Viewers of Craig Mazin’s mesmerizing 2019 miniseries “Chernobyl” and readers of Eric Schlosser’s brilliant, utterly horrifying 2013 book “Command and Control” will hear “nuclear power” and think “accident, incompetence, mismanagement.” But an earlier generation would have thought something very different. They would have heard “nuclear power” and thought: “nuclear war.”
And the signature flashpoint of that earlier specter will always be the Cuban Missile Crisis, which broke upon the world in October 1962 when a US U2 spy plane revealed the construction of Soviet ballistic missile delivery installations about 50 miles away from Havana in the Cuban countryside. The missiles were a Soviet response to the presence of Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey, and since they were only 100 miles from Florida and could easily reach Washington with their payloads, their presence in Cuba wasn’t anything President John F. Kennedy could ignore.
The ensuing month of escalating tension is the subject of Harvard history professor Serhii Plokhy’s gripping new book “Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” which follows the incident from its deep background to its minute-by-minute unfolding. Consulting a wide array of sources, including newly opened KGB files, Plokhy seeks to overturn what he calls the dominant narrative of the event, which he summarizes as: “John Kennedy refused to budge and, thanks to the decision-making process involving his closest advisers, managed to make the right assumptions and draw the right conclusions about Soviet intentions and capabilities, thereby resolving the crisis.”
Although there’s precious little overturning of that narrative in Plokhy’s account, the Cuban Missile Crisis hasn’t had a history this granular and involving since “One Hell of a Gamble” by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali back in 1997. This latest chronicling performs the requisite bashing of the first account, with Plokhy calling “Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis” by Robert Kennedy “often self-serving and inaccurate,” but “Nuclear Folly” goes far beyond filling in the details Robert Kennedy so energetically left out; Plokhy’s book is populated with a large cast of well-drawn characters — including some, like JFK’s vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who haven’t featured this prominently in most earlier versions.
In these pages we get a fast-paced narrative of mordantly familiar events: the terse diplomatic exchanges, the US imposition of a blockade around the island of Cuba, the pressures Kennedy felt from his military commanders and civilian advisers, the abortive attempts of some Soviet ships to test the strength of the blockade. Through it all, the most indelible aspect for anybody who lived through that month: the oppressive, nearly unbearable dread that the United States and the Soviet Union were moving inexorably toward full-scale nuclear war. When resolution eventually came — when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove his missiles from Cuba and stand down his efforts to gain a military foothold so close to the US mainland — the collective sigh of relief could virtually be heard in orbit.
Privately every bit as shocked as the rest of the world by how close events had come to cataclysm, Kennedy and Khrushchev accelerated talks on strengthening control of their respective nuclear programs, and those talks eventually resulted in the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed in 1963. And that aftermath is very much on Plokhy’s mind in the course of his book. Famously, the specific story he tells has a happy ending, although even on this point Plokhy is sardonically deadpan. “John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev had managed to avoid nuclear war,” he writes, “after making almost every mistake conceivable and every step imaginable to cause it.” Despite all that culpability (here conveyed with the novelistic nuance readers will remember from Plokhy’s terrific book The Man with the Poison Gun), there was also a ragged kind of hope, a tactical combination of fellowship and odds-shaving that managed to avoid the worst possible outcome.
But Plokhy doesn’t allow his readers that same deep breath — far from it. He reminds them instead that although the Cold War is long over, the threat of nuclear war is only increasing. In August 2019, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia that had been hammered out between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. This withdrawal has left virtually no international guardrails against nuclear proliferation, and Plokhy doesn’t mince words: “We are now officially at the start of an uncontrolled nuclear arms race”
“If humanity is lucky enough to survive the new nuclear age and live another thirty or forty million years,” Plokhy writes, “geologists of the future studying ice cores, corals, and rocks will still be able to pinpoint the time when the Kennedy-Khrushchev treaty was signed.” If rock layer isn’t to be buried by a much thicker one signaling the moment when the human race killed itself, “Nuclear Folly” reminds us that the time for study — and for action — is now.
Steve Donoghue is a reviewer and editor living in Boston.
Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis
By Serhii Plokhy
WW Norton, 444 pages, $35