Nuclear Folly

From The Wall Street Journal:

On Oct. 23, 1962, a delegation of prominent Romanians arrived at the Kremlin to meet Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Their host was foul of mood. Boorish and suspicious by nature, the strongman had spent a sleepless night deliberating with the Presidium over what to do in the escalating crisis for which Khrushchev himself was responsible: his secret installation, across that summer, of nuclear-weapons systems and some 40,000 Soviet troops in Cuba.

Aerial reconnaissance revealed the installations to the Americans on Oct. 14, and President Kennedy, in a televised address eight days later, announced a naval quarantine to block delivery of additional weapons to the island. All sides—with the exception, perhaps, of Fidel Castro, who relished Havana’s role at the center of world events—feared that any display of aggressiveness, or miscalculation, could trigger an apocalyptic nuclear exchange.

At the reception in their honor, the Romanians watched Soviet Defense Minister Marshal Malinovsky approach his boss with bad news: The U.S. Navy was on high alert, readying the blockade. “Khrushchev flew into a rage,” Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, a Romanian communist leader, reported later to Romanian intelligence. The premier was “yelling, cursing and issuing an avalanche of contradictory orders.” He “threatened to ‘nuke’ the White House, and cursed loudly every time anyone pronounced the words America or American.”

The vast literature on the Cuban Missile Crisis has made it a case study across scholarly disciplines: intelligence analysis, nuclear brinkmanship, game theory, organizational psychology. To this literature, the Oct. 23 Kremlin outburst—which appears midway through Serhii Plokhy’s superb “Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis”—would appear to mark a significant contribution: an eyewitness account of one of the saga’s two key decision makers exhibiting not only uncontrolled anger but delirium. Khrushchev’s threat to “nuke” the White House, his “avalanche of contradictory orders,” constitute the most troubling behavior we could imagine in a leader “managing” such a crisis.

. . . .

This time the bad news came from the KGB’s Vladimir Semichastny: a cable reporting that Kennedy had canceled a trip to Brazil to oversee the quarantine. Mr. Plokhy, a professor of history at Harvard, provides this account, drawing on Gheorghiu-Dej’s report: “Khrushchev’s face grew red as he read the cable. He started ‘cursing like a bargeman,’ threw the paper on the floor, and stamped on it with his heel. ‘That’s how I’m going to crush that viper,’ he shouted, also calling Kennedy a ‘millionaire’s whore.’ ”

Another arresting passage unmentioned in the earlier books relates the confession of Vasilii Kuznetsov, the Soviet deputy foreign minister: “From the very beginning of the crisis, fear of the possible course of further developments arose within the Soviet leadership and increased with every passing hour.”

Mr. Plokhy’s endnotes frequently cite Russian and Ukrainian sources: declassified KGB documents, memoirs of retired Soviet apparatchiks, studies by Russian scholars, much of it new to English readers. The range of such references conveys the scope of the author’s research and explains how he could add so much to the documentary record of a subject covered so voluminously. “Nuclear Folly” is an immense scholarly achievement, engrossing and terrifying, surely one of the most important books ever written about the Cuban Missile Crisis and 20th-century international relations.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

6 thoughts on “Nuclear Folly”

    • Sort of. There were a lot of moving parts to that, but mostly it was about Khrushchev guaranteeing Cuba’s security in the most provocative way possible.

      Reply
  1. Lots of moving parts?
    1- The US has never renounced first use.
    2- In response to China’s hoard of mid-range missiles covering the “first island chain”, the US has developed “low yield” warheads that fit in Tomahawks.
    3- The US under START 2 converted 4 boomers into SSGN, capable of carrying 154 Tomahawks.
    4- China has made a habit of threatening Guam and bragging of being able to sink a supercarrier.

    One wonders if those chinese officers have considered the first three points and what a cruise missile sub stationed near Taiwan might achieve. In seeking conventional weapon supremacy in the Pacific, much like the USSR pursued tank supremacy in eastern europe, they are motivating a “limited” nuclear response, which begs the question: how good is US ABM capability?

    Much like ’62, there are indeed a lot of moving parts at work and lots of room for folly.

    Reply
    • which begs the question: how good is US ABM capability?

      That’s what the good anti-ABM folks in Hawaii were asking a few years back when they thought the missiles were incoming.

      Reply
      • But apparently not the Chinese.
        I don’t *expect* a nuclear exchange but it if I happens I won’t even blink.

        Idiots tbe world over think the other guy will just roll over.
        Folly indeed.

        Reply

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