As US President Joe Biden prepares to meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, the stakes might not seem all that high. With bilateral relations at a post-Cold War low, and the United States more concerned about China than Russia, it is hard to imagine the relationship deteriorating further. And yet, as the historian Serhii Plokhy of Harvard University reminds us in his new book, Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the wrong move can all too easily take these old adversaries to the precipice of catastrophe.
In fact, conveying this message was Plokhy’s primary purpose in writing the book. As he explains in the introduction, we are living in a “second nuclear age,” characterized by the same kind of “nuclear brinkmanship” that marked the 1950s and early 1960s. The difference is that we are taking this threat far less seriously than we did in 1962. As Plokhy notes, “today there are world leaders prepared to take a more cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons and nuclear war” compared to US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
To jolt us from our indifference, Plokhy does not just retell the story of the Cuban missile crisis; he rewrites it. According to the prevailing historical narrative, the world averted nuclear war thanks to the careful calculations of a brilliant US president, who, with the help of his closest advisers, “managed to make the right assumptions and draw the right conclusions about Soviet intentions and capabilities.” But, as Plokhy explains, the reality was very different.
Admittedly, as Khrushchev’s descendent, I have a personal stake in disputing an account that practically sanctifies JFK. In fact, I have re-examined the Cuban missile crisis, and other Khrushchev-Kennedy confrontations, once or twice myself, so I welcome any effort to reframe it. That is especially true when the effort is by someone like Plokhy, whose previous book, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, is among the best ever written on the subject (approaching the level of Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s 2005 masterpiece Voices from Chernobyl).
Unfortunately, Plokhy’s account is not without its weaknesses. For starters, he overstates the novelty of his point that, in exchange for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, Kennedy agreed to withdraw America’s nuclear-armed Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Of course, this is true, and it was not disclosed back in 1962, in order to protect Kennedy’s reputation (Khrushchev was not petty). But the information has been widely available for decades.
More problematic, the “newly declassified KGB archives” Plokhy uses to back up his account are not quite as credible as he would probably like to believe. After all, they come from Ukraine. What kind of “special” Kremlin files would have been kept in a constituent Soviet republic, rather than in Moscow?
Similarly, the “eyewitness account” to Khrushchev’s “avalanche of conflicting orders” that Plokhy provides merits more than a little skepticism. After all, the eyewitness is Romanian Communist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, a committed Stalinist who believed that Khrushchev brought him to Moscow in October 1962 in order to kill him and use his death to manipulate the Chinese into backing Soviet efforts to support Fidel Castro’s Cuban regime.
This was enough to convince many other historians not to include Gheorghiu-Dej’s claims – including that Khrushchev “flew into a rage,” called Kennedy a “millionaire whore,” “threatened to ‘nuke’ the White House, and cursed loudly every time anyone pronounced the words America or American” – in their accounts. These include Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, whose 1998 book “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964 includes numerous other firsthand accounts, all based on the KGB archives. Michael Beschloss (The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963) and Michael Dobbs (One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War) also left out Gheorghiu-Dej’s account.
By contrast, Plokhy seems to underestimate the recklessness of JFK’s calamitous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. He suggests that, until Khrushchev installed missiles in Cuba, the island was a low priority for JFK, despite being located just 90 miles (145 kilometers) from Key West, Florida. The truth is that Khrushchev paid so much attention to Cuba precisely because the US was eager to remove the Castro government. So, while Plokhy claims to be challenging US historical bias, he still doesn’t seem to give both sides equal treatment.
And yet, while Plokhy’s account is not perfect, it is well-researched and highly detailed. He describes a broad cast of characters masterfully, thereby giving clarity to the complex scenes he narrates. All of this gives readers a real sense of the searing tensions – and existential fear – that gripped the world in October 1962.
Ultimately, Plokhy shows that, “operating under mutual distrust, second-guesses, and false information,” the Cuban Missile Crisis happened largely because the Americans and Soviets “simply misread each other.” The message to modern readers is clear: while both Putin and Biden claim to seek a “stable and predictable” bilateral relationship, the rest of the world should be wary of their ability to establish one.
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