President John F. Kennedy meets with the Executive Committee of the National Security Council during the Cuban Missile Crisis (ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo).

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.

Both leaders benefited from breaks that would have produced disaster had they gone the other way.

The Stevenson angle is especially interesting. Both Kennedy brothers detested the two-time Democratic presidential nominee, viewing him as soft and wimpy. His appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was a way to give him a job with a nice title, while keeping him far away from the White House. Yet it was Stevenson who on the very first day of the crisis urged Kennedy to negotiate with the Soviets—at a time when the only options on the table were to launch airstrikes alone, or to follow airstrikes with a full-fledged invasion. The Pentagon had plans in place for both, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff champing at the bit to execute them. No one played a greater role in persuading the president to follow a different course than did Stevenson.

According to fable, Kennedy successfully navigated his way out of the crisis thanks in large part to the wise counsel provided by the so-called ExComm, an all-white, all-male cohort of advisers. “Nothing,” writes Sherwin, “could be further from the truth.” Providing virtually a minute-by-minute account of ExComm deliberations, he exposes its members as bellicose, erratic, and possessing only a tenuous grip on reality. The ExComm operated with surprisingly few facts, and many of the “facts” it had were wrong; it wildly underestimated Soviet troop strength and the number of Soviet nuclear weapons already in Cuba, for example.

Sherwin describes Stevenson as “a premature dove.” Kennedy himself began as a hawk (in advance of the crisis, he had publicly declared any presence of Soviet offensive weapons in Cuba unacceptable) who eventually became a dove as “Stevenson’s proposals began to make more sense than the war whoops” of the ExComm and the Joint Chiefs. For Kennedy, cajoling the ExComm into accepting a negotiated settlement was just about as difficult as finding common ground with Khrushchev. “The Soviet leader, after all, did not want a war with the United States,” Sherwin writes. “On the other hand, most members of the ExComm did want to bomb and invade Cuba.” If anything, the Joint Chiefs were even more gung-ho for war.

Meanwhile, far away from Washington (and the Kremlin), miscommunications and misunderstandings created dangerous complications to which political leaders were oblivious. Kennedy and Khrushchev alike were “unaware of how tenuous their control was over events.” Reckless actions by obscure subordinates, notably in enforcing the blockade that Kennedy had implemented to buy time, nearly spooked a Soviet submarine captain into unleashing a nuclear torpedo at a U.S. Navy destroyer. The disobedience of Captain Vasily Arkhipov, another Soviet officer on the scene, prevented that from happening. A similar scenario unfolded on the other side of the world when U.S. Air Force Captain William Bassett, assigned to the 873rd Tactical Missile Squadron in Okinawa, chose common sense over an attack directive that he judged misguided. If, as Sherwin writes, World War III turns out to be “history’s luckiest nonevent,” these unsung heroes will deserve much of the credit.

When the Cuban Missile Crisis ended, the world breathed a sigh of relief. In Washington, the mythmaking began, with White House leaks casting Adlai Stevenson as an appeaser and crediting the men around Kennedy with being peacemakers.

Subsequent events, especially the saga beginning to unfold in Vietnam, did not sustain that judgment. Still, in October 1962, the world did luck out. Given the continued presence of nuclear weapons in various arsenals around the world, one has to wonder how long our luck is likely to last.

Gambling with Armageddon
Martin J. Sherwin
$35 | 624 pp.

Andrew Bacevich is chairman of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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Published in the January 2021 issue: View Contents
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