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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. "

 

Elie Abel - author

Elie Abel

 

   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.

 

Exciting Account

   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.

 

--CARROLL QUIGLEY

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