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Book Review - One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War by Michael Dobbs

Category Book Review Michael Dobbs One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War

Like most Americans (or maybe not...), I knew that the Cuban Missile Crisis was a dangerous time in the history of our planet.  But until I read One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War by Michael Dobbs, I don't think I fully understood how close we came to a full nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.  And the common wisdom of Kennedy being the "winner" of this confrontation doesn't capture the reality of how much luck, timing, and conviction played in the event.

Americans; Russians; Cubans; "Eyeball to Eyeball"; "Till Hell Freezes Over"; Intel; Nukes; Strike First; Hunt for the Grozny; Shootdown, "Some Sonofabitch"; "Run Like Hell"; Cat and Mouse; "Crate and Return"; Afterword; Acknowledgments and a Note on Sources; Notes; Index

Conventional wisdom paints the Cuban Missile Crisis as a time where Kennedy stood firm over the placement of Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuban soil.  He went "eye to eye" with Khrushchev, and Khrushchev blinked.  But Dobbs has exhaustively researched the event and paints a far different picture.  Khrushchev introduced both medium-range and tactical nukes into Cuba in order to show Russian superiority and to protect a fellow communist country from a potential US invasion.  This made Castro look invincible to himself and his people, and he welcomed the power they represented.  When US intel discovered the missiles, the international tension started to rise as Kennedy declared this unacceptable and demanded the removal of the weapons.  They also implemented a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent any more aid from showing up on the island.  With each passing day (and often each passing hour), the risk that one side or the other would launch an attack continued to grow.  Finally, through some backchannel negotiations and implicit promises, Khrushchev gave the order to crate up the missiles and send them back to Russia.  But at so many points, the outcome could have been so much different...

Castro was certain that a US invasion was imminent, and wanted Khrushchev to order a pre-emptive strike on the US.  The US kept up with overflights of the island to gather intel, and these overflights were seen as pre-invasion forays into Cuban airspace.  Soviet SAM sites shot down one spy plane over Cuba, and US military officials were demanding retaliation.  In fact, during the entire crisis, most US military officials were pushing for an invasion as well as launching a strike on Russian territory.  A US spy plane got lost on a polar flight, overflew Soviet territory, and nearly touched off an exchange right there.  While Khrushchev had started the confrontation, he recognized that no one could win in an all-out exchange.  And the first missile fired would make it impossible to turn back.  Kennedy recognized this also, and was doing all he could to hold off the hawks and give Khrushchev a way to back down while saving face.  In the end, Kennedy got the missiles removed, and Khrushchev got an assurance that Cuba would not be invaded, while also getting US nuclear missiles removed from Turkey.  But up to that point, there were literally dozens of points when a single person could have pushed a button and started an exchange that would have killed tens of millions of people.

Dobbs does an excellent job in both his research of the event, as well as the storytelling aspect.  I felt the rising tension and understood how both sides were operating with incomplete information while trying to protect themselves.  It's a literal miracle that the button wasn't pushed somewhere along the way.  Students of history and warfare really need to read this book to understand that a nuclear war isn't a winnable proposition, and everything needs to be done to prevent things from getting that close to the edge again.

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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