Tuesday, October 16, 2012

50 Years Ago Today: The Cuban Missile Crisis

13 Days in October, 1962

For most of us of a certain age, the international crisis occurring from October 16 through October 29 in 1962, what has come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, remains the most vivid and frightening international event of our lives. We were children then. Suddenly something wholly unknown in the world, something outside our intimate lives in our local community and family life came into our youthful purview. It was something we understood imperfectly, but we sensed that it was real and important, and could do us harm. We saw the expressions of concern and fear on our parents' faces as they sat glued to the black and white television screen. We remember as well their sense of helplessness. Watching and waiting was all they could do. Certainly the Cuban Missile Crisis was the defining event of the Cold War, but we felt it as something more than that, perhaps in the way Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. described it, “the most dangerous moment in human history.” It would be remembered as an existential crisis of the human race, as some watershed that caused us to mercifully pause and step back from the point to which we seemed, in retrospect, inexorably headed.

Many books and memoirs have been written about that crisis, some of them self-serving and others told from a vantage point of limited participation. Certainly what is historically unique about the events of that October is the voluminous record we have of the meetings and conversations that took place at the Executive level, thanks to the secret tape recordings that were part of the routine of the Kennedy White House, an administration that was self-consciously concerned about documenting history as it was made. If you have never read any of those incredible transcripts, you might find them interesting. They sometimes feel like film scripts. You need to remind yourself that you are not reading fiction. The library has an excellent compendium, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, edited by Ernest May. Published just this year and new to the collection is Talk at the Brink: Deliberation and Decision during the Cuban Missile Crisis, by David R. Gibson. This is a rather academic look at the tapes, one that considers the exchanges between participants from a sociological point of view, examining conversational practices and dynamics to give us some insight as to the strategy and thought process that informed the viewpoint of individual participants.

The tapes, however, do not give us a view of the full context and details of the events in which these discussions took place, and arguably the best book for general readers on the subject is Michael Dobbs’s recent One Minute to Midnight, a moment-by-moment chronicle of the crisis. Dobbs accessed declassified Soviet and Cuban materials that weren’t available at the time that earlier books on the crisis were written. There are both peripheral and important details of the crisis that are told in this book for the first time. The traditional narrative line on the crisis is that its resolution was a triumph of calm heads, carefully calculated risk taking, and reasoned thought. It’s a comforting story, one that suggests that when at the brink we can yet find a successful resolution of our conflicts, that sanity will prevail. Dobbs suggests that it isn’t all about sanity or goodwill prevailing when you are sitting on an arsenal that could destroy the world several times over. His comprehensive account of all the things that went wrong or that nearly went wrong, all the events and incidents of the crisis that could not be anticipated or that could not be assuredly accounted for and controlled, leaves us with the understanding that we came a lot closer to the end of the world as we know it in October of 1962 than we have for many years supposed. That it didn’t happen seems more, in Dobbs account, a matter of dumb luck than effective crisis management. He leaves us with the understanding that we can create systems of technological, operational, and political complexity that it may be hubris to think we can control. It is good history, a sober and it seems necessary caution.

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