From the bookshelf: ‘Abyss: the Cuban missile crisis 1962’
13 Feb 2023|

Over the course of the past week we saw a faction within the American polity exhibit collective panic about a Chinese balloon that floated across the US. Whatever the nature of the balloon, the fears generated by its presence in American skies were hugely (and I apologise in advance for the word choice) inflated.

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. The balloon incident certainly qualifies as farce as far as superpower confrontations go. But it has a far more serious antecedent that, while not ending in tragedy, brought the world perilously close to a disastrous nuclear conflict. The Cuban missile crisis arose in 1962 after the Soviet Union placed medium- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles on Cuba, bringing much of the eastern seaboard of the US within range. Popular historian Max Hastings has turned his attention to those events in his latest book, Abyss: the Cuban missile crisis 1962.

Like all of Hastings’ books, this one is very readable, and he doesn’t back away from making judgements about the significance of events or the actions of key players along the way. There isn’t a lot that’s new here for anyone who has studied the crisis, but it’s a well-written overview for a first introduction. It’s possible to read much deeper, of course, especially with the availability of many primary source documents (such as here).

Many retellings of the crisis are notable for focusing on the two superpowers, with Cuba appearing as a stage setting for the main players. Rarely is Cuba’s agency integrated into the broad picture. That might be fair in terms of the power dynamics during the ‘13 days’ of the peak crisis, but the role of Cuban leader Fidel Castro is important in the prelude to and aftermath of that period. Both of those are covered, though the post–28 October period could usefully have had a deeper examination.

The book begins with an account of the botched CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion mounted by Cuban exiles on 17 April 1961. As Hastings explains, both sides of the resulting Cuban-on-Cuban firefights had reasons to be aggrieved by the actions of the US. The exiles—most of whom were promptly killed or captured—had expected the US to use the operation as a pretext for launching a wider military campaign to remove Castro. From Castro’s perspective, it was a clear abrogation of the White House’s public statements of intent regarding Cuba.

In an attempt to distance the US from the fiasco, President John F. Kennedy disingenuously wrote to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev the next day. ‘I have previously stated, and I repeat now, that the United States intends no military intervention in Cuba,’ Kennedy said. He urged the Soviets not to use the failed invasion as a pretext to foment unrest elsewhere in the world. In fact, it brought the proximity that was familiar to millions of Europeans directly to America’s approaches.

The role of the CIA in American policy on Cuba, as well as in informing Kennedy and his cabinet of developments on the island, is touched on in multiple places in the book, and usually not in a flattering way. Indeed, the whole of the American intelligence apparatus performed poorly in the weeks and months before the crisis, allowing the administration to be surprised by near-functional Soviet missiles when it finally took a close look.

I teach a case study on the role of intelligence in this crisis as part of a course at the Australian National University, and most of the description here is familiar. But one thing I hadn’t appreciated was that the CIA’s Cuba analysts seem to have made one of the most fundamental analytical errors in mistaking the absence of evidence for evidence of absence. For example, political constraints and poor weather prevented many photo reconnaissance flights from being flown, so there was a substantial period in which developments on the ground in Cuba were not being monitored, but no alarm bells sounded in CIA assessments.

An important part of Hastings’s story is the role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as military adviser to JFK and his ExComm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) in their frequent meetings during the period. I wrote about the subject in a previous Strategist piece, and was critical of the hawkish—and potentially disastrous—advice given by the US Air Force about the efficacy of air strikes. That’s covered at length in this book, and Hastings rightly gives Kennedy great credit for resisting advice that would have resulted in increased tensions at a bare minimum and global thermonuclear war in the worst case. It’s a salutary lesson in the importance of civil control of the military, and also of the desirability of that civil control being exercised by people who have some experience of the military and conflict.

As this book makes clear, I should have also given the US Navy a kicking in my previous piece. As Hastings depicts it, the navy resisted attempts by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to temper its prosecution of the naval quarantine (‘blockade’ was judged to be too warlike a term). The navy aggressively harassed Soviet submarines—both inside and outside the quarantine zone—including through the use of small explosive charges. That approach might well have been part of the robust Cold War at sea at other times, but it was potentially deeply unhelpful at a time when things were on a knife-edge.

Hastings is a British writer, and so it’s not surprising that he affords some prominence to the UK position and the thoughts and actions of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan during the crisis. Kennedy obviously felt it important to keep Britain in the loop, though the impression this book gives is that he wasn’t expecting much in the way of useful strategic advice from that quarter. The overall effect is to show how unimportant the UK was to American thinking, despite the fact that the British expected to be wiped out as a modern society if nuclear war broke out. Such is life for junior alliance partners.

Finally, there are more than a few echoes of the events of 1962 that pertain to the current conflict in Ukraine, which Hastings sometimes draws out explicitly. Much of Khrushchev’s bellicose rhetoric sounds awfully familiar when reading Vladimir Putin’s speeches. Now, as then, the Russian leader is prepared to rattle nuclear sabres in an attempt to cow the US and Europe into a position more to Moscow’s liking. In 1962 the Soviet leader backed down because he was playing an essentially weak hand. So far at least, Putin has not followed through on his most threatening rhetoric, and it’s tempting to reach a similar conclusion—that he will ultimately back down even if his forces are unable to achieve the desired ends. But, as this book shows, when dealing with nuclear arsenals, steady heads are required all round and there may yet be tense times ahead.