One had to be an adult living through that time to fully appreciate the fear kindled throughout the world by what is now called "the Cuban missile crisis" - 13 agonizing days in October 1962 when it seemed certain that the U.S. and the Soviet Union would wage an apocalyptic war over nuclear missiles Russia had attempted to install in Cuba.
In the years since, the complexities of that confrontation have been reduced to a manageable American myth in which young but resolute President Kennedy faces down wily, impulsive Premier Khrushchev. Not so, says Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs in One Minute to Midnight. In his accounting, both Kennedy and Khrushchev emerge as temperate and essentially moral leaders who succeeded in staving off warmongers within their own ranks, notably the pugnacious Gen. Curtis LeMay, who had distinguished himself in World War II by firebombing Tokyo, and Fidel Castro, who was still bristling with revolutionary fervor.
Dobbs draws on interviews with eyewitnesses, White House tape recordings, surveillance photos, contemporary news accounts and overlooked records to show the chaotic randomness of events and why so many things went wrong. American intelligence was greatly flawed, seriously underestimating the number of Russian troops and missiles in Cuba. Castro (not without reason) was certain the U.S. would invade the island at any moment. Had it done so, Dobbs reveals, Russian forces armed with tactical nuclear weapons were set to destroy the naval base at Guantanamo Bay.
Then there were the wild cards that could have tipped the uneasy standoff into full-fledged war. Among these were the U-2 spy plane the Russians shot down over Cuba. Most perilous of all were the primitive means of communication between the two governments that could never keep up with the rapid shifts in circumstances.
One Minute to Midnight is another persuasive argument that war is too important to be left in the hands of generals.
Edward Morris writes from Nashville.