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Cool Heads Prevail In 'One Minute To Midnight'

"Let none of you think that he can lead God around by the beard," Nikita Khrushchev told his Cuba-bound generals before freighting nukes westward in 1962. Serendipitously, John Kennedy possessed a similar grasp of this fundamental political precept, thus creating an alliance — and not a rivalry — with his bitterest adversary. Though there were plenty of leaders, Castro and Che among them, who didn't get the memo, both Khrushchev and Kennedy understood that, when it comes to destroying the planet, everyone winds up on the same team. As Michael Dobbs reveals, it was the refusal of the Brothers K to tug on God's beard that did the most to maintain the superpowers' sanity during the Cuban missile crisis.

A page-turning antidote to the morass into which the '08 campaign has buried politics, Dobbs' One Minute to Midnight shows how the missile crisis was a stunning triumph for tactical diplomacy — posturing and pandering and all (it was Khrushchev, for heaven's sake) — over violence. Though luck probably had more to do with the peaceful resolution than many of the principals were initially willing to admit, the solution was still an ultimate subordination of power to policy, of hawkishness to humility. One Minute, then, provides a vivid illustration of the measured use of executive authority — and of its limits. Success depended not on who refused to "blink," but rather on who had enough courage to believe JFK's prediction that if nukes were loosed, "None of us will be alive later to tell ... that [we] were wrong."

Skillfully moving across oceans of space, time and emotion, Dobbs deftly jumps — at times from chapter to chapter, at others, from page to page — from one minute to midnight in Washington, to one half-hour to midnight in Moscow, to one nanosecond to midnight in Havana. Though not as magisterial as The Best and the Brightest or The Final Days, One Minute is clinical and thrilling, a worthy entry in the ever-growing field of journalism that offers postmortems of events of the '60s and '70s.

"Eyeball to Eyeball" and "Till Hell Freezes Over" made great headline copy, but they ultimately had little, if anything, to do with the evasion of Armageddon. As One Minute makes clear, East and West both won this round of the Cold War. In the "Bring 'Em On" era, contemporary policymakers would do well to emulate such humility and humanity — and such politics.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Simon Maxwell Apter
Simon Maxwell Apter is assistant editor at Lapham's Quarterly, where he also runs the Web site. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, The American Prospect, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.