BOOKS: When the World Was on the Brink of Nuclear War; the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Threat of Nuclear War: Lessons from History. by Len Scott. Continuum. Pounds 25. Reviewed by STUART LEE

Article excerpt


Weapons of mass destruction have terrified politicians and the public for decades, and the current global anxiety surrounding terrorist groups and unstable governments has served to increase the international pressure for nuclear disarmament.

But it is the Cuban missile crisis, one of the most dangerous confrontations of the Cold War, that remains one of the important period of history.

A complete picture of the crisis, which took place over 14 days in October 1962, will only be achieved once official documents become declassified, and researchers can begin to untangle the story that saw US President John F Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev take the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe.

In the meantime, by seeking to understand this turbulent time it will serve to better inform future decision making processes during a time of crisis.

The crisis arose after the Soviet Union, woefully behind the USA in the arms race, installed intermediate range nuclear missiles in Cuba. The move had a duel effect: effectively doubling its arsenal and providing a deterrent to a potential attack by the US on the USSR.

For 14 days, the tension between the two sides rose to crisis point, and world waited in the wings, terrified at what these two powers would do.

Catastrophe was averted when the Soviets removed the weapons from Cuba.

Since then debate has raged as to whether or not the risk of nuclear warwas as high as publicly assumed.

Written by Len Scott, an authoritative voice within the field of international politics and history, this thorough research into the crisis examines the actions from all sides of the conflict.

One particularly surprising discussion reveals how Kennedy and Khruschev feared that the nuclear threshold could have been crossed because of events beyond their control, such as the actions of subordinate personnel, third parties, or accidents.

It is enlightening to discover that during the time of the crisis, some members of the United States government did not believe nuclear war would ever happen, which reflects Scott's suggestion that the use of tactical nuclear weapons by the Soviets in Cuba was highly unlikely.

However, such a conclusion by US officials could have been an irresponsible assumption. …