Perhaps the book’s most interesting contribution is its reassessment of the key figures, for this really was a historical moment driven by personality, which turned on individual decisions. Of the three key players, only John F. Kennedy comes out with his reputation intact, indeed burnished. Hastings doesn’t hesitate to point out his mistakes, but throughout the American president seems to be the only sane person in the room. By contrast, Nikita Khrushchev is one of the book’s main villains, albeit a very human one: ambitious and impulsive, but also vulnerable and bewilderingly inconsistent. The megalomaniacal Castro, almost suicidally committed to resisting Yankee aggression at any cost, even nuclear war, is subject to stern criticism. Of the supporting cast Hastings praises Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk for encouraging Kennedy’s diplomatic manoeuvres. He saves his harshest words for the Strangeloveian US military, which pushed relentlessly for authorization to bomb and invade Cuba despite – or, for some of the brass, precisely because of – the chance that it would lead to World War Three. The civilian members of the White House’s fabled ExComm who advocated for military intervention also come in for stinging criticism. Hastings is shrewd to zero in at times on the hawkish National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, one of Kennedy’s less famous but most important aides, who was “so smooth and smart that you could have played pool on him”, but whose surface polish concealed some poor judgement.
But while Abyss makes reputations from 1962 come into clearer focus, the lessons for diplomats and politicians today remain frustratingly murky. Hastings shows how, in the face of unimaginable pressure, Kennedy’s patient diplomacy found an incredibly narrow path to a peaceful solution. And from there he draws a line from the warmongering of Kennedy’s adversaries during the missile crisis – in the Pentagon, not the Kremlin – to the subsequent escalation of the war in Vietnam. Some US officials, including Bundy, did in fact push for war in Cuba, then in Vietnam. Yet that line wasn’t always so straight: in 1964-5 the Joint Chiefs were actually reluctant to wage war in Southeast Asia, while McNamara and Rusk, the civilian voices of reason during the missile crisis, applied the crisis-management techniques that were so successful in Cuba to the conflict in Vietnam, this time with disastrous results.
What, then, were the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis? As Vladimir Putin rattles his nuclear sabre over Ukraine, what can Joe Biden learn from his hero Jack Kennedy? Not much, it seems. “In 1962, the world got lucky”, Hastings concludes. Let’s hope we get lucky again.
'“In 1962, the world got lucky”, Hastings concludes. Let’s hope we get lucky again.'https://t.co/StHePZj8vW
— The TLS (@TheTLS) October 22, 2022