Historians are changing the record of the time when the other fellow blinked

November 08, 1992|By Henry Trewhitt


CRISIS, 1962.

Edited by Laurence Chang

and Peter Kornbluh.

The New Press.

415 pages. $25.


Robert Smith Thompson.

Simon & Schuster.

395 pages. $25.

On Oct. 24, 1962, at 10:25 a.m., Dean Rusk leaned toward McGeorge Bundy and murmured, "We're eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked." The secretary of state's remark to the national security adviser followed a CIA report that Soviet vessels -- possibly carrying nuclear warheads to Cuba -- ,, had stopped before confronting U.S. warships.

The worst moments were still ahead in the Cuban missile crisis. But Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had shown his reluctance to risk nuclear war. Khrushchev knew just how close it was. He knew what the Americans didn't: that he already had nuclear warheads on the island; that his commander in Cuba had battlefield nukes and authority to use them against invaders. Mr. Rusk and Mr. Bundy received word of the pause at one of the tense meetings of ExComm -- the executive committee of the National Security Council. John Kennedy had thrown together the circle of close advisers after confirmation, 10 days before, of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Operational, the weapons would put most of America under direct nuclear threat. ExComm was still flailing, often in confusion, for the right response. An appeal to common sense? Invasion of Cuba? A bombing strike? Acceptance?

The one certainty was that, politically and militarily, the United States could not tolerate the affront. The missiles had to go. After four more days of U.S. "quarantine" of Cuba -- not "blockade," an act of war -- Nikita Khrushchev ordered the missiles dismantled and withdrawn. Yet today some of the residue of the crisis remains unsettled.

But we know all that, don't we? Then why two more books, added to a score or more, about the crisis? The best answer is that what we knew was at best incomplete and partly wrong. In truth, most Americans know little about the crisis. Those who think they know, especially the young, perceive vaguely that the Soviets were trying to get the drop on America, that there was no warning, and that U.S. leaders calmly and surely took them to the woodshed. That was the version, seriously flawed, encouraged by Kennedy sycophants in the aftermath.

Over the years, the record has expanded. We have learned that the players in the great drama behaved as men, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, sometimes desperate, sometimes cold as steel. Besides Mr. Rusk's enduring remark, the crisis added "hawks" and "doves" to the strategic vocabulary. The words described the interplay within ExComm about the range of choices between negotiation and the ravaging of Cuba -- with nuclear war as a possible result.

Nothing has opened the record like the work edited by Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh. Actually, it is a production of the National Security Archive, a non-profit institute founded in 1985 and committed to airing great security issues.

In this case, the Archive wielded the Freedom of Information Act expertly and even went to court, placing literally thousands of secret documents into the public domain. Separately, scholars began in 1987 five conferences of scholars and American, Cuban and Soviet participants in the crisis. The last, in Havana last January, attracted Fidel Castro with a revealing monologue about his fury at what he saw as Soviet capitulation. Here is the record: Documents, reminiscences, chronologies, analyses. It is breathtaking.

Robert Smith Thompson of the University of South Carolina draws heavily upon the Archive's work for his book, which has to be labeled, for absence of a better word, semi-revisionist. It suffers at the outset because he uses the wrong date -- Oct. 15 instead of Oct. 14 -- for the overflight that confirmed the long-suspected Soviet missiles. Then he attributes to U.S. foreign policy-makers generally, and to Joe Kennedy specifically, ambitions to become "masters of the world."

Dr. Thompson doesn't like Kennedys. It's true enough that Joe was a rogue who stole elections; that Jack was ambitious and duplicitous, and flaunted Judith Campbell while sharing her with Frank Sinatra and mobster Sam Giancana; that Bobby worked for Joe McCarthy. Dr. Thompson doesn't like imperialism, which he sees as the dominant thread of U.S. foreign policy since World War II. It's true that the United States installed a dictator for the United Fruit Company in Guatemala and backed, for a time, the compliant Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. It's also true that Mr. Castro would have been fine for the United States if he had just behaved and not climbed into bed with the Soviets.

It all seems overdone, although Dr. Thompson's book is terrific reading. Perhaps it's enough to say that he has no use for Realpolitik and let it go at that. He's no kinder to the Cubans and Soviets than to the Americans. But in the end, he adds nothing to the discussion that the Archive doesn't do calmly.

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