So Close to the Edge

By Roazen, Paul | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

So Close to the Edge


Roazen, Paul, Queen's Quarterly


In October 1962 the world was on the brink as three leaders guessed how far the others were prepared to go. Each possessed a strong personality and a shrewd mind, but each man's style was unique. The canny but mercurial Khrushchev had survived the worst of Stalin's purges and was determined to reignite his country's socialist revolution. Castro's flamboyance and daring had enabled him to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and to seize power; he believed great things were possible if one possessed the mettle. For Kennedy - already stung by Cuba during the Bay of Pigs fiasco - this would be the ultimate test of his approach to leadership, a balance of rational analysis and unblinking nerve. Though he was surrounded by advisors and experts throughout the standoff (opposite), he knew that in the end the weight of responsibility rested on him alone.

PAUL ROAZEN is Professor Emeritus of Social and Political Science at York University and the author most recently of How Freud Worked: First-Hand Accounts of Patients.

"ONE HELL OF A GAMBLE": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964. Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, W.K. Norton, 1997.

THE 1962 Cuban missile crisis remains indelibly etched in the minds of those of us old enough to have been politically conscious during the most frightening moments of the Cold War. But for decades afterwards, the inner workings of the Soviet side of the story remained almost wholly shrouded in mystery. At the time, Kremlinologists were still looking at group photographs of the Communist Party Politburo and trying to determine members' relative political power by noting who stood where in relation to Khrushchev. Kremlinology had developed after the Second World War as the study of a kind of gigantic Cold War black box. Although by the early '60s Khruschev had repudiated the worst aspects of Stalin's dictatorial and paranoid rule, in many ways it was as difficult as ever for Western analysts to determine what was going on within the USSR's holy of holies.

But as this century draws to a close, nearly everything connected to Soviet historiography has changed. Numerous projects are afoot to determine what can be learned from top-level Soviet files. Although some material may still be held back, and Western scholars have only recently started independent investigations, it may be that we can now speak more confidently about what the Soviets were up to in 1962 than about what motivated the Americans. Politburo members were used to a situation in which they could expect everything written down to be safe from outside inspection, while American policy makers had to count on their deliberations being subjected to the closest kind of partisan evaluation (President Kennedy taped some high-level meetings and shared this secret only with his brother Robert). And now, thanks to Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali's extraordinary access to Soviet archives, we have also gained insight into the thinking of Castro's regime during the crisis. The title One Hell of a Gamble comes from President Kennedy's assessment of a proposed invasion of Cuba in the midst of an international confrontation that threatened to touch off a global conflagration.

Back in 1959 there was heated debate over whether, or how much, American policy was helping to drive Castro into an alliance with international communism. During the 1960s, so-called revisionist historians were trying to assess the extent to which America deserved to be blamed for the rise of the Cold War as a whole. I remember how outspoken Theodore Draper was at the time in highlighting Castro's special ideological attraction to communism. Often while reading One Hell of a Gamble I was struck by how prescient Draper had been - especially when I perused hitherto secret communications between the Soviets and the Cuban government. (Draper's 1962 book, Castro's Revolution: Myths and Realities, is unfortunately long out of print. …

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