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"One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964 Hardcover – June, 1997

4.6 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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The Berlin Wall has been rubble for a decade and the memories of the cold war are growing dim. And yet no one is ever likely to forget the Cuban Missile crisis of October 1962, when the world stood on the brink of full-scale nuclear war as the Soviet Union and America locked horns off the coast of Florida. The Soviet navy set sail for Cuba loaded with nuclear warheads for their newly constructed missile bases, precipitating the crisis. After 10 days of high tension, the Soviet Union backed down and the warheads were sent back home. War was averted, but up until now, no one has ever been too certain just how close the world came to catastrophe. Kennedy was assassinated long before he could write his memoirs, Castro's lips are sealed, and the Soviet archives were a closed book.

Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali have taken advantage of recent unrestricted access to Soviet records and performed painstaking detective work to fill the gaps in the historical record. Some of the tension of the narrative is lost, because we know the outcome; even so, they give penetrating insights as they reconstruct the drama step by step. We learn that the Kremlin did seriously consider launching a nuclear attack on the U.S.: the appropriate orders were discussed and Khrushchev spent the night of October 22 in his office so he could be on hand to cable his authorization. Some of the most interesting facts to emerge, however, are those concerning John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert. JFK had always previously been portrayed as something of a parochial gung-ho type, but this, it emerges, was merely a public persona designed to appease the Pentagon hawks. At the same time JFK was talking about a Cuban invasion, he and his brother were engaging in a more secret policy of appeasement through the Soviet ambassador. Fortunately for all of us, diplomacy won the day. In recent years, JFK has been somewhat discredited as a leader for his unpleasant sexual carryings-on and corruption. It may just be that this view is as incomplete as his portrayal as the saintly "King of Camelot". If so, One Hell of a Gamble could be the first stage in his partial rehabilitation. --John Crace, Amazon.co.uk --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Library Journal

Those of a certain age well remember the fateful days in the fall of 1962 when the world stood on the brink of nuclear catastrophe. Since that time, scholars have struggled to discern how the United States and the Soviet Union could have come so close to disaster. Graham Allison's Essence of Decision (1971) set the standard for these queries, but his work has now been vastly improved upon by the investigations of Fursenko (history, Russian Academy of Sciences) and Naftali (history, Yale). Taking advantage of the opening of heretofore closed Soviet archives, the authors have produced a breathtaking view of the inner workings of the Soviet Politburo and its efforts to come to grips with a potentially disastrous international incident. Seldom have scholars plumbed the depths of Soviet-American relations as deeply or as effectively. The resulting tale proves once again that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction. This important work belongs in all libraries. Highly recommended.
-?Edward Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 420 pages
  • Publisher: W W Norton & Co Inc; 1st edition (June 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393040704
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393040708
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #353,053 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
Two Harvard scholars, Russian Historian Aleksandr Fursenko and American Historian Timothy Nafatali expose the missing gaps to one of the Cold War's most pivotal episodes - the Cuban Missile Crisis. In their 1998 book One Hell of a Gamble, they convincingly argue that the Post-WWII episode was an international dilemma. Contending that "no one person or government created the mix of interest, power, and fear that nearly exploded in 1962," the authors develop a sound narrative that illuminates the finer details of the crisis. They succeed marvelously, with minor exceptions, at explaining the Soviet and American nuances of the dramatic history involved in the early 60's. Beginning with the rise of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and ending with Khrushchev's demise, the work chronicles the delicate balance of power that tilted back and forth between the superpowers and Cuba.

The authors masterfully handle Soviet archives, and American sources, but the authors somewhat clumsily rifle through Cuban historiography. The opening chapters, however, do correctly portray Castro's budding relationship with the Soviet Union, and his diminishing alliance with the United States. And the failed Bay of Pigs operation coupled with Kennedy's campaign promise to "not be soft" on Cuba, did indeed solidify Castro's motivation to ally with the Soviets. In contrast, one of the chief frailties of the work lies with the somewhat unclear portrayal of Castro's image and relationship with key confidants. Granted, the authors lacked access to Cuban archives, but the absence of corroboration leaves room for question. For instance, the authors portray Castro as having a "privileged background" in his early years and offer little evidence to substantiate this claim.
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If you are interested in finding out what the Cuban Missile Crisis was actually about and how it was conducted and resolved, this is a fantastic book. Not only do we get the context of what went on during the Eisenhower administration when Castro came to power, but we get the context of what was going on in the Soviet Union as well.
I did not know that Raul Castro was the committed communist who advocated closer ties with the USSR. That Fidel was anti-US was always clear, but it was most interesting to read about how the connection between Cuba and the USSR developed and its limitations because of Fidel's undisciplined and independent nature.
The back-channel diplomacy was also very interesting to read about and why we didn't learn about the Jupiter missile removal from Turkey until much later was another story I wanted to understand. For me, the most useful things I learned were the lurching and stumbling nature of the way the USSR and the US played off of and against each other. Not only were both sides trying to balance the other side, each side was also trying to be provocative as well.
The book also notes that the Soviets saw the Kennedy assassination as the work of a far right wing conspiracy led by H.L. Hunt, although they had no real evidence but the word of journalist Paul Ward. They refused to believe that the President's security services could have allowed a lone madman to shoot the President (as was actually the case).
The book ends with a brief discussion of coup that removed Khrushchev and put Brezhnev in power.
The book is written very well and has a rich supply of notes and documentation backing up the story the authors report. I think it is a fascination and important book from the most dangerous period in the Cold War.
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In One Hell of a Gamble, Fursenko and Naftali cut to the heart of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the surrounding politics. Due to the end of the Cold War, they were able to obtain many first-hand accounts of the superpower rivalry from the participants themselves. Using this newfound knowledge, they craft a timeless account of the behind-the-scenes politics that formed the backbone of US-Soviet relations during the Kennedy era. A chilling perspective is offered on how close the world really came to nuclear annihilation in the fall of 1962. Congrats to Fursenko and Naftali for producing a gripping work that I highly recommend to all students of the Cold War or politics in general.
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this book, published in research thru 1997, reflects the type of "national security scholarship," which is characteristic of the field, relying
heavily on archives of both countries, memoires, published and not, of key players, and ominously reflective of the chance connections,
obviously demented thinking of some key folk on both sides of the war-fare states of US, and Russia. Looking to the present, in which Obama
and Kerry have managed to move the needle slightly away from nuclear confrontation in the Middle East with the "world treaty" with Iran, one
must be thankful that deals were made in the past to allow the Earth to last, and hope that this may continue, With Obama's opening to Cuba
we may expect to have even more detailed histories of this epochal event based more on the Cuban records, assuming "if God's on our side, He'll stop the next war," as Bob Dylan put it in one of the best comments of the era. Howard M. Romaine, Miss Summer '64, Southwestern at Memphis, BA, U.Va. MA '67, JD LSU '79 (Louisiana being the most Northern Caribbean plantation state)
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