US President Joe Biden did not sound reassuring. If Putin uses a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, he said recently, the world could face an “Armageddon.” The question is relevant again: what is the chance of nuclear war?
Anyone trying to answer that question would do well The abyss by Max Hastings, about the crisis that arose after Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. The book by the British journalist and historian, recently translated into Dutch, urges analysts to be modest. In October 1962, things happened that no one had foreseen and no one wanted. Yet a devastating nuclear war was terrifyingly close.
Take, for example, the events of Saturday, October 27, 1962. All attention is focused on Cuba at that time. Soviet leader Khrushchev and US President Kennedy both try to avoid escalation. And then the pilot of an American U-2 spy plane gets lost over the North Pole during a routine flight. It flies 500 kilometers within Soviet airspace. The Soviets, fearing that the spy flight must be preparing for a nuclear attack, send fighter jets into the air. Because the Americans fear that they will capture the U-2, they have two F-102 fighters take off from western Alaska. Normally, the Soviet MIGs, which only have one ship’s gun, would be no match for the American missile-armed fighters. But because the US military has been put on high alert, these missiles are equipped with nuclear warheads. If it comes to a fight, the American pilots can only defend themselves with nuclear weapons. At the Strategic Air Command, the US military’s nuclear weapons division, “no one seems to have considered that it would have been better to risk the loss of an unarmed U-2 than to initiate a firefight between Soviet aircraft and American aircraft equipped with such weapons,” writes Hastings. It ends with a flurry. The Soviet fighters fail to reach the U-2.
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It went a little unnoticed here. But American media recently took full advantage of the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis for stories about the question: what can we learn from the crisis?
The differences between then and now are big. Then it took sixteen hours before the leader of the Soviet Union was informed that Soviet soldiers in Cuba had shot down an American plane. Then the Russian ambassador in Washington had to send an important message to Moscow via a (coded) telegram delivered by a bicycle courier. “After he cycled off with my urgent telegram,” the ambassador later recalled, “we could only ask that he would take it to the Western Union office without delay and not stop to chat with a girl.”
It is impossible to read Hastings’ book without thinking about the current threat. He shows that in the end it is not (only) about the technology, but especially about the people who have to work with it. And the human mind was and is unpredictable.
Hastings takes his place portraying the main characters of the time. John F. Kennedy, the young president of the United States, was elected in 1960, among other things, by insisting on an alleged missile gap with the Soviet Union: the idea that the Soviets, who were the first to put a satellite (Sputnik) into orbit and a human (Yuri Gagarin) into space, also have an advantage in the nuclear arms race. Nikita Khrushchev, a Communist Party veteran who survived Stalin’s purges and took power after his death, lends Kennedy a helping hand by repeatedly asserting that the Soviets are in fact the mother party.
The reality is different. The Americans have many more nuclear warheads. And most importantly, they have better missiles. The American Minuteman is a solid-fuel ballistic missile with the advantage that it can be fired quickly. Furthermore, the fuel can remain in the rocket for a long time. The Russian missiles must first be supplied with liquid fuel. It takes hours. Also, that liquid can only stay in the rocket for a few days, otherwise it becomes unstable. Conclusion: the Soviet missile arsenal is suitable for a First attempt. But a first, devastating attack by the Americans could be disastrous for them.
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Roar and bluff
Khrushchev hides his weakness by bluffing and bluffing. When US Senator Hubert Humphrey visits Moscow in the spring of 1961, Khrushchev takes eight hours for him. At the end of their conversation, the Soviet leader asks the senator where he is from. Minneapolis, Humphrey says. Khrushchev goes to a large map on the wall on which he circles the city and says, “Or I might forget to tell them to spare this area when the missiles are launched.”
Khrushchev probably came up with the idea of placing missiles in Cuba while staying at his dacha on the Black Sea. With his binoculars, he often looks out over the water, knowing that on the other side, in Turkey, American Jupiters are stationed – missiles with a medium-range nuclear payload. His plan is to secretly place missiles in Cuba, 150 kilometers from the United States, to restore the balance of power somewhat. Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959, which after some hesitation converted to communism.
When you read how the superpower that the Soviet Union pretended to be back then was held together with tape and rubber bands, it’s also impossible not to think of all the stories about the failing Russian army now. When Khrushchev flies to the United States on a state visit in 1959, he is thrilled to learn that the newest Soviet plane is so tall that American flight stairs are not long enough to reach the door. But “nobody in Moscow dared tell him that the high-legged undercarriage was necessary to prevent the plane’s engines from being fouled by all the debris that littered the runways of the heavily swept Russian airports,” writes Hastings.
Chaotic loading operation
Many things also go wrong during the transport of Russian army units to Cuba. ‘The reading was chaotic: crank cables snapped under the weight of tanks.’ A ship almost sinks as a result. Upon arrival, the Russian and Cuban power grids do not appear to be connected. But what they succeed in: It takes a long time for the Americans to discover that the Soviets have sent a force of more than 40,000 men. And then there are already missiles and nuclear warheads in Cuba.
Books about the Cuban Missile Crisis, including those by Hastings, have the unmistakable characteristics of a thriller. Because it was exciting. And because Kennedy had recording equipment installed in the Cabinet Room of the White House a year before the crisis, secretly recording all conversations with staff, there is a wealth of material available to historians. For example, we know that early in the crisis, Kennedy expresses surprise at Khrushchev’s move, saying, “It’s like we suddenly had a large number of MRBMs. [middellangeafstandsraketten] place in Turkey. It would be bloody dangerous, I think.’
To which his National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy remarks, “So we did, Mr. President.”
What Hastings demonstrates well is the importance of imagery. The American Jupiter missiles in Turkey are a thorn in Khrushchev’s side, but in 1962 they are of no military importance because they are obsolete. Yet Kennedy won’t just take them out to accommodate Khrushchev, because what impression would he make on European allies? And wouldn’t American voters consider him a weak leader so close to key midterm elections?
The abyss is a well-written, exciting book, although the outcome of the drama is of course known: the world was not destroyed, because Khrushchev was the first to blink. There are no shocking new facts, the Cuban Missile Crisis has been thoroughly investigated over the years. Last year, for example, appeared nuclear folly by Ukrainian-American historian Serhii Plokhy. It may have had easier access to Ukrainian sources (the nuclear weapons for Cuba came partly from Ukraine), but that did not result in a significantly different story. Both books are structured chronologically, and the number of sources (in addition to Kennedy’s tapes, there are plenty of recollections and testimonies from key players) is nevertheless overwhelming.
Max Hastings was just able to work current events into his book. It does not seem merely nostalgic to suggest that Khrushchev was a more rational and conscious Russian leader than Putin. According to Hastings, Khrushchev was a tomboy. But he wasn’t crazy. When it became clear that he could not bluff Kennedy, he retrieved his missiles. Even if his position in the Politburo had weakened so much that he had to leave the field a few years later. Who dares trust that Putin is ultimately more afraid of a nuclear war than of losing face?
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the superpowers decided they needed to improve their communications: a telex hotline was set up between Moscow and Washington, which was later replaced by a secure e-mail connection.
A lesson might be: Allow your adversary a way out, as Kennedy did by setting up a blockade, rather than knocking it off immediately, as his generals were all too eager to do. Biden seems to be aware of that: New York Times recently managed to report that the Bidens advise to think about a possible exit for Putin – a way out of the crisis.
In 1962, they found that way out through secret consultation. Away from the official channels of communication, there were conversations between Robert Kennedy, brother of the US president and attorney general, and Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the US. In it, Kennedy promised on behalf of his brother that the US missiles against Turkey would be removed provided the Russians did not make it public – a deal both sides conceded.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a series of misunderstandings. A Russian commander in Cuba who authorized the shooting down of an American spy plane, against orders from Moscow, did so because he believed an American invasion had begun. Wrong. Khrushchev believed that Kennedy was a weak, inexperienced leader whom he could bluff. He wasn’t. And the Americans believed that the Soviets would not place nuclear weapons in Cuba. They did. And when they did, they thought the Soviets had a rational strategy. They didn’t.
The most dangerous misunderstanding occurred at sea on October 27, 1962, when the US Navy bombarded the Soviet submarine B-59 with depth charges. They were practice bombs, but the submarine’s crew thought she was under attack. And when the Soviets appeared, American planes dropped flares to see what was happening in the darkness, whereupon a Soviet commander thought he was under attack again and ordered a nuclear torpedo ready. It also ended well.
So another lesson could be: never think you know what your opponent is thinking.