Castro, Kennedy and Khrushchev – the nuclear option

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Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Serhii Plokhy, Allen Lane, 2021, 464 pages, £25

KEN BELL admires an unusually informed study of one of History’s nearest misses

Serhii Plokhy’s Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis is the first work to mine the KGB files that are stored in Ukraine. Out of this, Plokhy has synthesised a new understanding of the crisis which argues that neither side understood the other, and both operated on the basis of faulty intelligence.

Fidel Castro was a caudillo, rather than a Marxist, but he realised that if Paris is worth a mass then Cuba was certainly worth some Marxist rhetoric, so he decided to announce his conversion to the principles of Marxism-Leninism in the aftermath of his victory at the Bay of Pigs.

For Moscow, this was a dream come true, but it did create three issues that needed to be addressed quickly. The first was the need to keep Cuba communist, and the second was how to deter further American aggression against it. Finally, there was a need to keep Peking from seducing Havana into its version of communism.

The installation of medium range nuclear missiles, with the Soviet troops to man them, answered all those issues and gave Khrushchev the added bonus of finally being able to threaten the USA directly; the USSR in 1962 still lacked the intercontinental missiles that the USA had recently developed. Khrushchev remembered the way in which Kennedy had accepted the fact of a Berlin Wall and hoped that the Americans would do the same with Soviet missiles in Cuba, if they could be installed before the Americans discovered their presence.

Things began to go wrong almost immediately. The advance party that was sent to Cuba reported that the country was heavily wooded, and installing the missiles could be done under that forest canopy. When the missile troops arrived, they discovered that palm trees do not provide much cover and rain forests are too dense for large trucks to move through. The country lacked bridges that could stand the weight of the Soviet trucks, and even Soviet rations began to go bad in the tropical heat. The troops began to contract dysentery and the whole thing began to look like a farce before it had got off the ground.

Luckily for the Soviets, the decision was taken to install anti-aircraft missiles first. These were quickly discovered by the Americans, but they had expected them, so did not trouble themselves over the Soviet ships. This meant the strategic and tactical nuclear missiles could be set up courtesy of American misreading of what was actually going on.

When the Americans did find out, Kennedy’s reaction at first was hawkish. But he quickly realised that a nuclear world war was not in anyone’s interests so began to find a political solution. However, by then his aides and military were almost united in speaking for war, so the blockade of Cuban waters that he came up with seems to have been intended to buy time and keep the warmongers off his back until he learned exactly what Khrushchev was willing to concede. For his part, once Khrushchev realised that Cuba was far more important than Berlin to the Americans he was more than willing to reach an agreement, but the problem then became bringing that about against a backdrop of rising chaos.

For instance, an American U2 aircraft over Cuba was shot down seemingly against orders from Moscow. The commander of the unit was in his bed with dysentery, so a less senior officer, under extreme pressure as he and his men had not slept for days while they battled to get their antiaircraft missiles operational, gave the launch order.

At sea, a Soviet submarine had surfaced to recharge its batteries. It carried a nuclear torpedo, and control over that weapon was in the captain’s hands. It was the middle of the night when he went up to the conning tower to communicate with the American ships that surrounded him via a Morse lamp, and the USAF took the opportunity to ignore its orders not to do anything provocative and began to drop flares on the boat so photographs could be taken. The Russians thought that they were under attack, and the captain ordered a crash dive and the torpedo tubes to be flooded. Luckily, the man carrying the Morse lamp got stuck on the ladder and the captain was able to look back at the main American ship and read an apology from its captain. Had that man not been caught for a few seconds with his lamp, most of the American ships would have been destroyed by the nuclear weapon.

Back on land, Kennedy’s willingness to swap the Soviet missiles in Cuba for American ones in Turkey almost came to nothing when the Americans realised that the Turks might just object to a deal about their country that did not involve them, but Khrushchev agreed that part could be kept secret. Then Castro got in on the act and refused to allow American inspections of the Soviet missiles as they were loaded onto ships, so the Russians had to agree to inspections at sea. Both superpowers were quickly discovering that even junior partners could not be treated with that same indifference that the Americans used in central America and the Soviets in eastern Europe.

Yet, there was just enough to trade-off, and just enough willingness to do it, to allow Khrushchev to walk away with an American promise not to invade Cuba, which meant that it would remain a communist country. Awash with Soviet arms and subsidies, Cuba ignored Chinese entreaties and remained a reliable Soviet ally until the USSR finally ceased to exist in 1991.

However, as Plokhy shows, that peaceful end to the crisis was a matter of good luck rather than good management. His work takes us through this period with a lucidity that allows his readers to finally make sense of those autumn days in 1962 when the Cold War almost became a catastrophe.