Though much was made of the conflagration between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis, Michael Dobbs, author of the new book One Minute to Midnight, says that the two leaders were actually of like minds when it came to the threat of nuclear war.
In researching the book, "I really came to the conclusion that, particularly toward the end of the crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev were pretty much on the same side," Dobbs tells Robert Siegel. "They were both trying to get out of this terrible mess that they had, in part, helped to create."
Dobbs says the real risk of nuclear war came not from the American or Soviet heads of state, but from the "chance events that happen when you put the machinery of war into motion."
On what Dobbs calls "the most dangerous day of the Cold War," an American U-2 pilot flying on a routine reconnaissance mission to the North Pole was blinded by the Aurora Borealis and stumbled over the Soviet Union — an event that, Khrushchev told Kennedy the next day, could have resulted in a nuclear exchange between the two countries.
In another well-known incident, Kennedy's secretary of state, Dean Rusk, famously remarked on the United States' naval blockage of Cuba, saying, "We're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked." But Dobbs says that Rusk's boast is "based on myth":
"I was the first researcher to actually plot the positions of Soviet and American warships ... and I found out they were 400 to 500 nautical miles apart at this moment," says Dobbs. "There was no risk of an American interception of a Soviet missile-carrying freighter."
Before the crisis in Cuba, Kennedy had been trying to get the U.S. military to remove missiles from Turkey, but when tensions flared with the Soviets, he used those missiles as a bargaining tool. Kennedy's efforts at tactical diplomacy were inspired in part by Barbara Tuchman's book, The Guns of August,, which details the origins of the First World War:
"The thing that struck him about that book was that nobody really understood why the world was plunged into war in 1914," says Dobbs. "And he was determined that if the world had to face a nuclear war, there would be very, very clear reasons for fighting it that could be explained to ordinary Americans, and a few obsolete missiles in Turkey was not sufficient reason for him to go to war."
Though a number of military leaders thought the United States could fight and win a nuclear war against the Soviet Union, Kennedy's calculation was very different; he asked the military how many casualties there would be if just one Soviet missile got through, and he was told about half a million.
"His reaction to that was, 'That was the number of casualties we had in the Civil War, and it's taken us almost a century to get over that,'" says Dobbs.
In the end, Kennedy and Khrushchev both stepped away from war. Later, after her husband's assassination, Jackie Kennedy wrote a letter to Khrushchev, telling him that John used to say it was not the big men who cause wars, it was the small men.
"I think in that sense," says Dobbs, "both Kennedy and Khrushchev were big men, and the real risk of nuclear war in October 1962 came from the small men, as Jackie said, not the big men."