Sunday, February 26, 2017

Finished (Paper Book) - "One Minute to Midnight" - Michael Dobbs

I picked up "One Minute to Midnight" at a very cool bookstore in Manhattan on Broadway near the Museum of Natural History.  I thought he book was "old" - maybe mid '70s but was surprised to find it was actually written in 2008.

The book is coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.  The book was well timed, in that some of the information was not available in the 60's 70's or even up to 2000, so the book covers the topic even better than contempory accounts could have.

One big surprise for me was the number of Soviet troops in Cuba in 1962 - the U.S. figured a few hundered to a few thousand but there were 40,000 battle ready troops available for use if the U.S. invaded Cuba.

Further, the U.S. was aware, through U2 spyplane pictures, of the medium range missiles being deployed into Cuba, which was the genesis for the crisis.  What they did not know was where the warheads were stored - there didn't appear to be any appropriate warhead storage depots visible, which led the U.S. to believe they hadn't been delivered yet.  However, there were nuclear warheads on site in Cuba, not yet delivered to the missiles, but in storage immediately adjacent to the port where they arrived.  U.S. overflights saw this storage, but did not believe it was secure enough for nuclear material, so dismissed the evidence for that being the warheads.

Another astounding surprise was that the Soviets had deployed battlefield nukes - these have a yield of about 1000 yards (radius) which can take out a aircraft carrier group, or can take out the entire Guantanemo Bay base (in face, there were Soviet agents, armed with these battlefield nukes, overseeing Guantanemo, in order to take it out if the U.S. attacked).

Communication between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was rudimentary in 1962 - I believe the "hot line" was installed due to this crisis.  Much of the deplomacy was handled through reporters and "known" spys, and "official" communicaton often took a day or more to be created, translated, sent, processed and received.  Both sides used broadcast media to announce intentions and to understand the "other" side.  This mismash of communication led to dangerous estimates and best-guess intentions being inferred.

The U.S, when they established the blockade of Cuba, informed the Soviets that they would stop and board any craft approaching Cuba, including submarines.  If submarines were discovered, the U.S. would lob "practice depth charges" or other smaller-scale munitions to identify to the sub that they were to surface for inspection (or presumably to turn around).  However, the U.S.S.R. did not forward this message to their crews, so when the U.S. ran across a submarine, and began the munitions, the crew was unaware that this was merely a crude communications mechanism.  The sub had a nuclear tipped torpedo, which had to be launched with the agreement of the polictical officer and the captain - they actually loaded and were debating firing the nuclear torpedo when the crew toned down the rhetoric and the sub surfaced.

As the crisis occurred before I was born, I didn't know all the details - I didn't know that a U2 plane was shot down during the crisis over Cuba (by Soviet, not a Cuban crew - not sure when that distinction was made to the U.S.) and that an unrelated U2 mission over the north pole went askew and the U.S. U2 was 900 miles or so over Soviet territory off Alaska.  This even triggered MiGs to take off from two bases to chase away the U2 and could easily have led to a misunderstanding of immense magnitude (e.g. could have been seen as a bomber strike, or as a precursor flight of a spyplane to prepare for attack on the U.S.S.R.).

In hindsight, we are all very lucky to be around.  The failsafes on both sides were not as strong as they (hopefully) are now - the U.S. Minutemen silos in the mid-west are designed to have two launch personnel in order to be launched - as they were just on the verge of being deployed, there was a push to move up the timetable to make them launchable - one way they did so was to link together the two launch mechanisms to work around the incomplete setup - basically one button launch.

All in all, a great read.  The Cuban Missle Crisis was the 9-11 for an earlier generation, and rightly so.  We were only one mistep or miscalculation from the start of a war unlikely to be contained to the Caribbean, with almost immediate impact on Berlin, Turkey and Italy (Turkey and Italy had U.S. outdated missiles in place, very close to the U.S.S.R.) and likely U.S. to U.S.S.R. in a difficult to stop escalation.

No comments:

Post a Comment