Monday, May 2, 2016

"Hign Noon in the Cold War" by Max Frankel: A Review

For most Americans who experienced it, or relived it in books and films, the Cuban Missile Crisis is a tale of nuclear chicken - the Cold War world recklessly flirting with suicide.

We remember a bellicose Soviet dictator, who had vowed to bury us, pointing his missiles at the American heartland from a Cuba turned hostile and communist.

we remember a glamorous president, standing desperately against the threat, risking World War II to get the missiles withdrawn.

We remember the Russians blinking on the brink, compelled to retreat by a naked display of American power, brilliantly deployed, unerringly managed.

the crisis was real enough, but for the most part, we remember it wrong. (3)

I love history and looking closer at some of the key moments in history is particularly fascinating to me. The moment when the world nearly annihilated itself is of monumental importance. A year before his execution, by a Soviet sympathizer no less, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev risked nuclear war over Cuba and Berlin. In his book High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Max Frankel chronicles this narrative.

The book is straight forward and Frankel mostly wants to just tell the story of the Cuba Missile Crisis. At the same time, he explores what each leader, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro, were thinking and planning at the time.

After having read the book, there are two conclusions worth exploring. First, and this was a major emphasis of the author, regards how close the world really was to annihilation. The final chapter, in particular, explores this. The author makes note that many of the memoirs in the years to follow from those in the Kennedy administration use over-the-top rhetoric to suggestion that the world was as close as possible to thermonuclear war. Certainly there were hawks on both side of the crisis who wanted their leader to attack first. Yet, Frankel reminds the reader that that both Kennedy and Khrushchev were never going to fire the first nuclear weapon and feared attacking first not knowing if the other felt the same about nuclear war. So yes, the Cuba Missile Crisis was the closest the world ever got to nuclear war, but if Frankel is to be believed, some of the rhetoric surrounding the events are a bit over the top.

Secondly, ego made this a crisis. Ego ultimately explains why Khrushchev put these missiles in Cuba in the first place. Likewise, Kennedy's defeat at the Bay of Pigs stayed in the back of his mind during the entire crisis. With the mid-term elections coming up, Kennedy knew that how he handled the Soviet's missiles in Cuba would affect the elections in November. The older I get, the more convinced I become that politics is as much about ego and seeing who will blink first than about actually serving the people politicians are sent to serve. Kennedy also felt betrayed by his Soviet rival. When the discovery was brought to his attention, his initial reaction was personal as much political. Ego.

In the end, Frankel has penned a good book on an important period of American and world history. We are fortunate that cooler heads prevailed. Things could have turned out different. Had they not, perhaps I would not be typing these words now.
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