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Interview: Max Frankel on the Cuban Missile Crisis

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-11-07

ONE of the most frightening episodes in the post-World War II period was the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the erstwhile Soviet Union secretly stationed nuclear projectiles in Cuba, its ally and fellow communist state that were aimed at the United States. Then US President John F. Kennedy confronted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who eventually backed down and removed the missiles.

But in their game of "nuclear chicken," Mr Kennedy was widely portrayed by the international media as jaunty and callow, and Mr Khrushchev as supremely self-confident. In a new book, High Noon in the Cold War (Random House, New York, Price US$23.95) that has special relevance to global security because of widespread concern over nuclear capabilities of North Korea and Iran, Mr Max Frankel portrays the young American president as increasingly calm and statesmanlike and Mr Khrushchev as Russian ruler who was not only a "wily old peasant" but also an insecure belligerent desperate to achieve credibility.

Drawing on secret government documents and his own familiarity with the story, Mr Frankel describes the disastrous miscalculations of the two superpowers: the US thought the Soviets would never deploy missiles to Cuba, while the Soviets thought the US - led by a young and inexperienced president - would have to acquiesce. Mr Frankel also writes about how both the leaders of both countries "beat back hotheads in their own councils."

Mr Frankel, who was born in 1930 in Gera, Germany, and educated at Columbia University in New York, covered the Cuban Missile Crisis as a young reporter for the New York. He later served the newspaper's executive editor from 1986 to 1994, and also received the Pulitzer Prize for international coverage in 1973 for his coverage of US President Richard M. Nixon's historic trip to China. He discussed his just-published book with The Straits Times. Excerpts from the interview:

What led to the writing of this book?

The last decade has produced a lot of new information in memoirs, scholarly research and government records, from the US and Soviet sides and even some input from the Cubans. And there has been no popular summation of the crisis embracing all this information and validating my belief, all along, that we were never as close to war - and certainly not nuclear war - as many books and movies would have us believe.

You distinguished yourself in Washington as a writer on domestic and international security issues, among other things. Does this book represent a return to writing on geopolitical issues on your part?

No, I am retired and have no plans for other books at the moment. This was a unique event that I experienced as a reporter in Washington 42 years ago, and it occurred after my reporting from Moscow and Havana, so that I had closely observed all the key actors. It resonated with my prior knowledge and also, of course, with current events.

Are today's politicians and policymakers in the US paying enough attention to historical issues such as the ones you deal with in your new book?

Very few of our leaders have had sufficient diplomatic experience or historical knowledge and so, as H. G. Wells once observed, history is a race between education and catastrophe. Or as the late President Abba Eban of Israel once put it, nations will behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives. Our leaders need to understand that in national security affairs, intelligence is always faulty, miscalculations by us and others are rampant, and the use of force, once initiated swiftly imposes its own logic and defies the best-laid plans.

What heartens you, and what disheartens you about national discourse on global issues in contemporary US society?

Our young people know even less history than we did as I was growing up. That means where there should be prudent alertness there is fear. And fear, when exploited by politicians, overwhelms the intellect, robs us of our rights and facilitates panicky behavior.

With globalisation bringing about such dizzying changes, is there any point in even bothering with political and social history?

Globalization proves that no nation can anymore control its own borders, its own economy, its own environment and its own national security. We are thrown together more than ever before and unless we apply the lessons of history - the spread of law and order from village to city to country - in the world at large, we shall all pay dearly for our ignorance.

What are your main worries about the political, economic and social directions of American society today?

Basically, we have not spent our wealth well enough, either for our own people or with our obligations to the world at large. And similarly, we have not used our enormous physical as well as economic power to lead the world in constructive directions.

Regardless of who wins the Nov. 2 presidential election, what should be the new US president's policy priorities?

An effort to rally truly global coalitions to address global problems, not only of peace and order in various parts of the world but also in trade, aid, environment, immigration.

What would you expect readers - especially in South-east Asia - to get out of your book?

Recognition that leaders matter, whatever the political system, and that belligerent external behavior is usually the product of domestic vulnerabilities and weaknesses. To curb aggression, in other words, we need to understand its roots in domestic affairs and use our wile and intelligence to postpone the resort to force.

Why has political Islam replaced communism as America's new bogeyman?

It's not a bogeyman when people of that persuasion capture airplanes and crash them into our cities. Its victims inevitably will reciprocate such hatred. Terror, of course, is the weapon of the weak, but there is no excuse for its use against the equally weak and vulnerable innocents. So the problem is not "political Islam," it is fanaticism of any kind, and violence perpetrated in the name of deities, when communist, Muslim or any other.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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