Publication: Survival: Global Politics and Strategy February–March 2013
01 February 2013
The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths Versus Reality
Sheldon M. Stern. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012. $75.00/£67.50. 208 pp.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume Four: The Passage of Power
Robert A. Caro. New York: Albert Knopf, 2012. $35.00/£35.00. 714 pp.
The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis
James Blight and Janet Lang. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012. $39.95/£24.95. 320 pp.
Just over 50 years ago, in October 1962, what Fred Kaplan called the ‘most thoroughly documented, yet grossly misunderstood episode in Cold War history’ brought the world the closest it has ever come to nuclear war. One sentence has become shorthand for the fundamental facts of this Cuban Missile Crisis: ‘we were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked’. Secretary of State Dean Rusk reportedly said this as Soviet ships heading to Cuba, carrying missiles, turned around mere miles from the US-imposed naval blockade on 24 October. In fact, the Soviet ships were 500 miles away and heading in the opposite direction; Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had ordered them to turn around the previous day. The line is not only factually incorrect, but the general idea that Kennedy won a battle of nerves is also wide of the mark.
Over the past 50 years, declassified records, archives, and personal effects, including communications between Khrushchev, Cuban President Fidel Castro and US President John F. Kennedy, a number of key conferences dissecting the crisis, and especially JFK’s tape recordings of White House meetings during October 1962, have incrementally refuted many of the central myths, but have failed to eliminate them. In The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths Versus Reality, Sheldon M. Stern asks whether, after 50 years, anything new can be said about the crisis, and concludes that ‘if there is additional evidence, then there must be something new to say’. New evidence is indeed still being released, and the significance of some older evidence has not yet been fully absorbed. Several books released in 2012 to tie in with the crisis’ 50th anniversary, using both old information and new, show that lessons are still being learned, and that old myths persist.
On 16 October 1962, JFK was shown irrefutable photographic evidence that Soviet nuclear-missile sites were nearing completion in Cuba. Soviet ships carrying weapons to Cuba had also been detected. In the following days he set up a group of advisers, called the Executive Committee (ExComm) to discuss how to proceed: whether to order an air-strike or a naval blockade; and what options there were for engaging with or retaliating against the Soviet Union. In a 22 October TV address, JFK demanded the missiles be removed, and imposed a naval blockade around the island, preventing further shipments of arms.