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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.1 (2002) 123-124

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Book Review

"One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964

Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, "One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. 420 pp. $27.50.

Of all the books on Cold War history published since the collapse of the USSR and the opening of former Soviet archives, this is the most stunning. Other researchers have drawn on documents now available in state, party, and economic archives in both Russia and other former Soviet republics, but the former Soviet Politburo archive (now stored in the Russian Presidential Archive) and the state security (KGB) archives have been mostly off-limits. Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali have penetrated both of these documentary storehouses while supplementing their findings with fresh materials from American archives. The result is a pathbreaking account of triangular relations among Moscow, Washington, and Havana in the late 1950s and early 1960s, especially during the Cuban missile crisis.

Why did Moscow secretly deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba that were capable of striking the American heartland? This question, though much debated, is still puzzling. At the time of the crisis, President John F. Kennedy and his aides on the hastily formed Executive Committee (Excomm) believed that Nikita Khrushchev was preparing a final effort to obtain a German peace treaty, a goal that had eluded him ever since he declared the first Soviet ultimatum on Berlin in November 1958. This explanation has recently been resurrected and championed by Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow in the revised version of Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1999). For many years after the crisis, the predominant motive was taken to be the Soviet need to close a long-range missile gap, a gap that, despite Khrushchev's bluster and bluffing, had turned out to favor the United States, not the Soviet Union. Still a third explanation, emphasized by Soviet participants in a series of critical oral history conferences on the crisis held in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was Moscow's desire to protect Cuba from a U.S. invasion designed to finish the job begun at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. See James G. Blight and David A. Welch, eds., On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd ed. (New York: The Noonday Press, 1990); "Back to the Brink: Proceedings of the Moscow Conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis, January 27-28, 1989," ed. Bruce J. Allyn, James G. Blight, and David A. Welch, CSIA Occasional Paper No. 9, Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, 1992; and James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn, and David A. Welch, Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis and the Soviet Collapse (New York: Pantheon, 1993).

Fursenko and Naftali cite evidence in support of all three theories. But their most striking contribution is a new one--the notion that Fidel Castro's rift with longtime Cuban Communist leader Anibal Escalante in the spring of 1962 posed a clear and present danger that Moscow might lose Cuba not to an invasion ordered by Kennedy, but to the anti-Soviet enticements of China's Mao Zedong, a denouement that would [End Page 123] have deprived Khrushchev of the inspiring new Communist revolution ninety miles from Florida, a revolution allegedly modeled on the Soviet motherland.

If these were the main motives for placing Soviet missiles in Cuba, how was the decision made and implemented? It has been assumed that Khrushchev played the leading role. What Fursenko and Naftali definitively show is that Khrushchev not only ignored warnings from associates like Anastas Mikoyan and failed to consult knowledgeable advisers like the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatolii Dobrynin, but also, from 1959 on, repeatedly overruled cautious intelligence agencies that feared to send even conventional arms to Castro lest they provoke a crisis in U.S.-Soviet relations.

In the end, of course, Khrushchev decided to remove the missiles...


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