on December 1, 2003
For nearly 20 years, I have taught an elective for high school seniors that surveys the origins and spread of nuclear power & weapons from 1895 to the present. Every year the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was a highlight, especially because we drove vans right to the JFK Library and heard its historian Sheldon M. Stern lay out stunning detail, complete with audio clips, transcripts of ExComm tapes, Adlai Stevenson's actual UN photo set, and more.
But now, Stern has put it in book form, and if ever the devil was in the details, this book is a glorious teaching opportunity to show students how details and exact evidence are indispensable -- especially in a 9/11 age where imprecise Intelligence can have huge consequences at home and abroad. Certainly Intelligence proved breathtakingly faulty before and during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and the consequences then were almost cataclysmic, as Stern's book demonstrates in chilling chapter and verse.
The Cuban missile crisis is a history teacher's dream assignment anyway, for its layers and layers of historiographical changes, as new revelations have kept trickling out, not only with the gradual release of the ExComm tapes, but also Soviet sources after the Cold War ended. Stern's volume makes this "crystal," and breaks through student glaze, by showing as well as any monograph I have ever read how once in a while an historian really can become the proverbial fly on the wall during momentous spoken history. Check out the moments when General Curtis LeMay provocatively invokes Munich, or JFK snaps uncharacteristically at Dean Rusk, or the Cabinet room almost goes nuts when the U-2 gets shot down. Even the footnotes are a treasure trove, pointing out remarkable links to Winston Churchill in 1940, Joseph McCarthy in 1954, and the Bay of Pigs & Operation Mongoose as somewhat terrorist activities in the 1960's.
For 20 years, we had assigned RFK's Thirteen Days, aware of its faults as a kind of 1968 campaign document, but grateful for a short, readable, if flawed, first-hand account ghosted by Ted Sorensen. In 2001 we added Hollywood's film Thirteen Days, grossly misleading but useful in its own ways.
Now, however, we have a source, Averting the Final Failure, that shows with a trained historian's meticulous concern for evidence, wherever it may lead, how dangerous it can be for students to rely on Thirteen Days, either the book or the movie. The fact that a disheartenly huge percentage of Americans will judge the 1962 Cuban missile crisis -- and any other historical topic for that matter -- by what either Hollywood or a self-serving participant told them about it, makes Sheldon Stern's careful study almost urgent reading, at least for high school teachers and the young citizens they nurture.
It will take time: 419 carefully crafted pages and then some. But Andover students are finding that this time translates efficiently into historical treasure, where an historian eavesdropping in a library basement can find more real-life drama in unvarnished evidence than countless Hollywoods.
on April 16, 2004
This is the book, I'd wager, that everyone thought they were getting when they purchased "The Kennedy Tapes" (Zelikow and May, 1997 Harvard Press). After struggling through that seminal work, the need for a narrative form of this compelling side of the Missile Crisis was palpable...fortunately, retired JFK Library historian Sheldon Stern also saw the need and completed what was clearly a passionate "life's work" with "Averting the Final Failure". Stern takes years of study and scrutinization of the White House tapes that eavesdropped on the EXCOMM (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) as they advised and debated the day-to-day issues associated with the Crisis and turned a complex story into an amazingly lucid and cogent narrative that should become THE source for White House activities during the Crisis.
Newly declassified and available, Stern has added immensly to the growing amount of literature/transcripts of these profound tapes. The difference here is that Stern is clearly the one who has spent the most time and study on these tapes and, coupled with his surprisingly apt story-telling capability, has developed an authoritative work that defines the "who? what? where? when? and how?" of the Kennedy advisor "inner-workings". Time and again, Stern destroys myths and legends as his narrative describes each meeting and the theme that each one invoked. He interprets each discussion and adds his own attempt at tone and voice inflection to give not only the content of the discussion, but the "atmosphere" as well. The result is almost as good as hearing the tapes themselves...giving the true feel for what these "Best and Brightest" advisors went through.
The story of course has been told time and again...Soviet leader Nikita Khrushev surreptitiously installs nuclear capable missiles and the associated warheads in Communist ally Cuba and this subversion is discovered with American U2 spy plane photography. The subsequent actions taken by the U.S. government are fortunately recorded on a complex White House taping system by President John Kennedy, thus providing an invaluable insight into this provocative period in the Cold War. Unfortunately, these recordings leave much to be desired in terms of quality and many have attempted to transcibe them into a useful tool for historians. The "Kennedy Tapes" book attempted to publish the full transcriptions, but this work was so disjointed that it tended to confuse more than educate. Stern, having initially supported this effort by Zelikow and May, becomes more and more dismayed with the quality of this transcribing work and decides to offer his own interpretation of the tapes and the Crisis. Having spent many years analyzing them (long before they were declassified) he provides an amazing insight and scholarship, while clearing up many "unclear" voice transcriptions.
Taking all this information and recognizing that just another publication of transcripts would not be useful, he decides on a version that describes these actions on the tapes in narrative form. He clears up the collateral chatter and keeps a thematic focus on the narrative and comes up with a wonderfully clear and concise coverage of this event. More than just an interpretation of tapes, Stern also accompanies the narrative with a surprisingly readable summary of events and, happily, a destruction of many of the afore mentioned myths that have survived throughout the years. Well known Crisis stories such as Robert Kennedy's "hawkish" anti-Communist stance, the deception and negotiations of the agreement to extract nuclear missiles from Turkey as a trade for extraction of the missiles from Cuba and the continued iintransigence of Fidel Castro and the Cuban government are denounced here by Stern...offering a new and embellished perspective on the Crisis. Kenndy's "free-wheeling" meeting style is amazingly supported by the tapes and stand in stark contrast to the popular theme presented in such movies as "The Missiles of October" and "Thirteen Days"...an example being JFK's response to the shooting down of an American U2 spy plane at the height of the Crisis on October 27th...the movie version has JFK and the EXCOMM loudly debating retaliatory responses when in reality JFK's calm and measured response was: "...this is an escalation by them isn't it?" and the meeting went on.
"Averting the Final Failure" comes 42 years following the denouement of the Missile Crisis and thouroughly ties together all loose ends associated with White House activities during those heady 13 days. This is an important and monumental addition to the vast amount of literature available on the Crisis and should be considered the first reference used by historians for the White House perspective of the Crisis...I would overwhelmingly recommend this work to anyone interested in those activities in October, 1962.
on January 19, 2004
History has two definitions: a chronological record of significant past events, and a story. Sheldon Stern's story of the Cuban Missile Crisis is history (both definitions) at its best. The scholarly, time-consuming, and meticulous research that went into this work abounds throughout its pages. The author's willingness to challenge earlier historical works on the translation of the crisis's audiotapes makes this book a must for any student of JFK, his administration, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Because of the comprehensive nature of history, a reader might conclude that this is just another dry historical work. Far from it - this book reads like a Robert Ludlum novel. The reader is caught in the tension as the missiles are first discovered, held as the conflict escalates to an almost unbearable crisis, and released as the resolution unfolds. But this was no political thriller, it was real life. Mr. Stern has taught us all a great lesson of history: that real people make real decisions, that these decisions have consequences both foreseen and unforeseen, and that there could have been other choices made with different outcomes. Our world would be a much different place if JFK had listened to his advisors. I believe this book will become the classic study for the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Averting the Final Failure is a must read.
on December 3, 2003
Averting the Final Failure is a chilling, provocative page-turner. It's a riveting story and the fact that we are here to read it gives away the ending. The "Final Failure" is President Kennedy's phrase for the nuclear holocaust that he hoped to avert in confrontation with Russia over the presence of their missiles in Cuba. We who are old enough to remember those days in 1962 and the years that followed know that we came close to annihilation. Sheldon Stern, retired Historian of the Kennedy Library, tells us just-how-close-we-came. Dr. Stern was the first person to listen to the secret tapes of JFK's executive committee meetings on the crisis. He is one of a very few people to listen to them all. He knows his subject well and in the course of his work, got to meet some of the participants who had never known they were being taped. Hollywood has visited this episode in our history several times with their usual indifference to accuracy. The facts of the matter are more dramatic than any fictional treatment to date. This is a book for those who love or hate John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It will temper dislike with respect and add doubt to adulation.
We often hear the term, "loose cannon" to describe a reckless, irresponsible individual. While reading Averting the Final Failure, I was reminded of a Victor Hugo story, "The Runaway Gun." Finally, I had to find it and read it again. Hugo tells of a cannon that is improperly secured aboard a sailing vessel. It comes loose in a storm; as the ship rolls, so does the cannon. It seems certain the gun will burst through the wooden planking and sink the ship. A man is killed trying to get a rope around it. Nobody can stop it. It is as if it were alive. At last, one young sailor manages to flip it over on its side so that it can be made secure. The brave young man has saved the ship and all the men aboard! Ah, but then: It is revealed that he was the individual who was charged with securing the cannon in the first place. The young sailor is honored and decorated for his bravery. Then, the ship's captain orders that he be executed for his negligence. President Kennedy reminds me of the young sailor in the Hugo story. As we read the unfolding events of those 13 days we are amazed at his leadership skill and intelligence but then realize that it was JFK who got us into it! I came away feeling that I had been eves dropping on "The Eve of Destruction." It is a tune I hope not to hear again.
on December 6, 2003
Stern has offered the most complete understanding of the Cuban missile crisis, and of Kennedy himself, in this the most intimate account of those October days, drawn directly from the taped deliberations. His reconstruction destroys the simplistic characterizations of JFK as a "cold warrior" and leaves the reader grateful for his handling of that showdown with the Soviets. I would consider this account more definitive than any other now available, or likely to be in the near future. This is essential reading.
This book may be the most readable (for being a narrative) account of those challenging days when our great and elected President brought us back from the brink of nuclear war and possible annihilation as a nation, as a people, as a species.
Thus this thick book may further serve as a solid introduction to the primary sources of that time, from Tuesday, October 16th through Monday, October 29th, 1962, now 45 years ago. We must have a national celebration and commemoration of the President who kept us OUT of war and the world from bloodshed. Read this book to learn how and why.
Sheldon Stern is an academic professional historian who took early retirement to write this book as the EXComm tapes became declassified. He therefore places these tapes within their historical context, fully presenting their background, as well as providing a learned and helpful running commentary throughout his presentation of the transcript. He also provides a technical analysis of the transcript, including its reliability and validity, and the peer-review process by which it was developed. For instance he provides an interesting analysis of alternative interpretations of some points in the tape, and thereby the alternative political implications, and also reflects upon the technical quality of the recordings.
All in all, this is an excellent presentation of those courageous days in every aspect, and probably their best general presentation, comprehensive while accessible to the general reader. Certainly it will present a purpose for further study of other historical documents from that crucial period in which our President kept us out of war, which he termed the "final failure," and recalls to our hearts a time of great, serious, intent, decisive, moral, experienced, humane, elected, wise and intelligent leadership concerned for the safety and well-being of all people, sadly lacking since.
on April 4, 2004
While reading Sheldon Stern's book, I felt as if I were having a conversation with him. Relating the facts of that event in a manner and detail that made this reader want to know what came next was a gift! Detailed, yes; comprehensive, yes; accurate, no doubt!
on December 6, 2003
...Portraying President Kennedy and his team in action at a tense and trying moment, with great attention to a precise rendering and analysis of the verbatim records. And a fine rendering of the context in which the crisis unfolded.
on February 21, 2010
I lived through this as a high school student but never realized just how close to nuclear war we really came.
on May 27, 2016