How close we came to mutual destruction, how narrowly we avoided disaster, is being told in a new book just out from Norton, "One Hell of a Gamble," subtitled, "Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964." The authors are a Russian historian named Aleksandr Fursenko and a Yale history teacher named Timothy Naftali.
In those years, the late '50s through 1964, I lived and worked in Europe, first in London and then for four years in Paris, which was where we were living in October 1962 when the crisis came to a throbbing head and damned near erupted.
When you are a foreign correspondent you are still an American, but you see your own country through an alien lens. There are shades of meaning and aspects of the question and subtle variations of just what the truth is and who lies. Your perspective is different. That long-ago fall it was hard to know just what the truth was about the Cuban missiles and just how close we came to killing each other.
Even today it sounds so preposterous, you wonder if it ever really happened. The answer? Yes, ma'am, it really did.
Jack Kennedy had been in the White House for less than two years. He'd already, and early, blundered on Cuba with the ludicrous Bay of Pigs fiasco. The Republicans were all over him for that, conveniently forgetting the operation had first been put in train by Ike. Khrushchev, alternately entertaining and mad, was in the Kremlin. The nuclear club was still as exclusive as the Ivy League. We had the Bomb and the Russians had the Bomb. Britain, France and China had minor-league facsimiles.
But everyone lived with the Bomb. During our two years in London, one of the divertisements on a pleasant Sunday was to stroll down to Grosvenor Square to watch young Englishmen and women parading about the American embassy chanting, "Ban the Bomb, Ban the Bomb, Ban the Bomb."
No one ever paraded around the Russian Embassy; they knew it wouldn't do any good.
Once Khrushchev, in a clearly deranged moment, installed offensive Russian missiles in Cuba (with an operating capacity that just, barely, brought New York within range, Washington was comfortably under the gun and Miami, of course, was no problem), the game was afoot. U.S. spy planes began to bring back photos. There was some scoffing: the Russians couldn't be that stupid, could they? Then it started to dawn on the president and brother Bobby and all the rest of them that, yes, they could be that stupid and they were.
Which didn't make them any less dangerous.
The history is there to be read. We issued threats, Khrushchev issued threats. Our warships went out to blockade Cuba. As Russian supply ships (carrying nukes, it was assumed) got closer to the blockade line, the question was asked: do we sink them? Board them? Let them pass? And just who would fire the first shot? It was a drama played out not in a riveting few hours but over nearly two weeks. As The New York Times headline of its book review July 27 put it so aptly, "13 Days That Almost Shook The World."
Kennedy is always being quoted for his "Ich Bin ein Berliner" speech or his 1961 inaugural oratory, "Ask not what your country etc. . ." But if there is a defining moment for a national leader, his speech drawing a line and telling the Russians to pull out the missiles, or else, was that moment. It was late night in Paris when we listened in our apartment on the rue de Boulainvilliers, while our two daughters slept, babies still. And after we heard Kennedy my wife and I sat in bed talking about it. I remember now that we were both very clear about what was happening. We understood and appreciated the risks the president had just spelled out. We knew the table stakes.
Down the hall, two little girls slept. What would the next days bring? We slept, badly, I'm sure. In the morning the French newspaper headlines screamed: "La Guerre ou La Paix?"
There in the most beautiful city in the world, our allies the French were asking the questions we Americans asked. Would there be war? Would the Russians pull back? Would Kennedy retreat from the brink? Would our children grow up?
We know now what happened, that Khrushchev caved and Kennedy, brilliantly, didn't gloat or rub it in, but hailed the Chairman's statesmanship, and the