On The Brink: The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited Though much was made of the conflagration between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis, Michael Dobbs, author of One Minute to Midnight, says the two leaders were actually of like minds when it came to the threat of nuclear war.
NPR logo

On The Brink: The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92749411/92751609" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
On The Brink: The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited

On The Brink: The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92749411/92751609" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. In October, 1962, President John F. Kennedy told the American public some alarming news about Cuba.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island.

SIEGEL: Missiles at those bases, he said, would threaten American cities, and the U.S. could not let that happen.

President KENNEDY: To halt this offensive build-up, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, where they're found to contain cargos of offensive weapons be turned back.

SIEGEL: For the next several days, the world braced for nuclear war. Ultimately, Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev stood back from the brink.

The Cuban missile crisis has been the subject of books and movies ever since. Even so, a new book about it by Michael Dobbs includes a lot of new detail, and as Dobbs says, he takes a broad view of the missile crisis that's quite different from many prior accounts.

Mr. MICHAEL DOBBS (Author, "One Minute to Midnight"): A lot of focus was on the confrontation between Kennedy and Khrushchev, and I really came to the conclusion that particularly toward the end of the crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev were pretty much on the same side. They were both trying to get out of this terrible mess that they had in part helped to create, and the real risk of nuclear war did not come from the decisions of Kennedy and Khrushchev; it came from the accidental chance events that happen when you put the machinery of war into motion.

SIEGEL: And it happened that on the very day that would qualify as the most dangerous day of the Cold War, an American U2 pilot gets lost over the Soviet Far East.

Mr. DOBBS: Right. That's a very good example of the kind of unpredictable chance events that happen once you start going to war. The Strategic Air Command was sending high level U2 reconnaissance planes to the North Pole on a perfectly routine basis to monitor Soviet nuclear tests, and as chance would have it, one of these U2s went off to the North Pole, the pilot was blinded by the Aurora Borealis, and he stumbles over the Soviet Union on the most dangerous day of the Cold War.

The next day, Khrushchev wrote to Kennedy and said we could have mistaken this plane for a nuclear bomber and it could have caused a nuclear exchange between our two countries.

SIEGEL: There are moments during this time when we think we know what happened. I mean, lore has been passed down to us, and there's a famous moment in Washington, when John F. Kennedy's secretary of state, Dean Rusk, has some news of the blockade, and he remarks famously: We went eyeball to eyeball, and they blinked.

Mr. DOBBS: Yes, that's probably the most famous quote from the missile crisis, and like several other incidents, it's really based on myth. I was the first researcher to actually plot the positions of Soviet and American warships on - this was on October 24th, two days after Kennedy had imposed the blockade, and I found out that they were 400 or 500 nautical miles apart at this moment. So there was no risk of an American interception of a Soviet missile-carrying freighter.

They turned around early on the 23rd. This is a day later, on the 24th, when they were already heading back toward the Soviet Union.

SIEGEL: One lesson for JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis is that he had earlier been trying to get the military to remove obsolescent or obsolete missiles from Turkey, which turned out to be the bargaining chips in the end with Moscow. They'd take their missiles out of Cuba; the U.S. would take missiles out of Turkey.

Kennedy had been wanting the military to do it; they just wouldn't do it. I mean, the U.S. military wouldn't comply with his policies.

Mr. DOBBS: Well, I think he never actually gave them a direct order. Mac Bundy, at one point, the national security advisor…

SIEGEL: National security advisor.

Mr. DOBBS: …says there's a difference between a presidential wish and a presidential order, and in the end Kennedy sends Bobby to the Soviet embassy on the night of Black Saturday, October 27th, and essentially offers the Soviets a deal, saying that if you bring your missiles out of Cuba, we will bring those missiles out of Turkey, but the deal has to be kept secret.

During the crisis, he had read Barbara Tuchman's book, "The Guns of August," about the origins of the First World War, and the thing that struck him about that book was that nobody really understood why the world was plunged into war in 1914, and he was determined that if the world had to face a nuclear war, there would be very, very clear reasons for fighting it that could be explained to ordinary Americans, and a few obsolete missiles in Turkey was not sufficient reason for him to go to war.

SIEGEL: One thing that I think - which you achieve in the book, which is - it's a reminder here, is that the United States in 1962 was in a very different situation with respect to the world than it is today. This was 15, 16 years after the end of the Second World. Victories had been achieved. I guess Korea was a stalemate, but the military felt very, very confident of itself, and these were people who - well, let's get it over with. Lets…

Mr. DOBBS: The United States undoubtedly enjoyed extraordinary nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union back in 1962, and a number of senior military people, including Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief, thought that we could fight and win a nuclear war against the Soviet Union and were prepared to contemplate such a war.

Kennedy's calculation was very different. He asked the military how many casualties would there be if just one Soviet missile got through, and he was told about half a million, and his reaction to that was, you know, that was the number of casualties we had in the Civil War, and it's taken us almost a century to get over that.

So you know, we might win a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, but it'll be a victory that is pretty meaningless.

SIEGEL: And as you note toward the end of the book, in the end, both Kennedy and Khrushchev would bring the world back from the brink of nuclear war.

Mr. DOBBS: Right. I discovered a letter that Jackie Kennedy wrote to Khrushchev after her husband's assassination, saying that there many things that divided you two as leaders, but you wanted to preserve the peace, and in the end my husband used to say that it was not the big men that cause wars, it's the small men. And I think in that sense both Kennedy and Khrushchev were big men, and the real risk of nuclear war in October, 1962, came from the small men, as Jackie said, not the big men.

SIEGEL: Michael Dobbs, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. DOBBS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Michael Dobbs, the author of "One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War."

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.