In this beautifully written account of a crisis that made the world hold its breath, Plokhy thrillingly pieces together events that have stayed out of sight for too long. With access to a treasure trove of KGB documents, his book reads like an hour-by-hour drama, history in the moment, brought vividly to life. Even if the opposing sides did pull back in the end, any sane person must wonder what the political leaders of the world’s superpowers were doing. Did Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev really think he could plaster Cuba with nuclear weapons, hoping the 20 ft palm trees would camouflage the 65 ft missiles?
Serhii Plokhy’s book is remarkable and troubling, especially for the insight it gives into Khrushchev’s thinking. But it is when the author turns to the present day that the writing becomes most urgent. Modern atomic weapons, of the sort the British government now intends to develop, are more efficient and precise than their Cold War predecessors. This has given rise to the idea of the nuke as a limited, tactical device, a change that, the author writes, has ‘lowered the psychological barrier for using nuclear arms, making nuclear confrontation more likely’.
With access to recently declassified KGB material, this is the most detailed and dependable account of the crisis. It will be gladly plundered by students and scholars and highlighted until its pages are damp with neon yellow, but it is not an enthralling read. It often feels airless, herding the reader into a labyrinth of meeting rooms with hardly a peep at the outside world. So we dodged a nuclear holocaust due to simple luck. We are not as clever as we think we are.
This account is probably as authoritative a version of the Soviet side as we are likely to get. I share the author’s view, that the danger of a general war started by an accident was appalling. So many subordinates, especially on the Russian side, had access to nuclear triggers. Neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev had as much control of events as they wished to suppose. Moreover, a glance at the roll call of subsequent US commanders-in-chief suggests that by no means all, facing such a crisis, would have displayed a restraint to match JFK’s. The world has survived the presidency of Donald Trump, for instance; but it seems rash to feel confident that it can do so twice.