A review by
Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday
Star, 20 December 1966,
of a book:
The Missile Crisis,
by Elie Abel.
New York: J. B. Lippincott, 19xx
"A Taut, Exciting Chronicle of the Cuban Missile Crisis"
THE MISSILE CRISIS.
By Elie Abel. J. B. Lippincott. 216 pages. $4.95.
As NBC news correspondent in Washington, Elie Abel
was in a good position to observe the Cuban missile crisis of October
1962. He has strengthened that position by talking to most of the
men who were closest to President Kennedy during the crisis. The
results of his investigations are now presented in taut, vivid prose in
this book, whose brevity and sustained interest almost demands that it
be read in a single sitting. It may not be "Seven Days in May,"
but it is "thirteen critical days in October," more intense and
potentially more dreadful than any work of fiction, because it really
happened and because we have, largely unknowingly, been living in its
aftermath ever since. "
This volume is a chronicle, not a history. But as a chronicle, it
could hardly be improved upon. There is a chapter for each day, from
Sunday the 14th to Sunday the 28th. The picture focuses almost entirely
on the improvised "Executive Committee" which met, at first daily and,
at the end, almost constantly, to advise the President. Like most
chronicles, this book concentrates on who did this or said that, with
little effort I to get behind the surface appearances to discover the
thoughts or feelings of the actors, except as these occasionally break
through in an impatient word or an attempt at a feeble joke. But
as a chronicle of what actually happened in this crisis in terms of the
Executive Committee, this book is excellent.
One Side Lacking
This is not a History for the simple reason that no History of a crisis
can be written until we have something of the events on both sides.
Indeed, lacking one side, as in this case, it is not possible to be
certain that there was a crisis at all. This book has almost
nothing to say about the Russian side, and has little about our side
outside the small circle of the Executive Committee itself. For
example, the leader of our side, President Kennedy, remains a dim figure
in this chronicle, apparently because he was, by choice, usually absent
from the meetings of the committee. Other elements of the total
picture on our side are lacking. There is, for example, no
reference to American public opinion. How did the American people
respond to the steady rise in tension? There are some valuable
references to the military buildup and the implementation of the
blockade of Cuba, but on the whole, the impact of the crisis even on our
defense forces, is absent from this book. In these two weeks, the
lives of thousands of Americans were disrupted, the country mobilized
simultaneously for strategic nuclear war and for a large-scale invasion
of Cuba, the major part of an armored division was moved from Texas to
Georgia, and the annual budgets of the defense services, supposed to
last eight more months to July 1962, were expended, with crippling
consequences for our armed services in the first half of 1963.
Almost none of this context is in this volume,
but, within its area, that of the Executive Committee reaching decision,
few adverse criticisms could be made. Abel shows clearly that the
once-popular categorization of the members of the committee into "Doves"
and "Hawks" is meaningless, not only because people shifted their
positions, but because, as properly should be in such discussions, each
person indulged in thinking aloud and threw out suggestions they were
not prepared to defend themselves, so that these might be available for
the discussion. The whole process, although briefly described
here, is a lesson on how such discussion should be conducted. Abel
is fully aware of the nature of a diplomatic crisis as a confrontation
of two powers sustained until they reach tacit agreement on their power
relationship and the weaker yields without being forced "to the choice
of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war."
If there are any heroes in this book, they are
Robert Kennedy and Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson, the former for his
skillful handling of the committee, his ability to see the real issues
through the fog of debate, his sharp sense of the realities of power,
and his application of all this to the drafting of the President's
letter to Khrushchev on October 27th, which opened the road out of the
crisis. Thompson, for his part, was consistently correct in his
judgment of the Soviet government and of Khrushchev.
Never Was a Crisis
We know very little about the Soviet position during the crisis, and
what we do know (or infer) is not in this book. It seems probable that
there never was a crisis, in the sense that there never was any
possibility that Khrushchev knowing his relative weakness, would stand
up to the United States in the final "crunch." It now seems clear
that Soviet actions in that period were not founded on aggression and
strength but were based on weakness and insecurity, despite the fact
that they probably had the thermonuclear bomb before we did. But
in the original decisions of the late 1940s to race for an ICBM, the
U.S. and the U.S.S.R. made opposite choices. The problem was how to wed
the 9,OOO-pound Hiroshima bomb onto the German V-2 rocket, which carried
a payload of no more than 60 pounds over a range of less than 300 miles.
The Kremlin decided to try for bigger boosters (and got them, at first,
by putting V-2s in bundles); the United States, thanks to Oppenheimer,
sought to solve the problem by getting smaller bombs. Each got what it
went after: Sputnik and space spectaculars for them; tactical nuclear
weapons and ICBMs for us. Only in the summer of 1961 did the Soviet
Union realize that it had made the wrong decision, been bypassed, and
had practically "lost the missile race." Accordingly, in October
1961, they broke the moratorium on nuclear testing, which had lasted for
three years (from October 1958), in order to perfect their arsenal of
smaller nuclear warheads, although they sought to conceal their real
weakness by inserting in the tests (and calling the world's attention to
the fact) the largest single bomb ever exploded (58 megatons). By
the summer of 1962 it was clear to Moscow that they could not overcome
the American lead in ICBMs. Accordingly, someone in the Soviet
Union (probably the Red Army, rather than Khrushchev) decided to try to
remedy their deficiency in ICBMs by using their ample supply of medium
range and intermediate range missiles to reach the United States from
Cuba. It seems possible that this policy was forced on Khrushchev
and his civilian colleagues by the Soviet armed services, and that
Khrushchev had to yield as a payoff for the support that these services
had given him after Stalin's death in 1953 and again in June 1957, when
he had been removed from office by the Soviet Presidium. Thus the
panic, revealed in Khrushchev's "secret letter" to Kennedy on Friday,
October 26, 1962, was engendered by a double cause: His recognition of
American missile superiority and his acute realization that he was in a
crisis which was not of his own making or wish. It is possible
that the Soviet armed services switched their support of Khrushchev and
accepted his removal in October 1964 because he, unlike Kennedy, cracked
in the crisis of October 1962.
If this version of the Soviet side of the crisis is correct (and, at
this date, historians cannot be certain), there was really no crisis in
October 1962 because there was no likelihood that Russia would have gone
to war. This is supported by what seems to be evidence that the Soviet
strategic mobilization did not go even to the secondary stage of their
alert system and their ICBMs did not get within many hours of their
cumbersome strategic countdown.
Until we have better evidence on questions such as
these, it will not be possible to write any history of the Cuban missile
crisis. Until that time Abel's book will stand, both for its
factual information and its understanding, as an exciting and adequate
account of the decision-making core of the American defense system in
what was, simultaneously, a classical example of a diplomatic crisis,
the final event of the Cold War, and the finest hour of the 34th
President of the United States.