One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Krushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War by Michael Dobbs
|One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Krushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War by Michael Dobbs|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: The definitive telling of the story of thirteen days which brought the world closer to the brink of nuclear war than it had ever been before - or since. It's compelling and authoritative - and should be compulsory reading for anyone with even a smidgen of power. Highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 448||Date: June 2008|
At the end of October 1962 the world held its breath as three Presidents – Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro – brought the world to the brink of thermonuclear war, but somehow managed to back away from almost certain disaster. The story begins on Tuesday October the 16th and takes us through to the point at the end of the month when we all realised that what to eat for our next meal need not be the extent of our forward planning.
And it is a story too. Michael Dobbs has achieved the seemingly impossible in producing an academically rigorous text which is written in a way that makes excellent reading – Dobbs himself describes it as combining the techniques of a historian with the techniques of a journalist. It's a detailed retelling of events – moving to a minute-by-minute basis at the height of the crisis – which never loses sight of the human beings involved.
The story is dominated by the three Presidents but it's the individuals on the front line whose stories make the most commanding reading. The 'distinction' of being the person who almost precipitated us into World War Three could well have gone to a pilot many thousands of miles away from Cuba – he accidentally over flew the USSR when the tension was at its height. Back in Cuba there was a young Russian who had only just written home to his mother to tell her that he was alive and well (but unable to tell her where he was) – only to be killed in a road accident shortly afterwards. The convoy was moving missiles and the commander was unable to avoid using his radio to call for help – thus revealing his positions to the Americans.
Kennedy's charisma (and unfortunate demise) has meant that many histories of the Cuban Missile crisis make it appear that the missiles appeared on Cuba with no provocation from the USA, but Dobbs writes a remarkably non-partisan account which makes it clear that attempts to displace Castro had been ongoing for some time and whilst placing nuclear missiles in the USA's backyard might seem extreme it's easy to see why Castro thought that they were necessary.
This is the first book to dispel some of the myths of the crisis and it's all supported by photographic evidence some of is previously unpublished. One of the greatest myths is of the commanders of Russian and American ships being 'eyeball to eyeball' – they were, in fact, several hundred miles apart. It's also the first time that I've seen comprehensive details about the missiles that were on Cuba – and there were a lot more than I thought. Normally I would find information about armaments rather tedious and before I started the book I thought that I would probably skim some of the text but I was never tempted. The details are all there but the implications clearly pointed out and the information is relevant.
There's a cast of people you simply couldn't make up, from Curtis LeMay, racist and hawkish but still Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force and eventually caricatured in Dr Strangelove. Left to him there would have been a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Cuba which would have precipitated World War Three. There's Che Guevara the Argentinean Marxist revolutionary and one of the few people trusted by Fidel Castro. Ultimately though, the world was saved by Kennedy and Khrushchev both of whom were conscious of the fact that history would not forgive them if they were responsible for a nuclear apocalypse. It's ironic that neither of them lasted much more than a year more in power, whilst Castro, who was all for a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the USA, was in power for more than forty years.
It's a superb book and I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
For a more general book about the Kennedy era you can do little better than Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot. We've also been impressed by Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner which looks at sixty years of the CIA.
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