- One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War
How close was nuclear war in October 1962? As the title of Michael Dobb's compelling and evocative book suggests, he believes that we were one minute from midnight on the Doomsday Clock. His arguments and his account are based on extensive research, drawn from U.S., Soviet, and Cuban sources. He interviewed more than 100 veterans of the missile crisis and used archival sources (mainly American) that included raw U.S. intelligence material, from which photographs are produced to fascinating effect in the book. Dobbs's goal is to "help a new generation of readers relive the quintessential Cold War crisis" (p. xiii). In this task he is highly successful, bringing to bear his skills and experience as a former staff writer and bureau chief for The Washington Post to provide a gripping account of what he terms "the human story," which he claims has been lost in the academic literature. The structure and style of the book help make the crisis into a drama. The aim is to tell the story minute by minute with particular emphasis on the day known in Washington, DC as Black Saturday: 27 October. "If the Cuban missile crisis was the defining moment of the Cold War," Dobbs argues, "Black Saturday was the defining moment of the missile crisis" (p. xiii). More than one-third of the book is devoted to the day when we may have come closest to the end of history.
A key focus is on often overlooked "accidental figures." Among others portrayed in the book are Cuban saboteurs trained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to blow up a copper mine in western Cuba, Soviet cruise missile crews positioning their nuclear weapons to destroy Guantánamo Bay, and the hapless U.S. Air Force pilot whose attempts at celestial navigation were thwarted by the aurora borealis, leaving him flying into Soviet air space as the crisis reached its climax. Dobbs convincingly demonstrates that understanding the crisis and the risk of nuclear war requires far more than just knowing what leaders thought and decided. Yet those leaders are an essential part of the human story, whose role Dobbs explores and portrays as vital to the outcome. One illuminating insight is Che Guevara's willingness to travel the "path of liberation even when it may cost millions of atomic victims" (p. 245)—an attitude seemingly shared by Fidel Castro. This finding has potentially great significance for understanding the rationality of revolutionary leaders confronted by the logic of nuclear deterrence. [End Page 151]
The suggestion that the human story has been ignored in the academic literature reflects a tendency by Dobbs to exaggerate the originality of his contribution. Although he uses material from the work of other historians, his engagement with the literature is limited. The text mentions only a few of the many books on the crisis. The seminal work by Graham T. Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1971), and the pioneering book by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, "One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958–1964—The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Norton, 1997), are disparagingly referred to as "supposedly authoritative" (p. 89) because they did not draw on the archival sources that he has successfully exploited. Dobbs's use of U.S. intelligence material does enable him to show that the dramatic "eyeball to eyeball" confrontation between U.S. and Soviet ships on 24 October did not happen because the Soviet vessels in question were already heading back home. The details and clarification are illuminating, although Fursenko and Naftali showed in "One Hell of a Gamble" in 1997 that Khrushchev and his colleagues decided days before the blockade came into effect that their surface ships would not run the U.S. Navy gauntlet.
One Minute to Midnight provides interesting and in places valuable new detail, though the...