Eyeball to Eyeball

Touted as a definitive, monumental “inside story” by such old CIA hands as Richard M. Helms and Ray S. Cline, EYEBALL TO EYEBALL is well-written, even engrossing at times. The technical information is ably interwoven with the crisis negotiations and actually enhances the book’s readability. Brugioni demonstrates how dependent were policymakers on briefings from Lundahl and his team. Their findings not only triggered the crisis but facilitated its resolution.

Brugioni is especially enlightening on the origins of U-2 flights in the 1950’s. Desirous of avoiding unnecessary defense spending, President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed that acquiring an accurate assessment of Soviet capabilities could save U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars. Kennedy kept Eisenhower fully briefed during the subsequent missile crisis and benefitted from his counsel.

One of the main strengths of EYEBALL TO EYEBALL is Brugioni’s colorful yet succinct character sketches. John Kennedy comes off as cautious, curious, and controlled, in contrast to the bold, emotional, unpredictable Khrushchev, who badly misjudged JFK’s resolve. Brugioni characterizes Kennedy’s handling of the crisis as “firmness moderated only by wisdom and diplomacy.” The President was particularly adept at keeping the military on a tight leash. He handled one meeting with the joint chiefs so well, remarked Maxwell Taylor, that “all their tiger blood turned to piss.”

Well-researched but sparsely footnoted, EYEBALL TO EYEBALL does not go into other historians’ interpretations of the missile crisis or place it in the context of U.S.-Latin American or U.S.-European relations. Brugioni argues that there were political reasons, both foreign and domestic, that led Kennedy to take his stand. First, yielding might weaken American claims to world leadership by undermining its credibility. Second, yielding would have been unacceptable to large numbers of American voters.