In this riveting account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, only one woman makes an appearance. On October 27, 1962, Mimi Alford, at age nineteen one of President John F. Kennedy’s numerous mistresses, is waiting upstairs in the presidential bedroom for JFK to take a break from contemplating the prospects of World War III. After he arrives and avails himself of his droit du seigneur, he tells her, “I’d rather my children be red than dead.” Given the temper of the times, such an admission, if leaked to the press, would have likely resulted in his impeachment. During the Cold War, presidential dalliances might be permissible; going soft on Communism was not.
Gambling with Armageddon is, among other things, a detailed study of the white patriarchy exercising its privileges at a very specific political moment. This was a time when leaders of both parties agreed that a revolution in Cuba threatened this nation’s very survival. That conviction had prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to devise and his successor to sponsor a cockamamie counterrevolution, putting a band of Cuban exiles ashore in April 1961 at the Bay of Pigs in hopes of overthrowing Fidel Castro. The humiliating debacle that ensued set in motion a train of events that ultimately found the American commander-in-chief sharing his deepest fears with a teenage paramour.
A historian who currently teaches at George Mason University, Martin Sherwin has written a small number of very good books. In graduate school over forty years ago, I read and admired A World Destroyed, his 1975 account of Hiroshima and its legacies. In 2005, he published American Prometheus, a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer (co-authored with Kai Bird), which won a Pulitzer Prize. Now comes this superb rendering of both the Cuban Missile Crisis itself and the context in which it occurred. Not a huge scholarly output perhaps, but one of uniformly high quality.
Given the numerous existing accounts of the famous Thirteen Days (to cite the title of Robert Kennedy’s own posthumously published memoir), it’s fair to ask what Sherwin adds to the story. Two things: first, he highlights the hitherto unacknowledged contributions of Adlai Stevenson in resolving the crisis. Second, he appreciates the role of chance. Sheer dumb luck played a large role in averting nuclear war.
Granted, Kennedy himself and his opposite number, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, deserve the thanks of humankind for eventually finding a way out of a crisis that their own recklessness had created. The willingness of those two leaders to strike a bargain—their missiles out of Cuba, our missiles out of Italy and Turkey, along with a pledge not to invade Cuba—provided an escape route from Armageddon. That said, both leaders benefited from breaks that would have produced disaster had they gone the other way.