Saturday 2 March 2024

Guest Review: Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 By Max Hastings

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was the most perilous event in history, when mankind faced a looming nuclear collision between the United States and Soviet Union. During those weeks, the world gazed into the abyss of potential annihilation.

Max Hastings’s graphic new history tells the story from the viewpoints of national leaders, Russian officers, Cuban peasants, American pilots and British disarmers. Max Hastings deploys his accustomed blend of eye-witness interviews, archive documents and diaries, White House tape recordings, top-down analysis, first to paint word-portraits of the Cold War experiences of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Nikita Khrushchev’s Russia and Kennedy’s America; then to describe the nail-biting Thirteen Days in which Armageddon beckoned.

Hastings began researching this book believing that he was exploring a past event from twentieth century history. He is as shocked as are millions of us around the world, to discover that the rape of Ukraine gives this narrative a hitherto unimaginable twenty-first century immediacy. We may be witnessing the onset of a new Cold War between nuclear-armed superpowers.

To contend with today’s threat, which Hastings fears will prove enduring, it is critical to understand how, sixty years ago, the world survived its last glimpse into the abyss. Only by fearing the worst, he argues, can our leaders hope to secure the survival of the planet.

Review: For 13 days, from 16th October 1962, the world stood on the brink of possible nuclear conflict as the two superpowers of the day, the United States of America and the Soviet Union, faced-off over the deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba. This book is the author’s account of the events leading up to, during and after those 13 days, which is usually referred to as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In 1959, a socialist revolution in Cuba led by Fidel Castro overthrew the American-backed government. Castro became the country’s Prime Minister and pursued an agenda of socialist policies. This earned the enmity of America and led to many disaffected Cubans emigrating to America. In April 1961, a group of these Cuban exiles, trained by America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and with the acquiescence of the newly-elected American President John F. Kennedy, attempted an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The American administration, feeling humiliated, imposed trade embargoes on Cuba and made plans secretly to overthrow Castro. Cuba felt isolated and, fearing another American invasion, turned to the Soviet Union for economic and military support. As well as providing this aid, the Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Khrushchev also came up with a plan to deploy covertly nuclear missiles, together with supporting technical and military personnel, to Cuba over the summer of 1962. These installations were photographed by American aerial reconnaissance missions in mid-October so that, despite Soviet denials, the Americans were aware of the nuclear deployment 90 miles from their south-east coast, precipitating the crisis. There followed 13 days of tense negotiations, together with an American naval blockade, before President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev drew back from the abyss and reached a compromise by which the Soviet nuclear missiles were withdrawn in return for America undertaking not to invade Cuba.

Max Hastings has used eyewitness interviews, archive documents and diaries in order to research this book. In addition, President Kennedy had installed tape recorders in the White House so transcripts of the meetings of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council during the crisis are available. As the author himself acknowledges, no such records of the deliberations in the Kremlin in Moscow are available, so there is some imbalance in the historical archives. Nevertheless, I found this a well-researched and very comprehensive account of a dramatic period during the 20th century. As well as accounts of the leaders Castro, Kennedy and Khrushchev and other politicians and top military personnel involved, the book provides an insight into the reactions of ordinary servicemen and civilians during this period. As well as detailing the actions of America and the Soviet Union, the book also has accounts from the perspective of the Cubans and America’s NATO allies. Throughout the book, the author does not shrink from giving his sometimes forthright views about the individuals involved. I found it to be a detailed and very interesting account of a dramatic period that should appeal to all enthusiasts of modern history.

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