The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was the most perilous event in history, when mankind faced a looming nuclear collision between the United States and Soviet Union. During those weeks, the world gazed into the abyss of potential annihilation.
One of its most terrifying moments came on 18 October, when President John F. Kennedy and his advisers discussed the prospect that, if US forces invaded Cuba to remove the missiles secretly deployed there, the Soviets would seize West Berlin. Robert Kennedy asked: ‘Then what do we do?’. General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: ‘Go to general war, if it’s in the interests of ours’. The President asked disbelievingly: ‘You mean nuclear exchange?’. Taylor shrugged: ‘Guess you have to’. His words highlight the madness that overtook some key players on both sides. Mercifully, JFK recoiled from the soldier’s view saying: ‘Now the question really is to what action we take which lessens the chances of a nuclear exchange, which obviously is the final failure’.
Max Hastings’ graphic and brilliant new history tells the story from the viewpoints of national leaders, Russian officers, Cuban peasants, American pilots and British disarmers. Max Hastings deploys his accustomed blend of eye-witness interviews, archive documents and diaries, White House tape recordings, top-down analysis, first to paint word-portraits of the Cold War experiences of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Nikita Khrushchev’s Russia and Kennedy’s America; then to describe the nail-biting Thirteen Days in which Armageddon beckoned.
Hastings began researching this book believing that he was exploring a past event from twentieth century history. He is as shocked as are millions of us around the world, to discover that the rape of Ukraine gives this narrative a hitherto unimaginable twenty-first century immediacy. We may be witnessing the onset of a new Cold War between nuclear-armed superpowers. To contend with today’s threat, which Hastings fears will prove enduring, it is critical to understand how, sixty years ago, the world survived its last glimpse into the abyss. Only by fearing the worst, he argues, can our leaders hope to secure the survival of the planet.