Review Essay

How Close We Came

In This Review

"One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964

"One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964
By Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali
W.W. Norton, 1997, 406 pp. $27.50 Purchase

In their excellent new history of the Kennedy-Khrushchev confrontation over Cuba, Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali provide perhaps the most comprehensive narrative of the perilous moment yet to appear in print. It is also an exciting tale, reading at times like good spy fiction. The authors have used materials from every conceivable American and Soviet source, successfully integrating recent scholarship, interviews with key participants, and documents from the full range of Soviet departments and agencies, including KGB, GRU, and Politburo records previously unavailable. The only thing lacking is the Cuban piece of the puzzle, which must await a more open climate in Havana.

But while the book is clearly valuable and a major contribution to the field, it also reflects a somewhat disturbing trend. Fursenko, the chairman of the history department at the Russian Academy of Sciences, had exclusive access to many of the most important documents cited in the book. Although the authors' judgments seem sound enough, until other scholars are able to consult the same source materials, one must take it on faith that Fursenko's reading of the record is accurate and comprehensive and that the authorities did not feed him documents selected for political reasons. In any event, the current situation, with Moscow granting exclusive access to some Russian scholars while barring others, raises uncomfortable questions about state favoritism and the manipulation of historical truth.


Nevertheless, Fursenko and Naftali, a scholar at Yale University, have constructed a superb narrative, providing answers to some persistent questions. Among other revelations, the new Soviet materials demonstrate that Moscow's interest in the Cuban revolutionary movement began much earlier, and ran much deeper, than is commonly believed. Indeed, after the fall of Fulgencio Batista the Soviets were prepared to offer more military assistance to the Cubans than a cautious Fidel Castro, afraid of being seen as a Soviet puppet, was at first willing to accept. Even as Castro visited the United States in the spring of 1959, Moscow had already undertaken a covert

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