The Brink

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

With the possible exception of the assassination in Dallas in November, 1963, no single event of the John F. Kennedy presidency has attracted more scholarly attention than the Cuban missile crisis in the fall of 1962. The handling of that dilemma and its inherent effects upon subsequent international developments is widely regarded as the high watermark of the Kennedy Administration. While it can certainly be claimed that the image and style of the Kennedy years have left a stronger legacy than specific administration achievements, the impact of those fateful days in October, 1962, clearly altered the flow of world trends.

Much has been written regarding the sequence of events during that relatively brief crisis by those individuals closely connected with it. Notable figures ranging from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to Attorney General Robert E Kennedy to NBC reporter Elie Abel have offered their recollections of the matter in print. In each instance, the available commentaries have shed an added perspective on the handling of the problems and the nature of decisionmaking. Yet each of these firsthand accounts has focused upon those aspects of the crisis that the author observed while largely ignoring the larger questions of history.

David Detzer examines the Cuban missile issue in a somewhat broader context. Although a substantial portion of the text records the daily happenings when the crisis was at its peak—approximately from October 14 to October 28—a larger effort is made to examine the reasons for the Russian placement of offensive missiles in Cuba and the attitude of the Kennedy Administration toward Castro’s regime.

Detzer, a professor at Western Connecticut State College whose most notable previous work was a look at the Korean War period in Thunder of the Captains, employs a writing style which borders on that of mystery thrillers. Dialogue quotations and attempts at a description of the environmental scenes make for a casual style which is eminently readable in the manner of escapist novels. Yet considerable research has gone into the verification of these presentations, as the concluding chapter notes amply demonstrate. When problems emerge in Detzer’s work, they arise from his own assumptions, which are liberally sprinkled throughout.

The initial third of Detzer’s book is, in some ways, its most distinguishing feature. Considerable pains are taken here to present a portrait of the leading figures involved in the Washington-Moscow-Havana triangle and also to create the mood for the eventual missile confrontation. A prologue of some length strives to set the tone by remembering the New York City visits of Khrushchev and Fidel Castro in September, 1960. Both arrived in the United States for the purpose of making addresses to the United Nations Assembly, although the U.N. speeches themselves are not the focal point of Detzer’s study. Instead, the visits are used here as a vehicle to paint a period image of Castro and his entourage in terms of their gruff life-styles, shifting hotel residences, and even the social implications of their sprouting beards. The simultaneous arrival of the Soviet Premier in New York is garnished with a glance at Khrushchev’s background, including his origins in the peasant class and his rise to a central position in the Russian Communist Party.

To build upon these opening images, the author then devotes considerable time to a look at Cuba’s past, its cultural styles by 1960, and a quick-paced biography of Fidel Castro in conjunction with a record of the shortcomings of the insensitive Batista regime of the late 1950’s. Through Detzer’s presentation, Castro is portrayed as a vibrant revolutionary largely divorced from any strict ideological code or doctrine. While falling short of ever becoming the romanticized figure of Che Guevara in the mid-1960’s, Castro nevertheless was further removed from the intellectualism of a Lenin. If Castro and Khrushchev can be said to have had anything in common, it would be their humble origins and their determination to succeed. Both were survivors who relied more upon instinct and ambition than upon rigid revolutionary formulae. Detzer illustrates this point by quoting Khrushchev as having once told press reporters, “Life is a great school. It thrashes you and bangs you about and teaches you.”

The personalities of Khrushchev and Castro, however, are only a segment of the author’s study. Considerable emphasis is also given to the growing disenchantment of the United States toward Castro’s Communism. The American public’s initial sense of hope which accompanied Castro’s overthrow of the Batista government in Cuba gradually disappeared as crude outdoor arena trials were held convicting Batista loyalists. Coupled with these incidents came a flood of horror stories from Cuban exiles and refugees to Florida, and the increasingly Communistic slant of Castro’s own public statements.

With his treatment of the Kennedy Administration, Detzer’s observations begin to be based upon questionable assumptions. Although his evaluation of the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 as a CIA misreading of Castro’s status and the temperament of the Cuban population is valid, Detzer’s attempt to penetrate Kennedy’s motives is more controversial. In describing the new President, the author notes Kennedy’s pre-Castro vacationing on the island and suggests that pleasant memories of Cuba became tarnished in Kennedy’s mind by the presence of a Marxist-oriented regime controlled by rowdies. Such an appraisal depicts Kennedy’s attitudes as surprisingly bourgeois.

More valid, however, is Detzer’s attention to Kennedy’s fear (expressed to New York Times columnist James Reston) that Khrushchev might...

(The entire section is 2368 words.)