The 'eyeball to eyeball' moment that never was

As followers of my Twitter feed on the Cuban missile crisis will know, today was the day John F. Kennedy supposedly went "eyeball to eyeball" with Nikita Khrushchev. It is a moment that has been celebrated in dozens of books, political science treatises, and even a movie or two (viz "Thirteen Days.") One of our foremost historians, Robert Caro, repeated the "eyeball to eyeball" story in the latest volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography.

There is only one problem with this version of history. At the moment when Secretary of State Dean Rusk claims to have uttered the most vivid soundbite of the crisis -- "we're eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked" -- the Soviet missile-carrying ships were 500 miles away and heading in the opposite direction, back to Russia.

In other words, the "eyeball to eyeball" moment that we were led to believe took place on Wednesday, October 24, 1962 is itself a dangerous myth. (See my recent op-ed for the New York Times on this subject.)

As you can see from the map above, the ship that the U.S. Navy had been ordered to intercept -- the Kimovsk -- was even further from the blockade line, around 750 miles. As I established in research for my book, One Minute to Midnight, the Soviet ships turned back, thirty hours earlier, on Khrushchev's instructions.

There are a couple of lessons to be drawn from this story. First, don't believe the early, first draft of history, which is often written by the victors, channeled through uncritical journalists. Although U.S. intelligence established the truth within a few hours, the Kennedy camp did not have any interest in undermining the myth of a determined U.S. president facing down his reckless Soviet rival.

The second lesson is that the Cuban missile crisis was plenty dangerous -- but it was dangerous in a way that we failed to understand for many years. Having brought the world to the edge of nuclear destruction through their own blunders, Kennedy and Khrushchev did everything in their power to avoid an "eyeball to eyeball" moment that would lead to the other fellow being pushed into a corner. In contrast to practically all his advisors, Kennedy was unwilling to sacrifice world peace for a few obsolete American medium-range nuclear missiles in Turkey. When Khrushchev offered JFK a Turkey-for-Cuba deal on October 27, he authorized his brother to accept it.

The real risk of nuclear war in October 1962 arose from miscommunication and miscalculation. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were in the position of Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War, when he said that "I do not control events, events control me." Fortunately for us, both leaders understood that events that were spinning out of control. By acknowledging this fundamental fact, they succeeded in regaining control of the great historical narrative, at least for a time. (Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Khrushchev was over thrown in 1964.)

The question of human agency in history -- and particularly during the Cold War -- has always interested me. I deal with this subject in my latest book, Six Months in 1945, which describes how the giants of World War II -- FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman -- were unable to prevent the outbreak of a new contest for global dominance, despite their best intentions.

Michael Dobbs