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One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War
Alfred A. Knopf, 2008
426 pp., $28.95
Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008
400 pp., $27.00
by Bruce Kuklick
The State and Its Servants
Michael Dobbs is a journalist, and Alex Abella also writes for the newspapers, although he makes his living as a novelist. Each of them has published a popular history about America's influence as a superpower in the 20th century. Together the books promote reflection about how nation states behave and who is responsible for their behavior.
The tale of the Missile Crisis has often been told. In the spring of 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided to situate nuclear-tipped rockets, aimed at the United States, in Cuba. Under Fidel Castro, that island country had recently declared its allegiance to communism and had become an ally of the USSR. When the administration of John Kennedy learned about the missiles in the fall of 1962, Kennedy and his national security managers decided that the Russians had to remove the armaments—or else. In the next two weeks of October 1962, a watershed period in the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to nuclear war. The narrative of the threats and counter-threats, deliberations, negotiations, and military posturing still makes for a great read. Dobbs has studied matters seriously and has some new information, mainly on the activities of the armed services. While he often proudly reminds us that this information has not been used before, his account is familiar, basically distinguished because Dobbs tells an outstanding story.
Good story or not, One Minute to Midnight adopts the unexceptional explanation of what went on. Dobbs argues that the world escaped harm for two reasons. First, Kennedy and Khrushchev were both reasonable men looking for a judicious way out of the crisis. Second, Dobbs allows, they both luckily avoided the unfortunate consequences of various accidents, miscommunications, and the deeds of uncommitted associates. It is this uncontroversial understanding that must be transcended.
Khrushchev was told that positioning missiles in Cuba would raise a firestorm in the United States. Why did ...