Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962

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Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962

Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962

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I’d read Max Hastings’ highly accessible books based on World War 2 and appreciate his broad coverage from political and military leaders to the accounts from the trenches. Sir Max Hugh Macdonald Hastings, FRSL, FRHistS is a British journalist, editor, historian and author. His parents were Macdonald Hastings, a journalist and war correspondent, and Anne Scott-James, sometime editor of Harper's Bazaar. In January this year, Russia’s deputy foreign minister threatened to deploy “military assets” to Cuba if the US continued to support Ukrainian sovereignty. As has become all too apparent in the past weeks, tactical nuclear missiles are still a threat, along with chemical weapons and supersonic missiles. It’s as if Russia’s desperate scramble to maintain influence will stop at nothing and, as Hastings points out, “the scope for a catastrophic miscalculation is as great now as it was in 1914 Europe or in the 1962 Caribbean”. Abyss provides chastening lessons on how easily things can spiral out of control but also how catastrophe can be averted. After ten years as editor and then editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph, he became editor of the Evening Standard in 1996. He has won many awards for his journalism, including Journalist of The Year and What the Papers Say Reporter of the Year for his work in the South Atlantic in 1982, and Editor of the Year in 1988.

The book raises some profound questions. Did the placing of strategic nuclear missiles on Cuba a few miles from the American mainland really alter the balance of power in the Western Hemisphere? Europe had been living with a Soviet led Armageddon on its doorstep for years and in any event, submarines equipped with nuclear missiles parked in the Atlantic would offer an even greater, less easily detectable threat than Cuba. Also, the stark contrast between the enormous destructive power of the weaponry involved and the frighteningly slow and primitive means of communication available to the Americans and the Soviets.In between the meetings of great leaders and the movement of ships and submarines he added the recollections of regular Cuban and Russian people that were stationed in Cuba during the time of the crisis. These eye witnesses were interviewed for the book and they are a fantastic addition because they add a much needed ground level view. A harrowing expedition to Antarctica, recounted by Departures senior features editor Sancton, who has reported from every continent on the planet.

Obviously – as we do not yet inhabit a world of radioactive ash – the missiles of October never flew. Still, the margins were so thin, and the human element so pronounced, that it is unsurprising that this event has been the subject of numerous, sometimes excellent books. Of course, much of the action takes place in the White House, where the so-called Executive Committee met to discuss options, all while being secretly recorded. Unlike the authoritarian regimes in Russia and Cuba, America’s decision-making has been made transparent by the voluminous transcripts that have been released. I appreciated that Hastings took this into account when forming his verdicts, noting that the imperfect logic employed in the U.S. was probably no worse – and likely far better – than that which took place in the Soviet Union. Probably the biggest takeaway of the book was that as in the words of McNamara the missile crisis was not actually a 'military crisis' but rather a 'political crisis'. The reason for that is because the geopolitical strategic balance had not really been modified by the placement of the missiles in Cuba. At the same time, the withdrawing of the US Jupiter missiles from Turkey would not have been any difference either because the missiles were obsolete and out of date. At the time nuclear missiles on submarines were just as dangerous and there were Soviet submarines with such missiles near the US and US submarines with such missiles near the Soviet Union yet nobody made a big fuss about it. However, publicly Kennedy could not be seen to accept the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba so close to the US. If he would have allowed that to go on his Presidency would be compromised and he would have had no chance for a second term.


Once those missiles were discovered by U2 overflights, President John F. Kennedy came under intense pressure from the military establishment – especially a barely-hinged Curtis Lemay, head of the Strategic Air Command – to destroy the missiles by airstrike, followed by an invasion. Indeed, the desire of the armed forces for swift action led them to make the kind of impossible guarantees typically reserved for salesmen of used automobiles. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is widely considered to be the closest the world has come to a full nuclear exchange. In a ploy apparently meant to taunt the United States, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev sent medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles to the Caribbean nation, along with enough atomic warheads to devastate America’s eastern seaboard.

It’s not the primary source research, for there are no new revelations that have not been published elsewhere. And it’s not the ultimate judgments, for Hastings’s conclusions – that Khrushchev acted precipitously, that the American military establishment verged on the insane, and that President Kennedy handled the situation quite well – are fairly standard. The book also goes over all of the incidents during the crisis such as the shooting down of the American U2 spy plane and the famous Soviet nuclear submarine whose captain allegedly was prevented from launching a nuclear missile by his subordinate and potentially preventing World War III. Hastings casts some doubt on the submarine incident as the timeline and the recollections of the witnesses are quite contradictory. Hastings correctly argues that the Kennedy brothers became Castro haters due to the Bay of Pigs, an emotion they did not feel previously. They felt humiliated and became obsessed with Cuba as they sought revenge – hence Operation Mongoose to get rid of Castro which Robert Kennedy was put in charge of. As the narrative unfolds a true portrait of Castro emerges. He was considered a beloved politician in Cuba at the time but a poor administrator. He had overthrown Cuban President Fulgencio Batista and at the outset was a hero for his countrymen. However, the crisis highlighted a delusional individual who at times believed his own heightened rhetoric and whose actions scared Khrushchev. A Times History Book of the Year 2022 From the #1 bestselling historian Max Hastings 'the heart-stopping story of the missile crisis' Daily Telegraph Brilliantly told... compelling... Hastings has cleverly woven the story together from all sides describing them in dramatic, almost hour by hour detail... this is a scary book. Hastings sees little evidence that today's leaders understand each other any better than they did in 1962' Sunday Times

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He stood down as editor of the Evening Standard in 2001 and was knighted in 2002. His monumental work of military history, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 was published in 2005. Brilliantly told… compelling… Hastings has cleverly woven the story together from all sides describing them in dramatic, almost hour by hour detail… this is a scary book. Hastings sees little evidence that today’s leaders understand each other any better than they did in 1962” - Sunday Times It also reinforces one of the chief tenets of the Crisis: that much of it was driven by domestic politics. The placement of the Cuban missiles did not drastically change the strategic picture for the United States, yet Kennedy could not let them remain and still hope to be president. Likewise, Khrushchev could not simply remove them without humiliating his regime and weakening his own position. As for Fidel Castro, he ably used anti-American sentiment to fan his people’s revolutionary spirit, and to distract them from his failed economic policies.

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