Bruce Kent

The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Threat of Nuclear War

Lessons From History

Len Scott


Continuum UK ISBN 1-8470-6026-9

This book is perfectly described by its title. The events of those critical days of October 1962 for the whole world are set out in impressive detail. Most of us have seen similar accounts written by top-level contemporary participants, but memoirs understandably tend to show their authors in the best light. Len Scott has given us a record of events which is more detached.

The Cuba crisis was the highest of high-wire balancing acts. Both superpowers were equipped with massive nuclear weapon arsenals. Had a small proportion of the total exploded anywhere, life on earth as we know it would have ground to an end. George Kennan, one of the architects of the Cold War, described, in his later years, the level of weaponry as "grotesque". It was to grow even more grotesque in the Reagan years during an arms race which led, as intended, to the financial ruin of the Soviet Union.

But "Lessons from History" ? They are there to be learnt but we do not learn them.

Nikita Khrushchev, wrote these words to President Kennedy on the 26th October, at the height of the crisis, "If people do not show wisdom then in the final analysis they will come to a clash like blind moles and then reciprocal extermination will begin".

It very nearly did. Blind moles is an appropriate metaphor. What the book makes clear is that often enough neither side knew what the other side meant or intended. Communication travelled by unusual channels. Participants put their own glosses on messages. Assumptions were made of the most dangerous kind. For instance, members of the US Executive Committee of the National Security Council thought that Moscow could communicate with its nuclear weapon-armed submarines. But that meant the submarines coming to the surface. Submarine captains underwater were indeed blind moles.

The account of what went on in one such submarine is enough to show how extreme were the levels of risk. Captain Valentin Savitsky was in charge of one. For four hours during the blockade they had been submerged underneath United States warships which were trying to get them to surface by dropping small explosives-- not of depth charge size. Temperatures had risen to 60 degrees centigrade. Crew members were collapsing under the strain and heat. Savinsky ordered the officer responsible for the nuclear torpedoes to assemble one at battle readiness. He is quoted as saying "Maybe the war has already started up there while we are doing summersaults here……we are going to blast them now. We will die but we will sink them all. We will not disgrace our navy."

Fortunately, even at such a time of tension, wiser words prevailed. The submarine came up to the surface.

What would have happened had a nuclear torpedo been fired? Who knows. The book is full of hypotheticals. What if this? What if that? What if the other? It may well have been that, in the eventuality of an actual firing of one, or a few, nuclear weapons "the other side" may have realised that full-scale war was not intended. Perhaps a junior officer had exceeded his duties. Perhaps there had been an accident. Whatever the hypotheticals, the dangers were very great indeed. One can play poker with limited stakes without any worry. But this, as the author makes clear, was not poker and the stakes were not limited.

There were other critical moments. It was not just a matter of one submarine captain getting hysterical. A U2 was shot down over Cuba and the US hawks wanted retaliation. Fortunately Kennedy had taken direct control himself, and the powers of the hawks were limited. Another U2 went into Soviet air space as if reconnoitring for a nuclear first strike. The Soviets did not respond as they might have done. A taped simulation of a Soviet attack was put into a computer and for a short time it seemed that an American city had been targeted. Kennedy did not panic.

Robert McNamara said when he came over to England recently: "we were saved not by good judgement but by good luck". Nuclear deterrence presupposes extreme rationality and accident free procedures.

This most interesting book is another reminder of what the first United Nations Special Session report said in 1978: "Enduring international peace and security cannot be built on the accumulation of weaponry by military alliances nor be sustained by a precarious balance of deterrence or doctrines of strategic superiority".

If there is a weakness in the book it lies in the author"s own apparent lack of knowledge about current nuclear disarmament opportunities. He asks, in his last chapter, this important question: what will it take "to create the political conditions for nuclear disarmament?" One should not ask questions of such importance and not try to answer them.

I commend him to the draft abolition treaty prepared by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and lodged with the United Nations by Costa Rica. As global opinion begins to understand that nuclear weapons do nothing to solve the actual problems of insecurity today, the political conditions are moving in a more rational direction.

31st May 2008