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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 47.
- Review Date: 2008-04-21
- Reviewer: Staff
Washington Post reporter Dobbs (Saboteurs) is a master at telling stories as they unfold and from a variety of perspectives. In this re-examination of the 1963 Bay of Pigs face-off between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., Dobbs combines visits to Cuba, discussions with Russian participants and fingertip command of archival and printed U.S. sources to describe a wild ride that—contrary to the myth of Kennedy’s steel-nerved crisis management—was shaped by improvisation, guesswork and blind luck. Dobbs’s protagonists act not out of malevolence, incompetence or machismo. Kennedy, Khrushchev and their advisers emerge as men desperately seeking a handle on a situation no one wanted and no one could resolve. In a densely packed, fast-paced, suspenseful narrative, Dobbs presents the crisis from its early stages through the decision to blockade Cuba and Kennedy’s ordering of DEFCON 2, the last step before an attack, to the final resolution on October 27 and 28. The work’s climax is a detailed reconstruction of the dry-mouthed, sweaty-armpits environment of those final hours before both sides backed down. From first to last, this sustains Dobbs’s case that “crisis management” is a contradiction in terms. (June 5)
The missiles of October
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 Guantánamo 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.