The Brink of Mass Destruction

A Review of One Hell of a Gamble
Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali

Author Biography

A Harvard Ph.D.,Timothy Naftali worked as the Visiting Assistant Professor at Yale University. He now directs the Miller Center Presidential Recordings Program and the Kremlin Decision-Making Project. Some of his works include Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism and John F. Kennedy: The Great Crisis, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Aleksandr Fursenko is a member of Russian Academy of Sciences and of leading Russian historians.

For over a decade, the United States and Soviet Union had been engaged in a Cold War, competing with each other in nuclear power and political influence. This era brought the United States close to the brink of nuclear war. On October 22, 1962, few hours before President Kennedy gave his speech regarding a possible war with Soviet Union, Moscow’s government, the Kremlin, considered bombing the United States. Had Soviet Union executed its considered plan, the world would have been devastated. President Kennedy acknowledged congressional leaders that “if [they] go into Cuba, [they] have to all realize that [they] have taken the chance that these missiles, which are ready to fire, won’t fire…though [they were] prepared…it would be one hell of a gamble.”1 In One Hell of a Gamble, Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali explore each side of a triangle with Nikita Khrushchev, John Kennedy, and Fidel Castro as the end points, presenting a complete chronology of events before, during, and after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In chapter one, Fidel Castro overthrew Cuba’s dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar and gained recognition from the United States. Under Kirkpatrick’s team of intelligence, who gathered information about Fidel Castro and his family, United States viewed Castro as a strong advocate of the American way of government and was thought to be a devoted non-communist. Because of this trait, United States, in the beginning, worried over Castro’s security and attempts at assassination when he took over Cuba. Castro’s brother, RaÍl Castro, was the opposite of Fidel in personality and beliefs. Nevertheless, RaÍl was “beside [Castro] on every rung of the ladder to power.”2 Cuban rebels, however, captured many Americans because Washington supported the Batista. As a result of this and other intensions, Castro visited the United States to reveal to Americans and the world about revolutionary Cuba. Across the ocean lay the Soviet Union under the control of Nikita Khrushchev, a communist, waiting for the right time to influence Castro. Before 1962, Castro knew nothing about RaÍl’s communist loyalties. With Castro an anti-communist and his brother a communist, the family was giving mixed signals about the revolution in Cuba. While the Castro brothers each tried to revolutionize Cuba according to their political beliefs, Khrushchev visited the United States.

Returning to Moscow, Khrushchev dedicated his time to Cuba. He had key intelligence prepared by KGB, Moscow’s secret police force. In chapter two, reports told Soviet Union to expect a new political party, the Revolutionary Union, in Cuba under Fidel Castro because the current Cuban leader wanted to “debourgeoisize” the nation. The Cuban society, however, resisted a friendship with the Soviets, creating a problem for Castro. As a result, Castro pacified the Cuban society by forming an alliance with Czechoslovakia first. By January, Castro allowed Anastas Mikoyan to visit Cuba and bring with him Soviet trade and culture. Mikoyan prepared a visit to Havana and was protected by KGB. Castro used “Mikoyan’s visit to establish an economic safety net for Cuba.”3 He wanted the Soviet Union to know that Cuba wouldn’t yield to the US imperialism, and said that the United States used Maine accident to take Cuba as a colony. Because Cuba now favored the Soviet Union, United States was at a disadvantage over control of Cuba, but US still wanted the oil companies there. Though Castro disliked US, he had doubts about siding with Communist Soviets because it would result in siding with China. In chapters three to five, NATO advised U.S. to fight Soviet Union while it could overpower Soviets in nuclear missiles: “In the near term the situation will change to the advantage of the Soviet Union.”4 Khrushchev threatened to extend nuclear missile bases to the western hemisphere. Eisenhower advised Americans to consent on this matter, noting that Soviet Union might make a military base out of Cuba. Khrushchev’s threat to use nuclear powers in Cuba sealed Soviet-Cuban relations, but not everybody supported the Cubans. The Frente Revolucionario Democrático (FRD) was one of the groups that disliked Cubans. They were a Cuban opposition group overseeing recruitment of émigrés for clandestine activity. As time permitted, Castro and Khrushchev began to develop a closer relationship. Castro wanted to nationalize banks and American enterprises so that Cuban industry could be in the hands of the government. While Soviet-Cuban relationship improved, U.S.-Cuban relationship deteriorated. On October 27, 1959, Cuban military was placed on military alert of US barked operations. On October 28, both sides suspended their military exercises. Because Cuba had Soviet support, “Soviet Union [became] the nuclear umbrella over Cuba.”5 Cuba chose the socialist path, and the United States hadn’t intervened yet.

To settle hostility between these two superpowers, Khrushchev invited President Kennedy to a summit meeting. Robert Kennedy outlined President Kennedy’s détente between the two nations in a letter to Khrushchev. The United States on one side welcomed the Soviet Union’s friendly companionship but ended relations with Cuba. A few days before President Kennedy’s inauguration, the United States reduced the size of delegations in Havana. However, President Kennedy administered “executive vigor” reform, eliminating poverty in Latin America. He also called for the creation of Alliance for Progress. This was the starting point of the Bay of Pigs incident when U.S. firmly established troops along the beachhead of Bay of Pigs before Castro’s forces could counterattack. Secretly, President Kennedy wanted “to mask as much as possible U.S. involvement in ending Castro’s revolution.”6 While troops were stationed at Bay of Pigs, Kennedy insured the world that the U.S. had no intention to invade the island of Cuba. Unfortunately, the Bay of Pigs turned out to be a military victory for Soviet Union as US lost the battle at Bay of Pigs. Consequently, Soviets took a commanding role in the Cuban security services. President Kennedy was infuriated about the failure of Cuba. He wanted to try détente again but another summit would have been for Soviets’ advantage. George Bolshakov was an intelligence officer in Moscow. Robert Kennedy met with Bolshakov to tell him that President Kennedy was going to abandon Eisenhower foreign policy and called for a Nuclear Test Ban summit. This friendly request surprised Moscow that was suspicious of Robert Kennedy because he was anti-Soviet. Nevertheless, Khrushchev agreed to Kennedy’s proposal of a summit in Vienna. Chapters ten through fourteen describe the rising steps towards the Missile Crisis. The Vienna summit turned out to be a disaster. After the summit, Khrushchev resumed nuclear testing. Furthermore, assassination schemes, known as “Operation Condor” against Castro and his brother were made. War between US and Soviet Union seemed inevitable at this point. President Kennedy wanted to get rid of Castro from Cuban scene. Robert Kennedy and Goodwill thought about “Command Operation”, an internal revolt in Cuba that was becoming a police state under the influence of Soviet Union that had helped build Cuban military, arms, reserves, militia, and air force. Both superpowers believed JFK was going to attack Cuba again. On December 1, 1961, Castro declared himself a communist and vowed to lead Cuba onto a path of socialist construction. Regardless of U.S.-Soviet relations, Cuba decided to press ahead with active revolution.

Since there was always the possibility that US would invade Cuba in 1962, Khrushchev wanted a Soviet nuclear base there. So, Soviets secretly deployed nuclear missiles in an island 90 miles from US coastline. Khrushchev gambled the secrecy of the Anadyr Project. By August of 1962, Washington still did not expect dozens of Soviet freighters to be speeding towards Cuba with military equipment. JFK and his advisors did not suspect Khrushchev of putting missiles in Cuba. However, soon intelligence gathered information by U-2 aircrafts about this incident. Khrushchev needed a crash program to save Cuba; U.S. needed a defense program to save the nation. While FDR gave a speech on Soviet’s threat to bomb US, Khrushchev prepared for a nuclear war. JFK provided “Khrushchev with proof that a policy of peaceful coexistence with US could be advantageous to the Soviet Union.”7 The book ended with the coming of the war. As the day came, Soviet backed down and gave the world peace.

Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali thoroughly discuss the importance of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Their thesis is that this event was the climax of the history of wars where all human beings could have been destroyed. Both superpowers, U.S. and Soviet Union, had powerful nuclear weapons due to their silent competition. Soviet Union situated their missiles so close to U.S. that a nuclear war was definitely possible. Fortunately, overthrowing the bitter hatred between two superpowers, Khrushchev made the right decision not to continue with the tension. These three main characters, Castro, Khrushchev, and Kennedy, “who are flawed, sometimes dangerously so, and whose dramatic risk taking created equally dramatic history.”8 One Hell of a Gamble does not just touch bases on historical facts but also on the source and accurately analyzes the time period. Aleksandr Fursenko is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and one of Russia’s leading historians; Timothy Naftali teaches history at Yale University and is an Olin Fellow in International Security Studies. Both authors are highly knowledgeable in international history, therefore are able to present a broader scope of certain issues. Through them, the reader is able to grasp the reasons behind Cuba’s dependence on Soviet Union. The book was written in the latter part of the 1900s during the Clinton administration when race relations and restrictive weapon sales had improved, therefore, narrowing the chance of war. Internationally, Clinton supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, preventing nuclear proliferation. The late 1900s showed the sign of protective nuclear weapon use and the importance of foreign relations. In 1993, Al-Qaeda became a major terrorist threat with the bombing of the World Trade Center. This event could have led to a destructive nuclear war between the two hostile groups and thus influenced the authors of this book by reminding them another period of time when the United States was at the brink of mass destruction. Looking back to the 1960s, the authors saw how close U.S. was ruining its bright future with attempts at a nuclear war. Clearly, the authors would reprimand the warming of the Cold War. Two professors, Paul Roazen and Esmond Wright, gave helpful criticisms of this book. Both praised the book to be an excellent source of examining the Cuban Missile Crisis. Roazen defined Kremlinology as the “study of a kind of gigantic Cold War black box.”9 Because the authors of the book were able to collect information on the Soviet side, Roazen thanked them in his critique for bringing confidence to the speaking of what the Soviets were up to in 1962. Roazen agreed with the authors that it was the American policy that drove Castro into an alliance with international communism. It was America that deserved to be blamed for the rise of the Cold War as a whole. Roazen applauded the book for providing a “deeper background” of this period.10 Wright agreed with the point of view of the authors as well. The Cuban Missile Crises posed questions regarding the prevention of nuclear crises and nuclear war. Wright was impressed by the presentation of Khrushchev who had “twin fears of losing his new Cuban ally due to an American invasion and of falling behind the U.S. in the nuclear arms race.”11

The book is impressive because of its preciseness and thoroughness in the overview. It not only includes the main facts that lead to the crisis but also insignificant conversations between leaders that play a significant part in the development of the Cold War. The book explains how the existence of Fidel Castro “can hurt the Kennedy regime.”12 Both sides are dangerous to one another, yet both need one another. This book explains the point of view of each superpower leader on opposing sides before presenting the event that was affected by the point of view. However, the book lacks in clarifying certain terminologies. For example, the book does not explain exactly what a Kremlin was, only its function and how it contributed to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The 1960s was a critical time in American history. Politically, it proved that US embraced democracy, chose its own way of government above others, and showed that it is an egocentric nation. Americans do not believe that other forms of government can work. The Cuban Missile Crisis proved that the United States is “now not at such an unattainable distance from Soviet Union.”13 America can be defeated.

Because of the Cold War, America did not caution itself from the effect of war equipment especially nuclear weapons. After Bay of Pigs, Cuba was scared that “Kennedy would command a second assault on the beach.”14 After the 1960s, modern people could reflect on how dangerous that careless thought could be. It taught America today to understand other forms of government and different ways of making peace rather than war.

The 1960s was both an excitement and nightmare. One Hell of a Gamble shows the traumatizing effect of a near nuclear war and the possibility of superpower relations. It presents before unrevealed Soviet documents and brings forth the real danger of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

review by Sarina Zhao

  1. Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali. One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro & Kennedy 1958-1964. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, ix.
  2. Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali 15.
  3. Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali 38.
  4. Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali 45.
  5. Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali 70.
  6. Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali 88.
  7. Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali 336.
  8. Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali xi.
  9. Roazen, Paul. Queen’s Quarterly. (1998): 3 pgs. 20 May 2006 , 1.
  10. Roazen, Paul 3.
  11. Wright, Esmond. Contemporary Review. (1998): 2 pgs. 20 May 2006 , 1.
  12. Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali 153.
  13. Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali 52.
  14. Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali 151.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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