Book Review:

Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette to the Cuban Missile Crisis

Martin Sherwin, 2020

Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette to the Cuban Missile Crisis (2020) by Martin Sherwin is the best book (by far) I've read about the Cuban missile crisis. Sherwin was a professor of history at George Mason University.  He died in 2021. This is a terrifying detailed blow by blow account of 13 days (Oct. 16-29, 1962) that appeared likely to leaders on both sides and others around the world to end in a nuclear war which may well have wiped out human civilization through destruction of cities and military targets,  or through nuclear winter, the possibility of which was not understood at the time. It is terrifying to discover that political leaders on both sides were possessed by an insane delusional cold war logic within which their calculations were rational, and because a few of these leaders, including at least two of the U.S. Joint Chiefs, lusted for war, and (though Sherwin does not accuse them) of setting off a war through back channels. It is terrifying because two military officers, one a Soviet deputy naval submarine commander in the Caribbean and the other commander, a U.S. Air Force captain on Okinawa, stopped a nuclear war from being initiated after receiving orders to prepare torpedoes or missiles for launch. If other mid- level officers had been in their positions on Oct. 27-28, 1962, a nuclear war would likely have ensued. 


Nikita Khrushchev took a daring reckless gamble to secretly install missile sites with nuclear weapons in Cuba during the spring and summer of 1962 as a means (he later insisted) of heading off an imminent U.S. invasion of Cuba. The Soviet Union also sent 42,000 military personnel to Cuba. These forces were armed with tactical nuclear weapons and the authorization to use them in case of a U.S. invasion of Cuba. Khrushchev also wanted to redress an imbalance in nuclear forces, an imbalance that had been exacerbated by the recent installation of U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey on the border of Russia. Both Khrushchev and JFK contributed to a dangerous situation with bellicose rhetoric in the run up to the fateful days of October. Both regretted doing so and both questioned their ability to hold in check the call for war inspired (in part) by their rhetoric. Sherwin quotes a Russian who was party to the Kremlin's deliberations when the missiles were discovered by U-2 flights over Cuba. I paraphrase Sherwin's quote from the Russian source: "he (i.e.,  Khrushchev) practically shit in his pants." Kennedy, for his part, was initially ready to take military action immediately -- without warning -- to knock out missile sites before they could become operational,  but became increasingly unwilling to take military action despite being pressed hard from members of ExCOMM, the group that met daily, or several times daily, to decide on the U.S. response. After reading Sherwin's account of ExCOMM discussions,  I'm convinced that if any other high ranking member of ExCOMM, including Robert Kennedy, had been President there would have been a nuclear war. Kennedy was sane in a way his advisors were not, and he could not grasp their resistance to a reasonable diplomatic resolution of the crisis, e.g. removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey for removal of Soviet offensive weapons from Cuba.  


The blow by blow discussions of ExCOMM discussions reported by Sherwin are fascinating. The Joint Chiefs pushed hard for bombing missile sites and invasion as soon as possible, without warning, to maximize surprise and reduce ( they thought) U.S. casualties.  McNamara and Rusk flip flopped but supported military action on most days. Douglas Dillion was a strident hawk who used extreme rhetoric to support the harshest actions. LBJ was a big time hawk. After the crisis was over, LBJ and JFK had very little contact prior to JFK's assassination, according to Thurston Clarke.  Robert Kennedy's instincts were to attack Cuba, but his deepest loyalty was to his brother. His midnight urgent message to a Russian diplomat on the evening before Khrushchev caved in to U.S. demands in exchange for a promise not to invade Cuba may have saved the world. The only sane persons on the U.S. side in this crisis were Adlai Stevenson, a man whom Kennedy professed to despise, but whose advice he ultimately followed, and George Ball, better known for his opposition to the Vietnam War,  and (periodically) Llewellyn Thompson, US ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1957-62. 


Re ExCOMM: McNamara could - and did - argue every side, every option with greater clarity than anyone else, but lacked sound moral intuitions, a deficiency which became apparent during the Vietnam war. Robert Kennedy was an antagonistic  hothead, impulsive one minute, calculating and mean the next. Possibly the most dangerous persons on ExCOMM ( a hard competition in Sherwin's telling) were Chief of Naval Operations, George Anderson, and Curtis LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff. Neither Anderson or LeMay respected JFK, or civilian control of the military. Both were openly disrespectful of Kennedy and McNamara,  and both were insubordinate at key moments of the crisis. LeMay, on my short list for morally worst leader in U.S. history, was deeply upset by the peaceful resolution of the crisis,  and attempted to talk his colleagues into pressuring Kennedy to invade Cuba after the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba. From the perspective of the Joint Chiefs, the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis was not a testimony to the strong judicious leadership of John Kennedy, quite the opposite. Rather, it was proof positive of his weakness and unfitness for office. LeMay believed that a golden opportunity had been missed to destroy Castro's Cuba and possibly the Soviet Union as well. This horrible General had high status among his military colleagues. 


JFK concluded quickly - within a few days - that Soviet missiles in Cuba had little or no effect on the nuclear balance of forces. The Pentagon and most ExCOMM members strongly disagreed. They believed that the U.S. had a large advantage in nuclear forces, and some thought the U.S. could win a nuclear war, perhaps taking millions of casualties but totally destroying the Soviet Union and China. As Daniel Ellsberg and Fred Kaplan have revealed in recent years, the U.S nuclear war plan in the 1960s was to destroy China as well as Russia, regardless of the Chinese role, or lack thereof, in the run up to the war.  The Pentagon and national security establishment continued to actively discuss a first strike on the Soviet Union in 1963 according to Thurston Clarke in JFK's Last Hundred Days, on the grounds that in a few years the Soviets would  redress the nuclear balance and render a first strike too costly. The window of opportunity for "winning" a nuclear war was quickly passing - this was the view of key military and political leaders in the 1960s during and even after the Cuban missile crisis. 


Other political leaders who strongly supported invasion of Cuba and bombing missile sites in Cuba, acts which would likely have led to WW III, included Eisenhower and Dean Acheson.  Even after resolution of the crisis, Acheson was highly critical of Kennedy whom he described as "lucky." Acheson had a vain regard for his own cold war strategic prowess, and viewed JFK as an amateur in power politics. Fidel Castro sent Khrushchev a letter on Oct 26 or 27 advocating that Russia attack the U.S. before an invasion of Cuba could occur. Castro's letter frightened Khrushchev into quick action as he realized events were spiraling out of control.  


Given the belligerence of U.S. political leaders (including Congressional leaders in both parties), their demented cold war rhetoric and logic, along with their dire expectations of what would likely occur in South America if Russia "got way with" its flagrant actions in Cuba, it is even more frightening to realize that ExCOMM was misinformed regarding crucial matters,  i.e.,  the intelligence was terrible.  ExCOMM initially believed that all Soviet missile sites were inoperable, when a couple were ready for war. ExCOMM believed the Soviets had a few thousand troops in Cuba when the real number was 42,000. ExCOMM had no inkling regarding tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba, and the authorization of Soviet commanders to use them in case of U.S. invasion.  ExCOMM did not realize Soviet submarines in the Caribbean had nuclear torpedoes, and that Soviet naval commanders had agreed to fire these torpedoes together if any one of their 4 submarines fired its torpedoes at U.S. ships. On Oct. 27, the U.S. Navy dropped depth charges and stun grenades on these Russian subs, one of which prepared to attack U.S. ships with its nuclear weapon.  One Soviet officer talked his commander out of this action!   


In addition, some ExCOMM members seriously entertained the idea that  the Soviet Union was planning a first strike nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland. ExCOMM members were ready to go to war rather than agree to take nuclear missiles out of Turkey on the grounds that to do so would undermine NATO. Given all this mistaken information and demented cold war logic, it's miraculous there was not a world war.  Kennedy and Khrushchev understood this at the time, and were deeply affected by how close their countries came to war. However, this did not stop the Kennedy brothers from trashing Adlai Stevenson behind the scenes to journalists after the crisis was over by suggesting that he advocated for a "Munich" like surrender to the Soviets! Stevenson saved JFK, and he may have saved human civilization, but in the Kennedy's hard boiled political calculation this meant Stevenson's reputation had to be undermined with friendly journalists, but not openly.   


There is one additional shocking piece of information in Sherwin's book: the U.S. government planned for war, expected war to break out at any moment, but they did not protect themselves or their families from nuclear attack. What could they have been thinking? One Soviet missile or bomber could have destroyed the top leaders of the U.S. government at any time during this crisis. What were they thinking? This is also a good question regarding U.S. policy in the 1950s and in Vietnam. Eisenhower comes off badly in Sherwin's book. Delusional ideas regarding the domino effect and threat of Communism prevailed, and to speak up against this consensus was to be mocked as "weak",  and excluded from national security discussions.  The world survived somehow, but not without other less well known close calls, especially during late 1982-83 when both the U.S. and Soviet Union were convinced the other side was planning a first strike. Both sides were fortunately wrong!  By that time, the U.S. and Soviet Union possessed many thousands of nuclear weapons ( possibly 30,000-40,000 together in the 1980s) and planned to completely destroy their opponent -- and China - if war occurred. This was the the logic of Massive Assured Destruction (MAD). Why mess around with half measures when it was possible to destroy the entire human race! 


-- Dee Wilson