Sir Max Hastings on the Cuban Missile Crisis

The acclaimed historian discusses the events and personalities when the world came close to catastrophe.
Home » Author interviews » Sir Max Hastings on the Cuban Missile Crisis

Sir Max Hastings on the Cuban Missile Crisis

In the autumn of 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States faced off in the Caribbean Sea over the matter of nuclear weapons on the island of Cuba. Placed there in a supreme act of recklessness by Khrushchev, for thirteen days the world held its breath as the two sides pushed each other to the brink of annihilation.

Max, it’s an opportune moment to talk about your new book Abyss, since we’re now at another showdown with nuclear conflict being threatened. Of course, it’s the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, yet here we are again…

Well, when I started out on this book, it felt like writing another piece of history and it was an odd one out among my works because all the past ones have been about wars that happened. This one, of course, was about a war that, mercifully for mankind, didn’t actually happen, but came so close. So many people, it has to be said, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, as we called it, in the middle of the Cold War, actually wanted it to happen. They wanted war. It is a sort of miracle that it didn’t happen. But when I started out it just felt like this was all to do with the past. But now, suddenly again, we see in the Kremlin another reckless risk-taker who is prepared repeatedly to expose the west to nuclear threats and who, I believe, to be a less responsible player than was Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union’s leader in 1962. So suddenly the whole thing has an importance to try and understand what happened 60 years ago and what lessons we can learn for the future. And of course, the first lesson for everybody is: be afraid! We’ve all had such spoilt existences in the last 30, 40 years. It may not have seemed so, but when you look at it, we haven’t been involved in big wars, only small wars, a long way away. But it’s only in recent years that climate change has suddenly started to be a big factor. Nobody has been obliged to fight. We’ve had enough to eat, we’ve been warm, we’ve been comfortable. Therefore, we’ve been able to set aside in our minds the huge risk that these nuclear weapons, which terrified the world in all the years of the Cold War, have always been there. And now suddenly dangerous tyrants are rattling them all over again and we begin to see how the world felt in 1962.

The current chiefs of defence staff in America nowadays seem to be a lot more aware of the horrific consequences of nuclear war. And so there doesn’t appear to be as much ‘missile rattling’ as you describe it.

I’d entirely agree with you that as far as we know, thank goodness, there’s no counterpart of Curtis LeMay among the American chiefs of staff. But in those days, one has to remember that all these people had grown up in the Second World War. Many of them had fulfilled senior roles. Curtis LeMay made his reputation by incinerating half of Japan by leading the bomber operations that killed hundreds of thousands. He came home at the end of the war to be hailed as a national hero. Also in 1945, the United States had led the Western world to an absolute victory. The idea of absolute victory was still very deeply instilled in people’s heads. The leaders of America had no doubt at all that they were the leader of by far the most powerful and important state on the planet. And they wanted to see America use its power to secure its end, to secure absolute victory.

Today there’s an understanding that absolute victories are not on the table, and people are much more cautious. They realise it would almost certainly be the end of the planet if we go to nuclear war. In 1962 a scary number of people did not understand that. It is pretty spooky when you look back to those days.

With President Kennedy it certainly is his finest hour. And Robert Kennedy as well, his closest adviser, seems to have had a conversion. He was a very bombastic, confrontational individual, but he also takes the same line as his brother during the crisis.

Bobby, I think was pretty unlovable character, whereas there’s not much doubt that, especially in his handling of the Western leadership in the Cold War, Kennedy displayed greatness. His brother, in my eyes, was never more than a charismatic politician, even on a good day. But in the missile crisis, he did display extraordinary common sense, and while some of his first reactions weren’t very smart, he realised almost as soon as his brother that invading Cuba was a last resort and not the first one. He backed his brother all the way. When his brother said, “we’re going to have a blockade,” which the chiefs of staff called a pathetic response, Bobby realised that you’ve got to try every other expedient diplomatic and minimal force, which is what the blockade represented before you went to shooting. And in that sense, Bobby came out of the crisis remarkably well.

Now, on the plans for the invasion of Cuba. You’ve just mentioned that LeMay came out of World War II with this great reputation. Maxwell Taylor, who may be familiar to some from Operation Market Garden, reading your book, I was almost open mouthed at how they seem to make so many assumptions and it didn’t seem to be really well thought out at all.

The intelligence was lousy. The CIA thought that the Russians had about 5,000 troops on Cuba instead of 43,000. They really did. They had no inkling about the tactical nuclear weapons and it was only very late in the crisis that some of the people around the table in the White House began to understand that the invasion of Cuba was going to be a very bloody business, not just for the Russians and the Cubans, but also for the American forces doing the invading. But there was this huge residual arrogance in the United States. One of the things I’ve tried to do in my book (a lot of the books about the crisis just deal with the 13 days) is to set it in the wider context of the Cold War. So that anybody who reads the book will first of all understand something about what Cuba was in those days, and Castro, quite a bit about what the Soviet Union was and Nikita Khrushchev. And quite a lot about what sort of country the United States was in those days. With this curious combination. This curious ambivalence in the United States.

On the one hand, there was this extraordinary national confidence that here was the United States enjoying a stupendous economic success, a standard of living undreamt of 10 or 15 years earlier. And this came with a huge belief that the US really did seem to have been chosen by God, and God was still very important to them, to lead the world and be the most important and richest country on earth. But matched with this was paranoia about the communist threat, a belief that out there were these evil communists who wanted to take it all away from them. So it was a curious mixture of conceit and paranoia.

I also think, and to me this is very important, the quality of the debates in the upper reaches if you leave the mad US military out of it. God, they were clever people around the White House table. One is so impressed by the sort of stuff that was said and the tone of the discussions. And one does worry that nowadays, whether in Britain or America or whatever, you wonder if the same quality of leadership is there.

Jack Kennedy, I’m afraid I’m not a hero worshipper, but I’m just aware by how brilliantly Kennedy conducted himself. I mean, apart from anything else, how anybody could make jokes in those extraordinary circumstances. One day he looked around the table in the cabinet room and he said, “this is the day when we’re all going to earn our pay and you better hope that your solution isn’t the one that’s adopted.” Well, this sort of gallows humour, it does increase one’s respect for Kennedy, that anybody could make jokes in those circumstances.

The Joint Chiefs didn’t seem to have much respect for Kennedy. When LeMay says to Kennedy, “You’re in one hell of a spot” or something similar.

Amazingly, the sheer the insults that LeMay at the White House table heaped on Kennedy, he said, “You’re in one hell of a fix.” And Kennedy, The President of the United States, looks at him and he said, “what do you mean?” LeMay doubled [down] and he said, “you are in one hell of a fix.” Kennedy kept his temper, but he said, “and you are right there in it with me personally.”

Everybody else around the table obviously was stunned that this mad Air Force general had the nerve to talk to the President of the United States in this way. What was more incredible was that LeMay kept his job until his formal retirement two years down the track, after Lyndon Johnson had succeeded Kennedy. And it’s amazing, but of course, he was a very famous man, Curtis LeMay. He made this terrific reputation and Kennedy didn’t dare to sack him. Now, I’m not surprised you [don’t] sack him in the middle of the missile crisis…but one is amazed that when it was all over, he didn’t…Kennedy said after the crisis, “the military are mad”, and so they were.

It was amusing to see the LeMay then ends up as Vice Presidential candidate, along with George Wallace, the racist Governor of Alabama in the 1968 campaign.

Oh, yeah. He was a right-wing lunatic and he was straight out of Doctor Strangelove. Actually a lot of the stuff one read, because I read an enormous number of transcripts of oral history interviews with senior Air Force generals after the crisis was over, and instead of saying, “phew, thank goodness our President got us out of this,” most of them were still after the crisis saying, “the President let us down. They were just wimps. We could have had a great victory.”

“We could have cleaned out that rat’s nest,” as one Air Force general said, of Cuba, “and we could have got rid of Castro, we could have got rid of all the communists in Latin America.” And they were saying this after the crisis. They weren’t saying, “thank God we’ve averted nuclear war.”

There’s a very good quote you give right at the beginning, which is probably a good way to end our chat. Kennedy says to J.K.Galbraith, “You will never know how much bad advice I received.”

That’s absolutely true.

Sir Max Hastings is the bestselling and acclaimed historian and author of Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975. Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 is his latest book. You can listen to a full interview with Sir Max Hastings on the Cuban Missile Crisis on the Aspects of History Podcast.

Sir Max Hastings on the Cuban Missile Crisis