Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962
Max Hastings, William Collins, September 2022, 576 pages, £30
KEN BELL recalls the Cold War’s most dangerous moment
2022 has been the sixtieth anniversary year of the Cuban Missile Crisis so a lot has been written about the event, with Max Hastings’ Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 being the year’s final offering. It is also one of the better works, especially since it is aimed, as Hastings notes, for ‘the general reader’. Thus the work assumes no prior knowledge of the events, so the first three chapters consist of an explanation of the interaction between Havana, Moscow and Washington in the decades leading to the Missile Crisis. I confess I found that a little tedious, but I suspect that I am not one of the target readers. That said, the work is footnoted throughout and comes with a very decent bibliography, so it will feature on a lot of student reading lists.
As the KGB archives were opened fairly recently in Ukraine and Serhii Plokhy mined them assiduously in 2021 to produce Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis there may not be much new material that is awaiting discovery. Given that, Hastings has produced a synthesis of the existing knowledge in a wonderfully readable form. Good historian that he is, he also manages to put new interpretations on much of this material.
For instance, Cuba managed to liberate herself from the American informal empire in 1959, and then went on without any outside help to destroy the American-sponsored attempt to bring the country back into Washington’s orbit at the Bay of Pigs. The USSR sent a delegation, headed by Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan to investigate what was going on, and Fidel Castro whispered to him that he ‘had been a closet Marxist since his student days’. As Hastings points out, ‘this fragment of autobiography’ was really nothing more than a ploy for Soviet support against the USA, but Mikoyan took the bait and returned to Moscow in a state of euphoria. The USSR had waited for a country to free itself from capitalism without the Soviet army forcing it on them, and here was Cuba doing just that. As Mikoyan later exulted to Dean Rusk, Cuba made the Soviet leadership ‘feel like boys again’ with the glory days of 1917 returning in a hot climate.
In other words, Havana made the running in the relationship with Moscow and Castro had the Soviet government exactly where he wanted it, doing his bidding. That, more than anything kept Cuban independence alive down the following decades as together the USA and USSR gave Cuba ‘the right friends and the best enemies’ that she could ever hope for.
The Soviet Union could probably have signed an agreement with Cuba that would have led to the former openly placing her missiles in Cuba, just as the USA had done with Turkey. The American reaction would have been the same, but it is possible that western Europe would have shrugged and a serious division might have been created between the United States and its European clients. That did not happen because of the mercurial personality of Nikita Khrushchev, who was a born gambler, not to say outright chancer.
Khrushchev was probably the worst man to put in charge of any foreign policy, because he invariably neglected to plan for contingencies. He thought that if the missiles could be installed in Cuba then the Americans would accept the situation just as they had accepted the Berlin Wall. When Washington refused to play along, Khrushchev was caught in a bind and had to find a way to get out of the situation that his failed gamble had created.
John F. Kennedy was willing to negotiate, but he was faced with a military that seemed to be basically insane as it egged him on to war. As one such lunatic said, if there were two Americans left standing at the end and only one Russian, then America had won. It is a tribute to his patrician sense of self-belief that he was able to ignore such madness and keep the negotiations with Moscow going until the other side finally blinked.
One wonders what would have happened had America been led by a Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush during that time, instead of a man who could take time out from looming Armageddon to order an underling to smuggle a young typist who couldn’t actually type into the White House to provide him with an evening’s entertainment. Say what you like about JFK; this was the era of the Imperial Presidency, he reigned at the height of the Pax Americana and he knew how to prioritise and ensure the obedience of those around him as well as any emperor during the Pax Romana.
The world came through the crisis in 1962, which is why I am able to write this in 2022. For the reader who wants to understand the sequence of events that led to that near catastrophe I cannot praise Max Hastings’ work too highly.
KEN BELL is a Mancunian who fetched up in Mexico, and who now lives in shabby retirement in Edinburgh. He writes as a hobby in his twilight years; a fuller biography can be found at his Amazon author page