Gambling with Armageddon Nuclear roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1945-1962

Martin J. Sherwin

Book - 2020

"From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer comes the first effort to set the Cuban Missile Crisis, with its potential for nuclear holocaust, in a wider historical narrative of the Cold War--how such a crisis arose, and why at the very last possible moment it didn't happen. In this groundbreaking look at the Cuban Missile Crisis, Martin Sherwin not only gives us a riveting sometimes hour-by-hour explanation of the crisis itself, but also explores the origins, scope, and consequences of the evolving place of nuclear weapons in the post WWII world. Mining new sources and materials, and going far beyond the scope of earlier works on this critical face-off between th...e United States and the Soviet Union--triggered when Khrushchev began installing missiles in Cuba at Castro's behest--Sherwin shows how this volatile event was an integral part of the wider Cold War and was a consequence of nuclear arms. Gambling with Armageddon looks in particular at the original debate in the Truman Administration about using the Atomic Bomb; the way in which President Eisenhower relied on the threat of massive retaliation to project U.S. power in the early Cold War era; and how President Kennedy, though unprepared to deal with the Bay of Pigs debacle, came of age during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Here too is a clarifying picture of what was going on in Khrushchev's Soviet Union. Martin Sherwin has spent his career in the study of nuclear weapons and how they have shaped our world--Gambling with Armageddon is an outstanding capstone to his work thus far"--

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New York : Alfred A. Knopf 2020.
Main Author
Martin J. Sherwin (author)
First edition
Item Description
"This is a Borzoi Book" -- title page verso.
Physical Description
xvi, 604 pages, 16 unnumbered leaves of plates : illustrations, map ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages [471]-569) and index.
  • Prologue
  • 1. A Reflection on Luck in History
  • 2. World War III Was About to Begin
  • 3. "We Will Die, but We Will Sink Them All"
  • 4. Capt. Vasily Alexandrovich Arkhipov
  • 5. The Long Cuban Missile Crisis, 1945-1962
  • Book I. The Making of the Nuclear Age, 1945-1962
  • Part 1. Truman and Stalin
  • 6. "This Is the Greatest Thing in History"
  • 7. "The Secret of the Atomic Bomb Might Be Hard to Keep"
  • 8. "Our Momentary Superiority"
  • Part 2. Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Castro, and the "Weapon of Mass Destruction"
  • 9. "We Face a Battle to Extinction"
  • 10. "An Extraordinary Departure"
  • 11. "There Is Not Communists ... but Cubanists"
  • 12. "General Disarmament Is the Most Important"
  • 13. "We Cannot Let the Present Government There Go On"
  • Part 3. Kennedy Khrushchev, Castro, and the Bay of Pigs
  • 14. "Eisenhower Is Going to Escape"
  • 15. "AES Wholly Disapproves of the Project"
  • 16. "Cuba Might Become a Sino-Soviet Bloc Missile Base"
  • 17. "It Will Be a Cold Winter"
  • Book II. The Thirteen Days, October 16-28, 1962
  • Part 4. Khrushchev's Missiles
  • 18. "What If We Put Our Nuclear Missiles in Cuba?"
  • 19. "Without Our Help Cuba Will Be Destroyed"
  • Part 5. October 16 (Tuesday), Day One
  • 20. "They're There"
  • 21. "Actions Were Begun on October 3 to Prepare for Military Action Against Cuba"
  • 22. "Bomb the Missiles; Invade Cuba"
  • 23. "I'll Tell My Big Brother on You"
  • 24. "Negotiation and Sanity, Always"
  • 25. "Last Month I Should Have Said That We Don't Care"
  • Part 6. October 17 (Wednesday)-October 12 (Monday)
  • 26. "Possible Courses of Action and Unanswered Questions"
  • 27. "What Action Lessens the Chance of a Nuclear Exchange?"
  • 28. "Flipping a Coin as to Whether You End Up with World War or Not"
  • 29. The Chief Confronts the Chiefs
  • 30. "Pull the Group Together!"
  • 31. "I Trust that You Will Support Me"
  • 32. "Nuclear War That Week Certainly Was Not Excluded from His Mind"
  • 33. "What's EDP?"
  • Part 7. October 22 (Monday)-October 26 (Friday)
  • 34. "We May Have the War in the Next Twenty-Four Hours"
  • 35. "Kennedy Sleeps with a Wooden Knife"
  • 36. "A Game Which We Don't Know the Ending Of"
  • 37. "The Mobs Turned Up in London Instead of Havana"
  • 38. "You Would Have Been Impeached"
  • 39. "We Are Trying to Convey a Political Message ... Not Start a War"
  • 40. "A Russian Submarine-Almost Anything but That"
  • 41. "Events Have Gone Too Far"
  • 42. "Trade Them Out or Take Them Out"
  • 43. "Time Is Very Urgent"
  • Part 8. October 27 (Saturday)-October 28 (Sunday)
  • 44. "Let Us Take Measures to Untie That Knot"
  • 45. "Liquidate the Bases in Turkey and We Win"
  • 46. "To Any Rational Man It Will Look Like a Very Fair Trade"
  • 47. "Attacking Sunday or Monday"
  • 48. "We're Going to Have to Take Our Weapons Out of Turkey"
  • 49. "An Act of Legitimate Defense"
  • 50. "There Is Very Little Time to Resolve This Issue"
  • 51. "You Got Us into This, Now You Get Us Out"
  • 52. "I Thought It Was My Last Meal"
  • 53. "We Have Ordered Our Officers to Stop Building Bases"
  • Part 9. Lies and Legacies
  • 54. "Most of Them Did Not Like Adlai"
  • 55. "It Ain't Necessarily So..."
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

Sherwin, coauthor (with Kai Bird) of the Pulitzer-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus (2005), here examines nuclear policy as it evolved in the Cold War, culminating with the chillingly suspenseful, weeklong drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Taking a somewhat contrarian approach, he views the missile crisis as a direct consequence of the nuclear-arms race and the keystone event in the Cold War. Grounded in an exceptional and up-to-date knowledge of the military, diplomatic, and individual components of American and Soviet politics, he speculates on the role played by chance and even dumb luck in the high-level chess game that was played out in October 1962, deftly summarizing the positions of those favoring an immediate military strike at the Russian missiles in Cuba, as opposed to less cataclysmic actions (resulting, opponents argued, in a Soviet takeover of Berlin). Despite the Kennedy brothers' contempt for Adlai Stevenson, Sherwin shows how our U.N. ambassador expressed a sober and rational voice countering the (many) hawks during the tense discussions. Pair this insightful look at Cold War history with Fred Kaplan's laser-sharp analysis of American nuclear strategy in The Bomb (2020).

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Blunders, misunderstandings, and "dumb luck" shape history in this captivating reevaluation of post-WWII nuclear brinksmanship. Examining America's use of atomic weaponry to contain Soviet expansion in Asia and the Americas, Pulitzer winner Sherwin (coauthor, American Prometheus) relates in nerve-jangling detail how presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy grappled with their Soviet counterparts, Stalin and Khrushchev. According to Sherwin's portrayal, Truman was "intellectually and emotionally unprepared" to understand the atomic high stakes and often deferred to his hawkish secretary of state, James F. Byrnes. Entangled in an affair with a White House intern, Kennedy wavered during the Cuban Missile Crisis and depended on his brother, Robert, to back-channel with the Soviets to avoid nuclear war. According to Sherwin, military personnel countermanded orders to launch nuclear weapons on multiple occasions during the two-week confrontation. In one instance, a U.S. missile squadron on Okinawa was poised to fire 32 nuclear missiles at targets in China and the Soviet Union before deciding to stand down. Intricately detailed, vividly written, and nearly Tolstoyan in scope, Sherwin's account reveals just how close the Cold War came to boiling over. History buffs will be enthralled. (Sept.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Pulitzer Prize winner Sherwin (history, George Mason Univ.; with Kai Bird, American Prometheus) served as an intelligence naval officer during the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 16--28, 1962. This deeply researched account has a you-are-there feel, as he discusses the harrowing 13 days when world devastation was only a mistake away. Earlier accounts and TV dramas frequently portray the crisis as an endgame between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Sherwin dispels this simplistic interpretation by placing the crisis in its Cold War context, identifying its roots within the anti-Soviet and massive retaliation polices of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. The book reveals West Berlin's importance to Kennedy and Khrushchev, identifies the roles played by National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro, and UN Secretary-General U Thant. Additionally, Sherwin deftly shows how war was almost precipitated by a junior United States officer and avoided by a Soviet officer. Politician and diplomat Adlai Stevenson, the unsung hero, resolutely called for the blockade strategy ultimately adopted by Kennedy. VERDICT This important investigation of a significant Cold War event will inform and engross modern history readers.--Karl Helicher, formerly with Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A fresh examination of the Cuban missile crisis and its wider historical context, showing how the U.S. avoided nuclear war. As Pulitzer Prize--winning historian Sherwin writes, it wasn't due to wise national leadership. In 1945, dazzled at being sole possessor of the atomic bomb, American leaders debated its role. According to the author, Harry Truman and his advisers concluded that it was the key to containing Stalin. But Stalin was not cowed, and the confrontation evolved into the Cold War. Matters came to a head in 1959, when Fidel Castro overthrew Cuba's dictator, obsessing the Eisenhower administration during its last year and Kennedy's throughout. After taking office, Kennedy learned that U.S.--recruited anti-Castro Cubans were training to invade Cuba. To his everlasting regret, he assumed that officials in charge knew what they were doing. When the invasion was clearly failing, advisers expected Kennedy to send in American troops to prevent an international humiliation. That Kennedy chose humiliation was a mark of statesmanship but also a painful lesson about trusting experts. Castro and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev assumed that America would try again, and, angered by U.S. missiles in nearby Turkey, Khrushchev decided that putting missiles in Cuba would balance matters. Sherwin comprehensively recounts events during October 1962, after U.S. reconnaissance discovered the missiles. Everyone, Kennedy included, assumed that this meant war. American nuclear forces were alerted, and two decisions to launch were averted at the last moment. The first to propose negotiation was U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson. More than most scholars--and Kennedy himself--Sherwin gives Stevenson credit for planting the idea. Most readers know that, in the end, Khrushchev withdrew the missiles, and the U.S. removed theirs from Turkey. Sherwin's detailed, opinionated scholarship makes it clear how national leaders bumbled through the crisis, avoiding nuclear Armageddon through modest amounts of wisdom mixed with plenty of machismo, delusions, and serendipity. Future crises are inevitable, and the author clearly demonstrates how there are no guarantees they will turn out so well. A fearfully convincing case that avoiding nuclear war "is contingent on the world's dwindling reservoir of good luck." Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Prologue In October 1962 I was a junior officer in the U.S. Navy attached to Patrol Squadron 31, an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) training unit based at North Island Naval Air Station. This was California, but from the prime San Diego real estate we inhabited, we looked across to "Florida," the elegant Hotel del Coronado, where Marilyn Mon­roe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon had ushered in the sixties with the film Some Like It Hot . 1 Despite my modest rank--I was the squadron's air intelligence officer--my responsibilities made me the custodian of our top-secret documents: our deployment orders in the event of war. Those orders were periodically updated, and when they were, a senior staff officer from Fleet Headquarters, always accompanied by an armed marine, arrived with a sealed envelope. A ritual followed: I signed for the new envelope, and he signed for the envelope that I removed from my top-secret safe, a miniature vault embedded in my large office safe. Except on these occasions, this inner sanctum was never unlocked. I had no expectation of ever learning what was in those envelopes (clippings from the New York Times , we joked), since they would be opened only in the event of a national emergency. On a date in mid-October that I cannot recall, I was informed by telephone that a new envelope would arrive at an appointed time. This was soon after I received the disappointing news that an around-the-world flight I was scheduled to co-navigate for an admiral was cancelled. Within days all leaves were revoked. According to ru mors at our local hangout, the Mexican Village, the cause was rising ten­sions in Berlin. Although we were on the West Coast, a sense of being engaged in an international crisis permeated my squadron's ranks. Extra muni­tions, and weapons we had never before stored, were delivered to our hangars. Friends at El Toro, the Marine Corps Air Station north of San Diego, told me that marines in full battle gear were being flown east aboard military air transports. Something important was hap­pening, and we were going to be part of it. On Monday, October 22, before President Kennedy informed the world that he had ordered Cuba blockaded, I was directed to retrieve the top-secret plans from my safe and deliver them--with the obligatory armed marine escort--to my commanding officer. Our squadron's senior staff--the captain, the executive officer, and the operations officer--had assembled in the captain's office to review the war plans. My recollection is that we would deploy to an airfield in Baja California, Mexico. The rationale was to disperse military aircraft beyond the reach of Soviet missiles. Some junior officers--all of us bachelors--joked that the beaches of Baja "would be a delight­ful place to die." I did not know until I researched this book how close to death we had come. 2 A world away from Coronado, California, another junior officer, stationed at a strategic rocket facility nine hundred miles east of Moscow, opened an envelope not very different from the one I had delivered to my squadron's senior officers. Valery Yarynich, who was exactly my age, had a different reac­tion to what he read. A junior officer and communications special­ist, stationed at division headquarters in Kirov, his unit was the central command center for five intercontinental missile battalions. After President Kennedy's October 22 speech demanding that the Soviet Union remove its missiles from Cuba, Yarynich was deployed to a missile base in Siberia to help supervise command and control communications. "At the peak of the confrontation," he told the American journal­ist David Hoffman, he received a message containing the code-word "BRONTOZAVR." That was the combat-alert go code--the dreaded signal to open the top-secret communications envelopes and transi­tion the R-7 liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles to war readiness. "I cannot forget," Yarynich recalled, "the mixture of ner­vousness, surprise and pain on the faces of each operator, without exception--officers, enlisted men, women telephone operators." The unthinkable moment had arrived: Nuclear war was a mere press of a button away. It was the most devastating war in world history. The estimated number of North American deaths was upwards of 200 million. Double, perhaps even quadruple that number of Soviet, Eastern European, and Chinese citizens perished, and no one had any reliable data on how many West­ern Europeans, Africans, Asians, South Pacific Islanders, and others the radioactive fallout killed as it circumnavigated the globe. Cuba became a wasteland, and there were few structures left standing in Moscow and Washington, DC. It was an unthinkable war, but not an unimagined one. In 1957 the Australian writer Nevile Shute described its denouement in his eerily tranquil apocalyptic novel On the Beach . Adapted for the screen by John Paxton and directed by Stanley Kramer, in 1959 On the Beach premiered simultaneously in major U.S. cities and Moscow, to reports of viewers sobbing as Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins stoically prepared in Australia, where the movie is set, for the arrival of deadly radioactive clouds carrying the fallout from the nuclear war recently fought in the Northern Hemisphere. They were the last survivors of the human race, going quietly into endless night. 3 But the Cuban missile crisis did not replicate On the Beach, leaving thoughts of a Cuban missile war to pass into history. While partici­pants in (and historians of) the crisis never tire of recalling its details and dangers, the majority of the generation that lived through it, and subsequent generations, never became emotionally engaged with its potential consequences. It was neither Vietnam nor Watergate--nor Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. It was just the most devastating event in world history . . . that somehow didn't happen. That somehow is the subject of this book. Excerpted from Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis by Martin J. Sherwin All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.