Alex Beam: Facts are a Casualty of Missile Crisis

Roundup: Talking About History

You have heard about the fog of war. What about the fog of not war?

For my generation, the 13-day Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 was the big dog that, mercifully, did not bark. The John F. Kennedy administration's actions have been picked through with a fine-toothed comb, and the high priests dissecting the events have evolved their own jargon. If you want to play the missile crisis game, you need to understand the "Trollope ploy," and know the difference between a Soviet Sopka coastal defense cruise missile and the nuclear-tipped frontovaya krylovaya raketa, which, we now learn in my friend Michael Dobbs's new book, was aimed at our Guantanamo Bay naval base during the crisis.

No flyspeck escapes the scrutiny of missile crisis mavens, because, after all, the world has never come closer to a nuclear war. There are even rival copies of the famous ExComm, or Executive Committee, tapes, the recorded sessions of the inner circle of JFK advisers who bird-dogged the crisis to its successful conclusion. Listening to different copies of the same tapes, different people hear different things.

Talk about detail: In "One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War," Dobbs takes the time to re-plot the navigational fix of the Soviet transport ship Kimovsk, which featured in the decades-old mythology of the US-Soviet "eyeball to eyeball" confrontation. ("We're eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked," Secretary of State Dean Rusk said.) Using naval intelligence logs, Dobbs writes that the Kimovsk and another Soviet freighter were not even close to American warships when Rusk made his epochal proclamation. The ships had in fact reversed course the day before, but for propaganda purposes, chroniclers Robert Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and many latter-day historians never bothered to correct the historical record.

Dobbs is too polite to say this, but the Kimovsk mistake is one of several that besmirches Harvard professor Graham Allison's career-making tome, "Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis," still a fixture on the political science syllabus. Allison's book, revised with co-author Philip Zelikow in 1999, purports to illuminate the crisis with its comical "rational actor" theory, and endless blather about the "organizational behavior paradigm."

But the famous 13 days more closely resembled a NASCAR pile-up than a Kennedy School political science seminar, Dobbs argues. "History is determined not just by the so-called rational actors, the men (or women) in suits, the bureaucrats, and the top military brass," he writes. " 'Irrational actors' - people who stumble onto the stage by chance and change the course of history - also play a role ."

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