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New views of the Cuban missile crisis

Chaos may have been closer than we think.

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The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 generated unbearable tension. I was a sophomore at Brandeis University in suburban Boston and recall being ordered into a bomb shelter in the student union as newspaper headlines grew ever more ominous. To believe that ducking under a desk or burrowing underground could protect you from nuclear annihilation seemed crazy then (it still does), but there was no apparent alternative. Apprehension ruled.

To grasp how frightening and dangerous those 13 days really were, read One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobbs’s chronicle of events that pitted the United States against the Soviet Union over the presence of nuclear missiles in Cuba. Dobbs’s hour-by-hour unspooling of that charged period, and of the resolution of that tension, is as gripping as any fiction.

Dobbs, a Washington Post reporter who spent two years researching this book, presents new material to substantiate his claim that this narrowly averted disaster was a matter of detail, poor communication, accident, and pure coincidence.

The crisis was driven and, thankfully, resolved by men of great talent, character, ambition – and patriotism.
The last is the rub: different countries, different ideologies, and different goals can generate intractable problems. An understanding of the fact that we need to live together, albeit uneasily, is what resulted, with face (particularly for “great survivor” Fidel Castro) perhaps the greatest loss.

Dobbs is an impeccable researcher and reporter. What gives his book special depth, though, is his gift for characterization. Take this glimpse of pain-plagued John F. Kennedy after he learns that U-2 pilot Chuck Maultsby has veered off-course into Soviet air space:

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