Saturday, December 20, 2008

Holiday Miscellany

This week I got around to reading Michael Dobbs's book, One Minute to Midnight, on the Cuban Missile Crisis. A Washington Post reporter who had previously written a sensible book on the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dodd did some serious archival research--particularly in military records--and interviewed various surviving Soviet and American participants. His portrait of Nikita Khrushchev seemed to me a little more favorable than was justified by the story he had to tell, while his portrait of John F. Kennedy, while it was rather slow getting started, eventually recognized the President's critical contribution to the resolution of the crisis. Like many journalists who write history, he mixed original sources and anecdotes that have appeared in various more or less responsible books more than I would have liked, but without doing any serious damage to history. But his major contributions came from the realm of military history, and showed that the whole situation was far, far more dangerous than we have ever known before.
The Soviet decision to build up in Cuba was evidently made without careful planning, and inevitably encountered tremendous obstacles. Cuba was mountainous, tropical, and possessed of a most primitive road net, making the movement of Soviet heavy equipment--including missiles--a most hazardous proposition. (Two Soviet soldiers died in an accident while moving a nuclear-armed cruise missile at the height of the crisis.) The Soviets were even less prepared from a naval point of view, and the crews of four submarines suffered from almost unbearable heat, lack of water, and high carbon dioxide levels during a cruise to the Caribbean for which they simply had never been designed. Communications between Cuba and the Soviet Union were also poor, enabling a Soviet air defense unit to shoot down an American U-2 on Saturday, October 27--the blackest day of the crisis--without any authorization from Moscow. But despite all that, the Soviet threat during the crisis was much worse than we had believed. A significant number of Soviet medium-range missiles with one-megaton warheads were in fact ready to fire by the end of the week. More importantly, the Soviets, as one of their generals revealed in a conference in the early 1990s, had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba. One--a V-1 style cruise missile composed of the fuselage of a Soviet fighter plane with a nuclear bomb inside--was targeted on the Guantanamo naval base and ready to go at the height of the crisis. Others could have struck the US invasion fleet. And at another point late in the crisis, a Soviet submarine captain, ceaselessly harassed by a flotilla of US warships that had located and surrounded him, made ready to fire his nuclear-armed torpedo (shades of that classic Cold War movie, The Bedford Incident at one of his tormentors. At the time he had no idea whether nuclear war might have already broken out.
Khrushchev flirted with disaster by setting this mad enterprise in motion, but he turns out to have been rather more cautious in his handling of the crisis than we ever knew. Dobbs's biggest revelation relates to Wednesday, October 24, the day when, as every American account of the crisis has emphasized, the ExCom (the American leadership) discovered that Soviet ships had turned back rather than face the American "quarantine," or blockade, that we had counted on (wrongly as it turned out) to prevent the Soviet missiles from becoming operational. That was when the ExCom realized the Soviets had "blinked," but Dobbs found conclusive evidence that Khrushchev had in fact made that decision much earlier. The Soviet ships had begun turning back sometime on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after Kennedy announced the quarantine to the world on television on Monday evening. Dobbs couldn't find any Soviet documentation about the actual Soviet decision--Russian archives have never been as open as American ones, and they have been rapidly closing again in the Putin era--and thus he could not date it. But thinking the matter over, it seems to me almost impossible that Khrushchev could have reacted that quickly to Kennedy's speech, which took place early on Tuesday morning in Moscow. The decision to turn back, I suspect, had been made even earlier, in response either to the obvious movement of American ships and troops or to the rumors that were sweeping Washington of an impending strike against Cuba. (My family and I were living in Senegal at that time, and we heard those rumors from another American Ambassador, William Attwood, who was returning to Guinea from Washington on the weekend before the crisis broke.)
The American military, meanwhile, was preparing for war, including general war with the Soviet Union. (Preparation was not confined to the military either. During my research for The Road to Dallas an FBI agent confirmed something Carl Bernstein had discovered writing his biography of his Communist parents: the FBI during the week of the missile crisis was preparing to detain those Americans listed on its "Security Index," a list of subversives thought too dangerous to leave at large in wartime.) General Thomas Power, the commander of hte Stratetic Air Command, did not, as the movie Thirteen Days claimed, go from DEFCON 3 to DEFCON 2--one step short of war--on his own authority, but he did decide to broadcast the decision in an uncoded radio message to make sure the Soviets got it. He also sent B-52s on their way to the Soviet Union late in the week, fully loaded with nuclear weapons. By Saturday, the 27th, the Joint Chiefs had a commitment to begin bombing Cuba on the following Tuesday (they were very angry that the date had not been set for Monday instead), with an invasion to follow a full seven days later. (It would hard to imagine a plan more certain to lead to Soviet retaliation i the world during that week.) It was in the midst of all this that an American U-2 pilot, flying to the North Pole from Alaska to collect data on Soviet nuclear tests in the Arctic, took a wrong turn and found himself over the northeast corner of the Soviet Union with Soviet jets frantically trying to reach and destroy him. He miraculously managed to glide back to Alaska for an emergency landing. Dobbs tells his story for the first time.
After his initial retreat, Khrushchev apparently began thinking about how and when to agree to withdraw Soviet missiles. He was however apparently encouraged on Thursday by a famous Walter Lippmann column suggesting the trade of U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey for the ones in Cuba. (Dobbs never mentions that Kennedy had actually predicted such an outcome several weeks before the crisis began in a high-level meeting.) That led him to up his terms on Saturday, demanding such an American withdrawal as well as an American pledge not to invade Cuba. Kennedy, several jumps ahead of Khrushchev on this point (as he frequently was ahead of all the rest of the best and brightest in their deliberations), argued for such a trade in an all-day Excom meeting on Saturday but did not establish anything like a consensus. The Excom drafted, and then publicly released, a letter to Khrushchev that merely promised to discuss "other armaments" once Khrushchev had agreed to withdraw his missiles and end the crisis. Then, as McGeorge Bundy was first to report,he convened an even smaller meeting of Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, RFK, Sorensen, and one or two others, and decided that Robert Kennedy would offer the trade to Ambassador Dobrynin, provided that it remain covert, in a last desperate try to avert war.
RFK's promise, however, seems to have played a marginal, not a critical, role in the resolution of the crisis. Khrushchev, Dobbs discovered, was already declaring his intention to give in to the Presidium on the afternoon of Sunday, October 28, Moscow time (around the time of dawn in Washington), when Dobrynin's cable recounting the conversation arrived. But only minutes later, another frightening report arrived: that Kennedy would go on television at 9:00 AM Washington time, or 4:00 PM Moscow time--quite possibly to announce the beginning of war. It was at that very moment that a Soviet announcer broadcast Khrushchev's letter agreeing to withdraw the missiles in return for a no-invasion pledge. But the report of Kennedy's speech was false. A Soviet operative in the US had misinterpreted one network's announcement that it was going to rebroadcast Kennedy's Monday evening speech at that time. When Kennedy accepted Khrushchev's offer, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay pronounced the outcome the greatest defeat in American history and called for an attack the next day.
Although Dobbs seldom misses an opportunity to mention Kennedy's medical and sexual problems or to quote him in the earthiest possible language, in the end he acknowledges his critical role. Alone among the senior leaders of his Administration, he realized that no military outcome of the crisis could be a good one for the United States, given the likelihood that the Soviets would retaliate either against Turkey or against helpless West Berlin. And all Dobbs's new military data confirms Kennedy's greatest fear throughout, that the military of either side could easily trigger a war that the political leaders wanted to avoid, and that the war would never develop according to plan. Dobbs does not seem to realize, however, that the Administration had essentially abandoned the no-invasion pledge within a few months. By April 1963, as I showed in The Road to Dallas, they were busily planning Castro's overthrow again, projecting an American invasion as soon as the CIA had figured out how to bring about a coup or civil disturbance big enough to allow the United States to claim that order in Cuba had broken down. (Even Castro's assassination, which the CIA was still trying to arrange, could have served as an adequate pretext.) Only after Kennedy's own assassination did such plans come to an end. (On p. 341, Dobbs states that Kennedy's assassin "had been acive in a left-wing protest group that called itself 'Fair Play for Cuba." Readers of The Road to Dallas know that that is a very misleading characterization. Oswald never met a single actual member of the FPCC, and its New York chairman stopped writing to Oswald after he quickly emerged as a loose cannon who would not conform to committee procedures. The FPCC chairman, like the Communist party leaders to whom Oswald also wrote, sized him up as an agent provocateur, and I concluded, based on a great deal of evidence, that they were right.) We had only one John F. Kennedy as President, but that turned out to be enough. Only once, in 1983, did the two sides ever come anywhere near as close to war again. That crisis, at the time of NATO's Abel-Archer exercise, is known only to a few specialists, and only in outline. Now the Indians and Pakistanis are challenged by the need to escape from a similar nuclear-armed predicament.

Most of the Obama cabinet has now been chosen. It suggests that the new Administration will be more innovative and ambitious at home than abroad. Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and National Security Adviser designate James Jones are establishment choices, and the President himself will have to provide the impetus for any basic shifts in our foreign policy. I still hope that he will. The cabinet marks the breakthrough of Generation X into our national leadership. In addition to the President himself, 7 of the 21 cabinet and high White House officials announced to date were born in 1961 or later, led by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. 7 of them are also women. Veterans Affairs choice Eric Shinseki, an exact contemporary of Joe Biden, represents the Silent generation, and most of the Boomers are from the mid- to late 1940s. Curiously, my own 1947 cohort is well represented by Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and Tom Daschle, but there is no one from 1946, the year that gave us Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. We can all agree, perhaps, that they have had their day. . . .

The Harvard Crimson reported yesterday that the five top officials of Harvard Management, the team that manages the endowment, received salary and (mostly) bonuses amounting to $22 million in the fiscal year that ended last June 30. In the following four months the endowment lost $8 billion in value, as I discussed two weeks ago. I have contacted some classmates about registering a protest once again.

Happy winter solstice to all.

1 comment:

PeopleWatching said...

Very well-written post, but Obama, nor hardly any of his appointees, are GenXers (and 1965 is far more widely used than 1961 as a GenX starting point anyway).

As many nationally influential voices have repeatedly noted, he is part of Generation Jones, born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X. Google Generation Jones, and you'll find that many top commentators from many top publications and networks (New York Times, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) are using that term now, and are specifically referring to Obama, born in 1961, as part of Generation Jones.

Here's a long article from yesterday's Los Angeles Times looking at Obama and about half of his appointees as Jonesers (not Xers):,0,5328126,full.story