The Brink

The Missile Crisis

by Elie Abel
Lippincott, 220 pp., $4.95

John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev
John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev; drawing by David Levine

The essential, the terrifying, question about the missile crisis is what would have happened if Khrushchev had not backed down. It is extraordinary, in the welter of magazine articles and books dealing with the missile crisis, how rarely this question is raised. The story is told and retold as a test and triumph of the Kennedy brothers. But the deeper reaches of the story are avoided, as if we feared to look too closely into the larger implications of this successful first foray into nuclear brinkmanship. We may not be so lucky next time.

The public impression created by the government when the presence of the missiles in Cuba was verified is that they represented a direct threat to America’s cities. For those a little more sophisticated it was said that they threatened the balance of power. But Elie Abel’s new book on The Missile Crisis, like the earlier accounts by Sorensen and Schlesinger, shows that this was not the dominant view in the inner councils of the White House. Abel quotes McNamara as saying, “A missile is a missile. It makes no great difference whether you are killed by a missile fired from the Soviet Union or from Cuba.” But in the week of argument, Abel relates, McNamara came to concede that even if the effect on the strategic balance was relatively small, “the political effect in Latin America and elsewhere would be large.” As Sorensen wrote in his Kennedy. “To be sure, these Cuban missiles alone, in view of all the other megatonnage the Soviets were capable of unleashing upon us, did not substantially alter the strategic balance in fact…But that balance would have been substantially altered in appearance [italics in original]; and in matters of national will and world leadership, as the President said later, such appearances contribute to reality.” The real stake was prestige.

The question was whether, with the whole world looking on, Kennedy would let Khrushchev get away with it. The world’s first thermonuclear confrontation turned out to be a kind of ordeal by combat between two men to see which one would back down first. Schlesinger relates that in the earlier Berlin crisis, he wrote a memorandum to Kennedy protesting the tendency to define the issue as “Are you chicken or not?” But inescapably that’s what the issue came around to. Schlesinger recounts an interview Kennedy gave James Wechsler of the New York Post in the Berlin crisis in which the President recognized that no one could win a nuclear war, that “the only alternatives were authentic negotiation or mutual annihilation,” but

What worried him [Kennedy] was that Khrushchev might interpret his reluctance to wage nuclear war as a symptom of an American loss of nerve…”If Khrushchev wants to rub my nose in the dirt,” he told Wechsler, “it’s all over.”


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