As the anniversary of the Chernobyl (Chornobyl) nuclear disaster approaches, we’re highlighting the latest—and timely—publication of HURI Director Serhii Plokhii (Plokhy): Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Although the Cuban missile crisis occurred decades before the Chernobyl reactor exploded on April 26, 1986, the connections between these two events extend beyond the dangers posed by radioactive fallout. Not only did Plokhii start his research on the Cuban missile crisis after delving into Soviet nuclear activity in his book Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, the Cuban missile crisis itself has direct ties to Ukraine.
The book, which is available for pre-order on Amazon, uncovers previously unknown or underappreciated elements of the crisis, tracing the mistakes that nearly incited a nuclear war.
A harrowing account of the Cuban missile crisis and how the US and USSR came to the brink of nuclear apocalypse.
Nearly thirty years after the end of the Cold War, today’s world leaders are abandoning disarmament treaties, building up their nuclear arsenals, and exchanging threats of nuclear strikes. To survive this new atomic age, we must relearn the lessons of the most dangerous moment of the Cold War: the Cuban missile crisis.
Serhii Plokhy’s Nuclear Folly offers an international perspective on the crisis, tracing the tortuous decision-making that produced and then resolved it, which involved John Kennedy and his advisers, Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, and their commanders on the ground. In breathtaking detail, Plokhy vividly recounts the young JFK being played by the canny Khrushchev; the hotheaded Castro willing to defy the USSR and threatening to align himself with China; the Soviet troops on the ground clearing jungle foliage in the tropical heat, and desperately trying to conceal nuclear installations on Cuba, which were nonetheless easily spotted by U-2 spy planes; and the hair-raising near misses at sea that nearly caused a Soviet nuclear-armed submarine to fire its weapons.
More often than not, the Americans and Soviets misread each other, operated under false information, and came perilously close to nuclear catastrophe. Despite these errors, nuclear war was ultimately avoided for one central reason: fear, and the realization that any escalation on either the Soviets’ or the Americans’ part would lead to mutual destruction.
Drawing on a range of Soviet archival sources, including previously classified KGB documents, as well as White House tapes, Plokhy masterfully illustrates the drama and anxiety of those tense days, and provides a way for us to grapple with the problems posed in our present day.
We asked Plokhii a few questions about Nuclear Folly, its genesis, and its lessons.
HURI: How did this book come about? Was it inspired by your Chernobyl research? Are there any common threads in how these two nuclear situations unfolded?
Plokhii: After working on Chernobyl, I intended to pursue a more general history of nuclear energy. I set out on that project, and chronologically came to the Cuban missile crisis.
Since I was working on a general history of nuclear energy, the Cuban missile crisis would be only a small chapter of the book. When I started reading the massive amount of literature on topic and researching further, I discovered a great deal that intrigued me or resonated with my other research on Ukraine and the Cold War. And so, it turned into a project in its own right.
For example, I learned that I had lived for 12 or 13 years on the street in Dnipropetrovsk where every single missile that was delivered to Cuba was built. The father of a former HURI fellow had served in Cuba in 1962. There were those personal connections, and I was also surprised to find a lot of ties to Ukraine and Ukrainian history.
HURI: We have already mentioned Ukraine, but are there other specific examples of a Ukrainian connection that shows up in the story?
Plokhii: In addition to all of the ballistic missiles being built in Ukraine, the majority of the missiles that were sent to Cuba were previously deployed in Ukraine, particularly in eastern and central Ukraine. Ukraine is close to Europe, so that’s why they placed intermediate and medium range missiles in the country; the area from which they removed missiles to send to Cuba was still in Ukraine, but it was farther from the western border.
Around 80% of the missiles and personnel (more than 40,000 people) that were sent to Cuba went by way of the Ukrainian Black Sea ports, partially in the Crimea, and partially in the city of Mykolaiv. I had been unaware of this detail until I dug into the research, but I soon realized that I could bring both a different interpretation and new source material to the Cuban missile crisis story.
Many new sources came from the KGB archives, namely reports of the KGB officers that accompanied ships going to and from Cuba. These reports were missing both from the dominant Cuban missile crisis story and from Ukrainian history. In that sense, Nuclear Folly is a continuation of my broader agenda to bring Ukrainian history into global history and to bring global history into Ukraine. That wasn’t something I expected when I embarked on the project, but it seems that whatever I write somehow connects to Ukraine.
HURI: Speaking of the KGB files, which allowed you to explore and illuminate perspectives beyond the better-known American and Cuban ones, when did these files become declassified?
Plokhii: The files had been declassified sometime before I started my research, but no one else had really consulted them. After all, who would go to Kyiv to look for sources on the Cuban missile crisis? When I brought the question to the archivist in the KGB archives, they suggested checking the numbers of the military units that had been involved in shipping the missiles. It took me a while to arrange a meeting with the people in the Armed Forces archive. The trail went completely cold, unfortunately, because the archives of those units had been transferred to Moscow back in the 1970s.
However, after giving it more thought, the director of the KGB archive had another idea. I had explained how the missiles were shipped from the Black Sea fleets. So he suggested a special fond of archival materials from the KGB unit that was in charge of the Black Sea and the Azov Sea area.
I hadn’t even known that such a division existed. I thought that the KGB was organized into divisions by oblast, but apparently there was a specialized division, and that's where those reports were. It was really a stroke of luck. I benefited not only from the openness of those archives, but also from the excellent advice from the people who work there.
HURI: What were some of the greatest differences you found in these documents compared to the typical narrative? How does this account compare to what citizens experienced and perceived as it was unfolding?
Plokhii: Well, that goes also to the question of what was really surprising for me. I started working with documents, mostly published but also archival documents. I was surprised at how many things were in stark contrast with the dominant narrative of the Cuban missile crisis. The dominant narrative was created largely by Robert Kennedy, who (with his ghostwriter) wrote the book Thirteen Days while running for the presidency.
As you can imagine, works that are written in that particular context reflect some realities, but fail to reflect others. Nonetheless, that story became the dominant narrative, and it was the story of a young but wise President John F. Kennedy withstanding the pressure from Nikita Khrushchev and his own military, making the right decisions, and emerging victorious. In contrast, the story that I saw showed both Kennedy and Khrushchev marching from one mistake and from one potential disaster to another. We all know the iconic part of the story: the missiles were discovered and then there was a long process as Kennedy met with his advisors for a full week before making his decision on the blockade.
But what we miss in that story is that this was probably the biggest intelligence failure in American history. The missiles were delivered to Cuba, and no one in the US knew about it. When they were discovered, they were just one week away from being battle ready—and Kennedy spent that one week not knowing what to do. By the time he went on TV, the missiles were ready for battle.
In the dominant story, we don’t learn that Kennedy was a hawk during the first week of the crisis.
We didn’t know for a long time that the crisis was resolved by concessions from Kennedy, that American missiles were removed from Turkey; Khrushchev wasn’t the only one to remove missiles.
I was surprised to discover how scared and terrified Khrushchev became, that he was backing off from the very beginning. There are a lot of things like these that are not part of the dominant narrative.
Aside from bringing these forgotten elements into the story, my account differs in that it is not a victory story. Instead of looking at where Kennedy and Khrushchev got things right in ending the crisis, my approach looks at where they went wrong. What lessons can we learn from their missteps and mistakes to avoid getting into this type of situation in the first place?
HURI: One of the things I really like about your books is their narrative aspect. Even though it’s a book of history, the characters really come alive as in a novel. Did you encounter any lesser-known “characters” while writing this book whom you found particularly interesting as far as their role in the story?
Plokhii: The Soviet commanders and the Soviet troops on the ground are often left out of Cuban missile crisis accounts, but they form a significant part of my story.
The reason is in part due to the sources I used: the KGB archives, memoirs, and other documents, which revealed what Soviet military commanders and rank and file were thinking and how they were acting in particular circumstances.
One person who emerged as a key character in the book (not on the level of Kennedy and Khrushchev, of course, but in the ‘second echelon’), is the general who was commanding the missile tropes in Cuba.
His name was Igor Statsenko. He happened to be an ethnic Ukrainian, so there’s another Ukrainian connection.
In fact, he was born in the city of Chornobyl (Chernobyl)—and in a way he almost brought ‘Chernobyl’ to Cuba. He was the commander of the missile division and many of the things that were done in Cuba were done by him or under his supervision. We have the reports that he filed as well as documentation referring to him. In recollections written by people who served with him, he emerges as a generally decent guy. Considering that this was the man who could have brought on nuclear war, his decent character gives a different perspective on the situation.
On the American side, there are also very decent people involved. So, overall, there are all these decent people caught up in a very indecent situation, and they’re basically hostages. Kennedy and Khrushchev were hostages, too, but to their own decisions, whereas people like Statsenko were hostages to the decisions made by others.
HURI: Why did US and Soviet leaders seem to believe the economic/political structure of other countries (such as Cuba) could pose an existential threat to their own country? Why did the US care so much about keeping communism out of Latin America?
Plokhii: An enormous number of mistakes and miscalculations are part of my story, but the treatment of any anti-colonial movement in Latin America as a communist or potentially communist movement was probably the biggest mistake that the United States committed in the entire Cold War.
One of my students wrote an award-winning thesis on the Cold War in the Dominican Republic, where the United States performs the role of an empire of bygone days. Out of the fear of communism, it was fighting imperial wars, such as Vietnam, and backing military activity such as the invasion of Cuba.
The justification for intervening was concern over the domino effect: If one country falls to communism, others will fall, and eventually all will fall to communism.
People like Kennedy faced a dilemma where, on the one hand, they believed that countries like Cuba needed agricultural reform, but on the other hand, they were hostage to the fear of communists taking over the country. Ironically, it was their own actions that ended up bringing communism to their ‘neighborhood.’
I discuss this ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ in detail; communism was not a dominant force in Cuba until the Bay of Pigs invasion. In my reading, that was the impetus for Fidel Castro’s turn to communism—which he announced right after the Bay of Pigs. It was a choice dictated by economic and political necessity rather than ideology: the world was divided by ideology and, as a self-declared communist, he would have much better chances of getting support from Khrushchev.
Khrushchev, however, didn’t want to get involved at that point. For an entire year after Castro declared himself a communist, Khrushchev wouldn’t call him “comrade.” Castro had to up the ante by turning against the old communists in Cuba. He removed them from leading positions, sending the message to Khrushchev that he could join Mao’s China instead. Khrushchev got the message, calling Castro “comrade” in April of 1962. One month later, he decided to move missiles to Cuba, in part to keep the newly communist Castro in his communist camp.
The point is: Castro would not have gone communist in 1962 had there been no Bay of Pigs. Who knows how events would have unfolded in that alternate reality; maybe he would have become communist anyway, after a different American mistake. However, as it happened, the United States’ concerns about communism coming to Latin America and its attempt to intervene actually caused communism to take root.
HURI: In the preface, you show us just how “real” this is for us today, with the “false alarm” attack warning in Hawaii in 2018 in response to the growing threat of nuclear aggression from North Korea. Was Trump the kind of leader who would have had the courage—and the fear—to back down?
Plokhii: I really can't predict how Trump would behave in similar circumstances, but one thing that we know for sure is there would have been no expert committee, and the decision would have been made with very little consultation from people who understood the situation fully. But what was most dangerous about Trump—and this understanding came to me partially from looking at those sources and working on this book—is that you really have no way of predicting how your words will be interpreted, how they will be treated, and what kind of response they might produce. It can create a situation where a person feels cornered and thinks the only way out is to respond with nuclear weapons. The rhetoric that we had under Trump was the rhetoric that was fully capable of producing that kind of action.
That is extremely dangerous.
HURI: What is the most important takeaway that you’d like us to know? Setting aside the important role that politicians play, what can we as citizens do to prevent another situation like this?
Plokhii: One thing that happened as a result of the Cuban missile crisis was that Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the people around them realized to an unprecedented degree just how dangerous the game was. After the Cuban missile crisis, negotiations intensified on the Test Ban Treaty, which banned testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. Before that agreement, a nuclear fallout caused by the tests in the atmosphere, a sort of environmental Chernobyl, was basically happening all over the planet.
Subsequently, there was another treaty on non-proliferation, and then arms control started, and so on, and so forth.
But now we are at the beginning of the new nuclear arms race, with the discontinuation of the old Cold War era agreements. Most recently, Boris Johnson decided to raise the cap on British stockpiles. The British are not the first to start stockpiling, of course; the US and Russia are already there. The arms race has started up again, bringing us very much into the pre-Cuban missile crisis situation.
One of the conclusions that I present in my book is that the story of ‘62 is very relevant to what we are experiencing now. Regarding what we as citizens can do to change the situation, there is an argument there that the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty would not have happened without mass mobilization, which started during the second half of the 1950s after the first test of the Hydrogen bomb. The key nuclear governments would not have been engaged in the negotiations—and Kennedy and Khrushchev would not have signed it—without significant mass mobilization.
Given that nuclear testing and the potential for nuclear war affects all of us, this is very much our business. Living in democracy, we have the right—and the duty—to influence those decisions.
Serhii Plokhii is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History and the director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. His interests include the intellectual, cultural, and international history of Eastern Europe, with an emphasis on Ukraine. He is the author of many books, including The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, and Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front: American Airmen behind the Soviet Lines and the Collapse of the Grand Alliance. His books have won numerous awards, including the Lionel Gelber Prize, the Ballie Gifford Prize, and the Shevchenko National Prize.
His collection of essays The Frontline: Essays on Ukraine’s Past and Present is forthcoming from HURI’s publications program. It will feature previously published articles, gathered and presented in a new context, as well as a number of new, never-before-published pieces. The collection can serve as a companion to Plokhii’s acclaimed book, The Gates of Europe. It is a broader introduction to Ukrainian history, more mosaic and fragmentary, but also a deeper dive into particular issues and questions.