The Abyss: Nuclear Crisis Cuba 1962 , by Max Hastings

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Theodore Voorhees Jr.
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Max Hastings, The Abyss: Nuclear Crisis Cuba 1962. New York: Harper, 2022. xxxvii + 538 pp. (Cloth US$ 35.00)

Max Hastings is rightly considered one of the world’s premier writers dealing with the military campaigns of World War II, the Korean War, and the U.S. war in Vietnam. In each of his books he has demonstrated both his great talent as a storyteller and an equally impressive gift for clear-eyed analysis and sound judgment. All of these qualities are on display in The Abyss, which examines the epic showdown between John F. Kennedy and Nikita S. Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962.

Scores if not hundreds of books on this nuclear-shadowed confrontation have been written by crisis participants, historians, journalists, military experts, and others. Shortly before the arrival of The Abyss, in the period leading up to last year’s 60th anniversary of the event, no fewer than three major analyses of the Cuban saga were published. Given the extensive missile crisis literature that already exists, it seems fair to ask what new evidence or perspective Hastings is contributing to the subject.

He addresses this question in the introduction, describing his approach as “a narrative for the general reader, which seeks to set the extraordinary story in the context of its times and personalities and the wider world, for a new generation outside the defense and academic communities” (p. xxiii). And indeed, The Abyss succeeds by offering readers a rich tapestry of colorful political and military personalities, numerous near escapes from open military clashes between Americans and Russians, lengthy expositions of background and aftermath events book-ending Khrushchev’s fateful gamble, and fearful testimonials by ordinary Cubans, Americans, Russians, and others who woke up each morning of the crisis worried that they might soon be consumed in a nuclear conflagration. All of this makes for highly compelling reading.

However, neither general readers nor professional historians nor policy specialists should expect to find much new material in The Abyss beyond the author’s frequently sagacious opinions. Hastings acknowledges that the Covid-19 pandemic “handicapped” him due to “the closure of archives” and the “protracted impossibility of long-haul travel,” leaving him uncharacteristically dependent mainly on online research (p. xxv). It is thus noteworthy that his treatment of a number of important topics is disappointingly thin—especially Kennedy’s back-channel dealings with Khrushchev using a Russian GRU undercover agent as intermediary, the president’s downplaying of the Cuban threat out of an unseemly concern for his own standing before the American public during the run-up to critical U.S. midterm elections, and the hostile questions that were raised in Congress and the news media soon after it was learned that the Kennedy administration had curtailed U-2 surveillance of Western Cuba during the crucial six weeks between September 10 and October 13, 1962. Yet Hastings also unearthed at least one previously unheralded document of importance in the Wilson Center’s archives: Khrushchev’s October 25, 1962 order, issued just a few days after Kennedy’s public announcement of the Soviet missiles discovered in Cuba, which signaled the imminence of a full Soviet retreat by mandating immediate retrieval and removal from Cuba of all IRBM nuclear warheads.

Hastings deserves much credit for his mostly judicious and balanced appraisals of the key actors in the missile crisis drama. He may go a bit overboard in effusive praise for Kennedy (“richly endowed with intelligence,” the “best-read, most widely traveled president in US history,” whose “personal coolness was astonishing”), and for the excellence of his advisors (“men of the highest gifts”), yet he does not withhold criticism of the president’s periodic moments of wounded vanity, confusion, and occasional poor judgment. Likewise, Hastings rightly charges Khrushchev with extraordinary recklessness for his unwise and dangerous gamble in moving nuclear ballistic missiles surreptitiously to the edge of America’s homeland, yet he also praises the Soviet leader for swiftly stepping back from the brink once his missiles were discovered and accepting the hard, embarrassing truth that he needed to retreat in order to avert an imminent military conflict that his country could neither win nor even survive.

Hastings reserves his harshest criticism for American generals and admirals whose actions he liberally denounces, applying such harsh terms as “mortally dangerous counselor,” “idiotic” (General LeMay), “raptorish” (Admiral Anderson), and “expert in wholesale destruction” (General Power). But in fairness he acknowledges that military leaders responsible for protecting the nation against foreign enemies must possess martial qualities of the highest order, and he generously concludes that some of the most aggressive actions by these same military officials “constituted a significant weapon in the president’s Crisis armoury” which compelled their Soviet counterparts to exercise restraint when facing a rival’s “eagerness to attack” and “capability to prevail” (p. 250).

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