Five Best Books on the Cuban Missile Crisis

From a Wall Street Journal books column by José Azel headlined “Five Best Books on the Cuban Missile Crisis”:

Thirteen Days
By Robert F. Kennedy (1969)

1. This eyewitness account by Robert F. Kennedy, then the U.S. attorney general and adviser to his brother, President John F. Kennedy, emphasizes the human side of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Published the year after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the memoir meant to burnish JFK’s reputation, which had been damaged by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.

Robert Kennedy recalls the mendacity of the Soviet Union and its leader, Nikita Khrushchev, who assured American officials that there were no offensive weapons in Cuba. Of Oct. 16, 1962, when President Kennedy and his brother learned that the Soviet Union was indeed building a missile base in Cuba, and that atomic weapons and missiles were already on the island, Robert Kennedy writes: “Now, as the representatives of the CIA explained the U-2 photographs that morning . . . we realized that it had all been lies, one gigantic fabric of lies.”

One Hell of a Gamble
By Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali (1997)

2. The Russian-born Aleksandr Fursenko and the Canadian-American Timothy Naftali offer a step-by-step account of the Cuban Missile Crisis from the Soviet and American perspectives. The authors combed newly accessible Soviet archives, including the files of Nikita Khrushchev and his inner circle, to fill in the blanks of the American historiography. We learn, for instance, that Khrushchev, as well as Soviet Defense Minister Rodion Malinovsky, believed that “U.S. intelligence would not detect the missiles until it was too late to do anything about them.” The book reveals the pressures Khrushchev faced, including interactions to pacify Cuba’s unruly leader, Fidel Castro.

High Noon in the Cold War
By Max Frankel (2004)

3. Even the most compelling story benefits from great writing. That is the case here, with the Pulitzer Prize-winner Max Frankel blending personal memories of covering the conflict as a reporter with information from Soviet and Cuban government sources. He weaves in recent scholarship and testimony as he explores the miscalculations of the U.S. and Soviet governments, such as President Kennedy’s belief that the Soviets wouldn’t deploy offensive missiles in Cuba, and Nikita Khrushchev’s conviction that a weak president would acquiesce.

Mr. Frankel brings readers into meetings that Kennedy and Khrushchev held with their top civilian and military advisers. We learn that U.S. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay argued for a pre-emptive attack on Cuba. Would that have resulted in a Soviet retaliatory attack on Berlin? Would any side have resorted to using nuclear weapons? Both Kennedy and Khrushchev are seen as leaders who, acting rationally, ultimately chose peace over military conflict.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory
By Sheldon M. Stern (2012)

4. Many misconceptions and falsehoods about the crisis are corrected here. President Nixon wasn’t the only one who recorded his White House conversations; President Kennedy did, too. In the mid-1990s those recordings were declassified, and Sheldon Stern was the first historian to listen to and evaluate the tapes made during the missile crisis. His book, published 50 years after the October 1962 events, relies primarily on the conversations of President Kennedy’s ad hoc group of advisers. Mr. Stern exposes the myths surrounding the events and challenges the dovish self-portrait in Robert Kennedy’s “Thirteen Days.”

Robert Kennedy was, in fact, a hard-liner who opposed an American naval blockade in favor of more combative air strikes. Even after the president and many military advisers had settled on a blockade, Robert Kennedy argued for an invasion as “the last chance we will have to destroy Castro.” He contended that the Soviets wouldn’t retaliate with nuclear weapons, insisting that “we should just get into it, and get it over with and take our losses if [Khrushchev] wants to get into a war over this.” President Kennedy, Mr. Stern writes, overruled his belligerent brother and advisers.

One Minute to Midnight
By Michael Dobbs (2008)

5. Is there such a thing as a winnable nuclear war? The Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs explores the naivete and gravitas of this idea as espoused by military professionals such as Gen. Curtis LeMay. Mr. Dobbs reveals that there were Soviet-Cuban plans to attack the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo, Cuba. This would have led to a much wider, and likely nuclear, confrontation. Mr. Dobbs also details the circumstances surrounding the American U-2 plane that strayed over Soviet territory during the crisis. We learn how Fidel Castro urged Nikita Khrushchev to launch a nuclear first-strike against the United States. The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called the Cuban Missile Crisis “the most dangerous moment in human history.” Mr. Dobbs’s suspenseful rendition of events has the pacing of a thriller and the rigor of scholarship. Readers will appreciate how the arrogance and foolhardiness of a handful of men brought us to the brink of an inconceivable war.

Selected by José Azel, the author, most recently, of “On Freedom: 100 Essays”

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