"One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964-The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis

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Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali. "One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964 -The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. 420pp. $27.50

No episode of the Cold War has captured more public interest than the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. With the declassification of many of its documents in the past few years there has been a rush of interpretative work, documentary studies, and special conclaves of those who participated in the crisis. There appears to be a desire to gain perspective on the events of those October days in 1962 when the world stood on the edge of nuclear war. But there is also a desire to develop more sophisticated methods to deal with crises. Crisis management seeks to control the forces of emotion and irrationality within ruling circles. It is hoped that the process will offer political leadership on all sides the opportunity to consider alternatives to solely military means in their list of crisis-response options. This work is an excellent example of how a major crisis was handled without losing control.

"One Hell of a Gamble" is a unique work, because the authors were permitted access to the most secret documents from the highest levels of the Soviet government, such as the KGB (now SVR), GRU (the military intelligence directorate), the foreign ministry, and the Presidium and Politburo, as well as other government sources. They also made use of the archives in the United States, France, and the Czech Republic. (The only critical materials still prohibited to researchers are the Cuban records.) Fursenko and Naftali have also included interviews of various officials from both the Soviet Union and the United States, such as the highly respected Soviet ambassador to Cuba, Aleksandr Alekseev; the former CIA station chief, William Caldwell; an unnamed GRU officer who was familiar with the affairs of Latin America; a longtime friend of the Cuban revolutionaries, Soviet intelligence officer Nikolai Leonov; special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, Ted Sorensen; and CIA Cuban specialist Samuel Halpern.

The authors have provided a classic intelligence primer on how the intent of one's actions is not always perceived as it was meant to be by those who are most affected. Kennedy had difficulty dealing with Nikita Khrushchev, because he had never dealt with anyone like him before in local, state, or national politics. What had worked for Kennedy in his rise to the presidency did not move Khrushchev, whose political axioms had been developed during the paranoia of Stalinism. This is an excellent presentation of the dynamics between these two leaders.

I admire Fursenko's and Naftali's portraits of Khrushchev and also, surprisingly, of General Issa Pliyev. Previous books had misled me about why Khrushchev selected him as Soviet commander in Cuba. The authors help the reader to appreciate Pliyev's character, military experience, ruthlessness, nerve, and closeness to the premier. …