Non-Fiction Review: One Minute To Midnight





I first read Michael Dobbs' One Minute To Midnight when it was first published, back in 2008. Both due to my general enjoyment of history and that I have an RPG campaign in the late 1950s (a few years before this) I recently listened to the unabridged audiobook version of this book.

The impression I'm left with is amazement that humanity as a species survived the Cold War in general and the Cuban Missile Crisis specifically. Throughout the thirteen days of the crisis there were multiple points where war between the USA and USSR could have broken out - from the USA discovering the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba to a US spy plane getting lost near the North Pole and stumbling into the Soviet Union in the midst of the crisis. The horror of discovering it was Soviet troops, not Cuban ones, who shot down a U-2 plane over Cuba. Does the US retaliate? If so, where does it end? There were so many opportunities for things to have gone wrong that it almost seems unrealistic that President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev didn't go ahead and launch missiles at some point. I'm rather grateful they didn't, what with the Cuban Missile Crisis happening before my parents even met... 

Dobbs' focuses the his narrative around the three principles of the Cuban Missile Crisis - Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro. What brought them to the Cuban Missile Crisis and why they made the decisions they did? Who were the people who advised them? This last question was best answered for President Kennedy - likely due to better records available to Dobbs. We see the relationship between President Kennedy and his brother Bobby. We get glimpses of Fidel Castro's relationships with his brother Raul and with Che Guevara. We understand what pressures Premier Khrushchev was under.

While much of the book is focused on the "big players", Dobbs also focuses on the little players who changed the course of history through their actions and inactions. A Soviet submarine commander, frustrated by days of cat and mouse with Americans, is talked down from launching a tactical nuke at the Americans. CIA saboteurs in Cuba. KGB agents in the United States and Cuba. Decisions made by individual pilots.

Dobbs also discusses the challenges in communication - after being drafted it could take 12 hours for a message to reach its intended recipient. How Kennedy and Khrushchev both made major decisions with partial or, in some cases, just wrong information. 

I'm unaware of Mr. Dobbs' politics and in any case I didn't find any particular bias. The characters were all analyzed pretty fairly. He, for example, pointed out both Che's charisma and his brutality. Castro's legitimate patriotism along with his own brutality. Kennedy and Khrushchev are viewed as having done the best they could to avoid a nuclear confrontation while operating under enormous pressures and with incomplete information. 

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