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.

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 program to arm Havana. Castro's brother, Raul, and Ernesto "Che" Guevara were committed communists who advocated an alliance with the Soviet Union from as early as 1957; they negotiated the military assistance. Fidel himself remains enigmatic. He undoubtedly took American hostility for granted, and each new American measure served only to confirm his worst suspicions about Washington's intentions. His real sympathies, however, remained unclear. In November 1960 he told Aleksandr Alexeev, the KGB rezident in Havana, "I have been a Marxist from my student days." But the Soviets did not entirely trust Castro; the new Soviet information reveals just how concerned Moscow was that he might opt for a heretical brand of communism like Mao's or even Albania's.

The authors also convincingly demonstrate that the world was much closer to nuclear war than was realized at the time or in the years since. In particular, the Soviet Union's provision of warheads for its "tactical" missiles in Cuba added a dangerous dimension to the crisis. Washington always believed that the missiles were armed with conventional warheads. Not only were the missiles armed with nuclear warheads, but Moscow came very close to granting authority to the Soviet commander in Cuba to use them at his discretion. Had President Kennedy chosen to invade the island, as a majority of his advisers at one point counseled, it could well have resulted in a nuclear attack on American warships, with incalculable consequences.

One of the study's more significant findings concerns the limitations of intelligence. The American government knew very little about decision-making in the Kremlin. But Soviet intelligence gathering also had its shortcomings. Despite the relatively open nature of American society, Moscow consistently misread signals from the United States, at times overestimating the threat of a U.S. invasion of Cuba, yet overlooking the preparations for the Bay of Pigs attack when it finally came. Perhaps even more surprising, both the Soviets and the Cubans failed to penetrate the Miami émigré community until after the Bay of Pigs. That, at least, is the authors' conclusion based on their study of Soviet documentation. The Cubans, however, may have known more than they were willing to share with their Soviet patrons.

While short, "One Hell of a Gamble" contains more meat than other glossier and less disciplined studies of the same era. Fursenko and Naftali restrict themselves to a terse narrative, only interrupting the flow for a few paragraphs of analysis at the end of each chapter. But their single-minded focus on recounting the course of events is in some ways unfortunate. They never pause to address some of the larger questions their study raises, including the effectiveness of deterrence in the nuclear era, the issue of great-power patronage for client states, the problems of superpower communication in an era of rapidly changing communications and weapons technology, and the complexities of the ideological motivations on both sides.


This last omission is most regrettable. In public comments since the book's appearance, Naftali has argued that Soviet records from the period demonstrate that Marxist ideology -- if defined as any rigid, preconceived program for action -- played little role in Soviet decision-making. He argues that the upper echelons of the Soviet hierarchy were far more concerned with classical questions of power.

One might, however, draw very different conclusions from the book's evidence. Ideological sympathy, not simply the calculations of great-power rivalry, played a large role in the Kremlin's decision to support Castro. Anastas Mikoyan, the tough and wily survivor of the Stalin years and chairman of the Presidium from 1964-65, was charmed by Fidel at their first meeting, gushing, "Yes, he is a genuine revolutionary. Completely like us. I felt as though I had returned to my childhood!" The Soviet leaders were acutely aware of their relative weakness vis-à-vis the United States in strategic forces, yet Khrushchev decided to extend a nuclear guarantee to revolutionaries on a small Caribbean island half a world away, thereby imperiling the Soviet Union and creating a strategic liability it could scarcely defend against a determined American attack. Furthermore, although Soviet fears that Castro might be drawn into the Chinese orbit might be explained as traditional power concerns, how, other than in ideological terms, can one explain the fear of the heretical Albanians?

One of the most interesting portions of the book recounts the conversations between Khrushchev and Castro when the latter visited the U.S.S.R. after the resolution of the missile crisis. The Soviet leader conducted what the authors evocatively describe as "a seminar on ruthlessness." A survivor of the hard school of Stalinism, Khrushchev cited Lenin's comment, "If it becomes necessary to use terror to achieve important political goals, then it must be employed energetically and with celerity." "One must always keep in mind," Khrushchev continued, "that at the very first moment of any anti-governmental activity, one must crush it quickly, decisively, not stopping in the event it becomes necessary to open fire." Not to be outdone, Castro boasted of his own mercilessness with domestic enemies of his regime. As a stilted translation reads, "My revolution has also not shrunk from serious decisive measures if dictated by necessity. The proof of this was the shooting of military and political criminals, the arrests of many saboteurs and intelligence agents of foreign powers." Such remarks might give pause to those who still view Castro as a romantic, misunderstood figure.


As for the results of the missile crisis, the authors provide fascinating insights. As is well known, the Americans secured the removal of the nuclear missiles from Cuba, much to the chagrin of Castro, who was excluded from the negotiations with Soviet officials as they reached a frenzy in October 1962. Although Washington insisted only on the withdrawal of the medium-range missiles, the Soviets also removed their tactical warheads -- almost as an afterthought -- for fear that American intelligence might discover them and reopen the Cuban wound.

In exchange for the removal of Soviet nuclear weapons, Kennedy pledged not to invade Cuba and agreed to remove American missiles from Turkey. One of the book's interesting revelations is Moscow's relative lack of concern about the missiles in Turkey: the Soviets did not even insist on their removal as part of an overall settlement. In fact, Moscow believed that Kennedy would never agree to link the two issues. The Turkish missiles only became an issue when Washington tipped its hand by admitting that it was prepared for such a deal. Kennedy's hired mythmakers immediately set to work covering up the blunder for fear it would anger America's Western European allies and harm the president's political standing.

In a postmortem to his colleagues in the Presidium, Khrushchev claimed victory. While acknowledging that "it would have been better not to have had to remove these missiles," he noted that the Americans had pledged not to invade Cuba, thereby ensuring that the Soviets would continue to have a foothold in the Western hemisphere: "So who suffered defeat? Who did not get what he wanted? We attained our goal; so they lost, we won." While Khrushchev's comments were no doubt self-serving, Castro's continuing reign suggests the Soviet leader was not entirely wrong.

Although Moscow gained a great deal from the American pledge not to invade Cuba, Khrushchev believed that those gains depended largely on Kennedy's personal word. This was, no doubt, in part because the Soviet premier understood how important leadership changes in the Kremlin were and believed the same dynamics prevailed in the United States. But Khrushchev also had a dismal view of American politics, which he believed to be a snake pit of contending cliques of generals and industrialists. His preconceptions were only reinforced by the ham-fisted diplomacy of the president's brother, Robert, who in a misguided attempt to pressure the Kremlin informed Moscow through back channels that only Kennedy himself could restrain the warmongers in the Pentagon from launching a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.


Indeed, the Kennedy family's diplomacy as a whole does not emerge from this account looking very good. Following the assassination in Dallas, various representatives of the Kennedy clan did everything in their power to discredit Lyndon Johnson -- "inexplicably," in the authors' words. Khrushchev was worried that Lee Harvey Oswald's communist connections might cause a rupture in Soviet- American relations. The Kennedy circle's attacks on Johnson only reinforced Moscow's "dark interpretation of the events in Texas." The KGB's analysis of the killing reads like an Oliver Stone script: it believed the assassination had been "organized by a circle of reactionary monopolists in league with pro-fascist groups of the United States with the objective of strengthening the reactionary and aggressive aspects of U.S. policy." These sinister forces had allegedly been alarmed by Kennedy's "various measures to normalize U.S.-Soviet relations, the broadening of civil rights of the Negro population, and also a significant limitation of the interests of part of the American bourgeoisie, above all the oil and metallurgical monopolies."

As this book and others based on new Soviet documents make clear, misconceptions about American intentions and the nature of American politics and society were the rule rather than the exception in the Kremlin. Given these habitual misunderstandings, it is almost miraculous that the two superpowers never blundered into a direct war. Although Fursenko and Naftali do not develop the argument, their work suggests that the terrifying power of nuclear weaponry, as well as the shared experiences of the horrors of World War II, caused leaders on both sides to back away from the brink. The Soviet-American rivalry had elements of stability that seem almost orderly when viewed through the prism of post-1991 international chaos. Nevertheless, as the events in the Caribbean remind us, that apparent stability could have disappeared with frightening speed with only a few unwise decisions.

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