Kennedy was undoubtedly the man of the moment listening carefully and applying formidable intellect to plan phased pressure to get nuclear weapons out of Cuba.

Hastings makes some interesting observations about international political and military crises. For example, there is the assumption that the other side will act within familiar parameters of logic and reason. This was exacerbated by the mixed messages and contradictions from the Kremlin, compounded by Khrushchev’s volatility, that made it very difficult for Washington to know how to react.

Even at the direst moments the Americans and Russians were talking to one another. One back-channel was between Attorney-General Robert Kennedy and Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, who was as much in the dark as the Americans. After a crucial meeting he wrote a report for Khrushchev, had it coded and then entrusted to Western Union who collected it by bicycle. Dobrynin joked that he hoped the messenger would not dally on the way to the cable office. Equally bizarre, Soviet submarines armed with nuclear warheads had to surface and trail a wireless antenna to communicate.

Nuclear weapons had the power to wipe out entire countries; cameras to identify a car from 70 000 feet. But communications technology was still in its infancy and this led to episodes where delay could have been catastrophic. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan described the crisis as ‘this strange and still scarcely explicable affair’. The British ambassador to Havana said it could be a sequel to Graham Greene’s novel. Why did Khrushchev commit nuclear missiles to Cuba, knowing that they had no logical use and would have to be withdrawn? In fact, he considered this a victory and was correct in the sense that Cuba was never again threatened by invasion. It was both expensive and extremely risky, but he was a believer in trying the unorthodox and then reacting to events.

The Cold War was to last nearly thirty more years, but lessons had been learned. There was a certain stability derived from mutual deterrence and a fax hotline was installed between Washington and Moscow (voice communication was correctly deemed vulnerable to misinterpretation). Hindsight can be misleading, but looking back from today’s extreme global instability an element of nostalgia is apt.

However, some things have not changed: authoritarianism fuelled by aggrieved nationalism and imperial ambition still reigns in Moscow and its military competence has been found wanting in Ukraine; where a new Cold War, possibly a third European War, has been initiated.