Friday, November 05, 2021

Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis

Cuba played an interesting role in the cold war. Castro was not initially a communist. He was naive populist who was focussed on the will of the people. He hoped to bring the United States to his side. However, the "will of the people" involved some things that the US was not too fond of. This led to a general shunning of Cuba. The Bay of Pigs invasion was a disastrous attempt to install a new regime in Cuba without involving US forces. It only served to further alienate Cuba. Castro was driven to greater ties with the Soviet Union and communism. This now gave the Soviets an allie within spitting distance of the heavily populated east coast of the US. It was a perfect place to base nuclear missiles. 

Gambling with Armageddon details many of the chance actions that prevented all out nuclear war during the cold war. The book starts with the lead up to Hiroshima and ends with the calming of tensions at the end of the Cuban missile crisis. While there were many big players involved (Stallan, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Kruschev), it was often little regarded underlings that did the most to prevent nuclear destruction. Some were under orders to fire nukes, but decided against it. Other chance encounters also helped to reduce tensions.

America had initially hoped to use the nuclear weapons to become a super power. The Japanese bombings were in part a way to show that the bombs were real. They also served to end the war more quickly to prevent further Soviet territorial claims. There were some in the US that desired to share the technology with the Russians in order to calm relationships. They were overruled by those that sought to hold on to the advantage. Alas, the advantage was only short term. Soon the USSR had their own weapons. There were also US hawks that were clamoring to use nukes on many occasions. These were often overruled.

Intelligence gathering on both sides was also quite well done, with the other side often having details. (There were times when Russia knew about things before the US president did.) The Soviets thought they could sneak missiles into Cuba without the US knowing. But, alas, US intelligence did find out. Some factions were arguing for an all out attack. There were various requests from the Soviets, but eventually things did calm down.

It is interesting to read how close the world did come to war. The book is very thorough, with many layers of detail. It can get a little slow at times, but does a good job of expressing the many challenges of nuclear weapons and the luck that has saved us from their widespread use.

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