fredag 25 februari 2011

Roger Älmberg: Då världen höll andan. Kubakrisen 1962 ("When the world held its breath. The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962")

Finished Roger Älmberg's "Då världen höll andan. Kubakrisen 1962", which depicts the events leading up to the famous crisis and details how it was ultimately resolved. 

The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, being ticked off at the presence of US/NATO nuclear missiles in Turkey, on the Soviet Union's back yard, and decides to place some nuclear missiles in America's back yard, the newly-communist island of Cuba. This would offset the US superiority when it came to strategic missiles, and be a great coup, he felt. The Cuban government, under constant threat and subjected to espionage and sabotage by the US, welcomed Soviet missiles and bases.

The Soviet leadership had gotten the impression of President Kennedy that he wasn't a particularly strong leader who would accept the fact of the missiles once they were revealed. He and his brother Robert, his Attorney General, had also been a little bit too confident that they could play the backchannels game with the Soviets to make the sort of deals necessary to keep everything running smoothly along, and seems to have gotten played by the Russian intel officer they used as an intermediary.

Anyway, when the bases were practically finished, the US discovered them, thanks in part to information from a highly positioned spy (later arrested and executed by the Russians) on how those bases would look. Now starts the Cuban Missile Crisis. Contacting the Russians, the Americans are fed a series of lies that these are just defensive military installations, and start deliberating at the highest government and military levels what to do about the unacceptable presence of nuclear weapons on Cuba.

Several – including the highest military men – want to go to air attacks followed by an invasion. Gradually, an alternative coalesces, where in order to gain time for negotiations and a solution that doesn't include going to a war that might end up encompassing Europe (where the situation of Berlin is still rather precarious, being an island of democracy in a sea of communism and still a very contentious issue) and perhaps even America itself the President and his councilors decide to instead of immediately attacking, bringing the problem to the attention of the world – in order to gain the sympathies of the rest of the world – and puts Cuba into "quarantine", or more correctly stated, enacts a blockade of the island. Any ships carrying missiles and such to the island is to be turned back. Meanwhile, a frantic search for solutions and information about what the other part is up to is started on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Khrushchev soon realizes that he's bitten off more than he can chew, and his initial goals, putting nuclear weapons on USA's doorstep, is rapidly abandoned for an attempt to get those pesky missiles in Turkey out, and to save face. By now, he knows that those missiles are basically obsolete, but he'll take what he can get. Meanwhile, the Americans know that they're obsolete as well, and have planned to remove them, but can't do so now as it'll look like they gave in to extortion...

The book then basically depicts the debates in the group of advisors created by President Kennedy, the decision processes within the Soviet leadership, and the diplomatic back-and-forth that would, in the end, resolve the conflict. It also offers a Swedish perspective on the crisis, giving some details about how the Swedish government reasoned and responded as well as on what a Soviet spy in the Swedish military, Colonel Stig Wennerström, did to earn his keep.

The Swedish track isn't entirely uninteresting, but it dilutes the narrative and is ultimately not successful. However, the diplomatic efforts to create a suitable response to the American blockade of Cuba. The Swedish government couldn't condone it, because that would set a precedent that the Soviet Union could use to exploit in the Baltic Sea, but at the same time, they didn't want to openly criticize the US.

Anyway, the story of the Cuban crisis is an informative one, on how you can avoid war, but that you need to a) actually want to avoid it, b) work to create the space and time to negotiate a deal that staves off war. While I don't think Älmberg quite manages to capture the nail-biting tension of those October days, that may be because I've been spoiled in that department by films like Thirteen Days and The Missiles of October (I was just a kid when I saw the Missiles of October, and it made a very strong impression on me), so I'll say that this is still worth reading. But if you're interested in the decision-making process, I really recommend the transcripts of the deliberations within Kennedy's inner circle. Now that was quite fascinating reading!

In summary, not-quite riveting, but worth the read.

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