The Cuban Missile Crisis: Once More Unto the BreachHistorians in the News
tags: nuclear weapons, books, Cuban Missile Crisis
The Silent Guns of Two Octobers: Kennedy and Khrushchev Play the Double Game
Theodore Voorhees, Jr.
University of Michigan Press. 380 pp. $85
[Editor’s disclosure to readers: In 2017, the author, Theodore Voorhees, Jr. contacted the reviewer, Sheldon M. Stern, one of the most prominent scholars of the Cuban missile crisis, and asked Stern to read his manuscript-in-progress. Stern concluded that the work added an important and fresh perspective to Cold War scholarship, offered limited editorial advice, and then, together with Professor Martin Sherwin, assisted in finding a receptive university press.]
By Sheldon M. Stern
The standard view of the Cuban missile crisis is engraved in our historical memory. My own books reflect that outlook, describing those iconic thirteen days as the most dangerous episode of the nuclear era and the thirteenth day, October 27, 1962, as the most perilous twenty-four hours in human history. That view is so widely shared in missile crisis literature that it was startling to read a book in which that interpretation was all but relegated to the status of “the conventional wisdom.”
Theodore Voorhees, Jr., senior counsel at the Washington, DC law firm of Covington & Burling LLP, concludes “that much of the Cold War rhetoric the leaders employed was posturing and that neither had any intention of starting a nuclear war.” Voorhees begins by dissecting the October 1961 confrontation along the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie when some sixty Soviet and US tanks faced each other “across a tense Cold War border.” His conclusion, however, is that John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev were personally determined to avoid escalation. Indeed, in a matter of hours, they maneuvered to assure that the confrontation evaporated without violence or casualties.
One year later, a vastly more dangerous crisis arose when US surveillance aircraft discovered that the Soviets had secretly placed medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba. How Voorhees asks, did the rival leaders resolve the crisis “with lightning speed?”
The simple answer is that the sudden, seemingly miraculous, restoration of peaceful coexistence was possible because both the underlying point of dispute and the ultimate deal terms that ended each crisis were matters under the personal control of each leader. When Kennedy and Khrushchev chose to settle, each man had the authority and the power to do so almost instantaneously. The two leaders personally directed all key decisions down to precise details . . . . It has become increasingly clear that Khrushchev and Kennedy felt free to reject the views of their closest advisers and brush aside the consternation they caused their alliance partners . . . . Neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev, whatever his publicly stated position, actually believed that his adversary’s actions presented a problem whose substantive importance warranted even a conventional military engagement, far less a nuclear showdown.
Voorhees acknowledges that hawks on both sides of the divide regarded the missile crisis as an opportunity to settle the Cold War militarily and “there was always the danger that men lower down the chains of command might pull the trigger, whether by mistake, through personal belligerence, through fear, or all three.” However, this shared outlook at the top also significantly diminished the potential for unwelcome contingencies. The two leaders kept both the conventional and nuclear buttons under tight control and used back-channel diplomacy (involving the president’s brother Robert and Khrushchev’s son-in-law Alexei Adzhubei) to make sure that the other side received unmistakable signals of their ultimate intent to restore the status quo. JFK intended the naval quarantine of Cuba as a sign of caution and sober restraint,
and that is how Khrushchev and his colleagues at the Kremlin immediately interpreted it—with great relief. On the other hand, the president’s DEFCON-2 alert unmistakably signaled to the Soviets the dire peril into which their gamble in Cuba had placed them. . . . In the days that immediately followed, both Khrushchev and Kennedy were literally tripping over one another to be first to make a settlement proposal that would be so generous that his adversary would be unable to turn it down.
Both leaders, Voorhees contends, understood that the US held “all the cards” in the nuclear balance of power with a twenty-to-one advantage in nuclear warheads. The extraordinary Kennedy-Khrushchev missile crisis correspondence, he insists, once the Cold War bluster is discounted, reveals two anxious men committed to “keeping the lid on” and ready “to get the deal done.”
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