Minutes dragged to Hours: One Minute to Midnight by Michael Dobbs

 

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The days the world held its breath

“My father was a watchmaker, he gave it up when Einstein concluded that time was relative. I can only agree that a metaphorical clock is a nourishing to the human intellect as a picture of air is to a drowning man” – Doctor Manhattan (Watchmen)

 

Through his cryptic answer he made three points of conjecture, the relativity of speed is all too many times felt in the individual both in motion and at rest. That humanity feels compelled to quantify and categorise as a means of instilling a regularity, and Armageddon both potential and real in this era were not excluded from this. That in quantifying Apocalypse demonstrates the overall futility in what can be seen as a heartfelt attempt to normalise the abnormal. No other clock strikes these points more poignantly than the one looked on with the most anxiety: The Doomsday Clock.

Created and used by the members of the Science and Security Board, the Doomsday Clock was first conceived in 1947 as a means of calculating the likelihood of escalation boiling over into full thermonuclear conflict during the Cold War. The possibility of which would have pitted the two Superpowers of the 20th century and their NATO and Warsaw allies against one another in a struggle which would have resulted in the death of untold millions.

When Doctor Manhattan spoke of Einstein’s theory it is predominantly centred on motion, but for those leading and living under the shadow of war, minutes felt dragged to hours for lack of information as well as the crippling feeling of responsibility over your country with the hundreds of millions of people making up the expectant and terrified witnesses to failure. For a player on the world’s stage, mistakes could not be tolerated, with failure dropping billions of lives to the ground, to lie irrevocably shattered by mistakes written large with radiation.

No crisis sparks the fears of those who witnessed it or incited the popular imagination than the ‘Eye to Eye’ moment of 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis.

Michael Dobbs in his book ‘One Minute to Midnight’ gives a remarkable insight into the crisis with newly released archival resources, including U2 surveillance footage as well as stenography of meetings between members of the CIA and White House senior advisors and recordings captured by President Kennedy in secret. Dobbs strives to re-tell the once romanticised standoff in far more realistic grounds between the key powers and the men behind the decisions.

Nikita Khrushchev, the Premier of the Soviet Union who rose from obscurity as a peasant to gain notoriety within the Red Army, who used his forceful character and Machiavellian wit to outmanoeuvre his more traditional opponents. Dobbs portrays his coarse demeanour during his time in the Presidium, as well as his glowering across the Black Sea on his retreats to modern day Ukraine, asking his guests to look through a telescope and in their failure to see what he did, scornfully announce to them the insult placed on his nation by the USA in positioning Jupiter Missiles in Turkey. This was a man who sought out a means to equalise the game of brinkmanship, as well as make the USA feel the same humiliating feeling he was made to feel day after day. The man had been witness to the atrocities of the Great Patriotic War and swore that he would never see his mother country demeaned by another.

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Nikita Khrushchev: Premier of the USSR, he was no stranger to fighting it out for his place in the world

 

Where Khrushchev seized power through hard fought personal, military and political battles inch by inch, his counterpart was one whose battles came from televised debates and long winding campaign trails, no blood and bullets but simply ballots. John F. Kennedy was part of a long standing ‘reputable’ family, seen as palatable to the senior politicians in Washington, and the revolutionary stand-out in televised debates against his less aesthetically pleasing counterpart, Richard Nixon. JFK had a turbulent rise to power but nailed by pressure from an outgoing President Eisenhower, a fickle voting public and senior officials in the military and CIA force his ever strong intellect to be pushed beyond the capacity to take its toll mentally and physically.

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JFK and his younger brother Robert ‘Bobby’ Kennedy, their personalities were one of imposing stoicism, and of passionate rage, they would come to rely  on one another in the coming days

The true survivor in Dobbs’ opinion is the leader of the Island nation now finding itself beleaguered by an imposing neighbour just 90 miles away, and an ever developing friendship with an all too distant power. Fidel Castro, the pupil of a Jesuit school turned student protest leader found himself in 1959 overthrowing the Batista regime and having to clutch power with a white knuckle grip. Now finding himself, his people and his regime under threat by a US vying for his death and a Soviet Union whose position fluctuates from proud support to chants of ‘Cuba go to hell’, he will export his inflammatory passion and fanaticism to his people to rally against all outsiders, being no stranger to adversity, his words will burn in the voices of his people crying for ‘Cuba or muerte!’[1].

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Unknown to many, Castro was often soft spoken, but when brought into the conversation, his nerves were mixed with a violent passion. His exhortations proved contagious and rallied the Cuban people against the foreign enemies.

Dobbs’ work demonstrates the near run reality, with the compressing need for action within claustrophobic meetings, the anxiety fuelled lack of information, and in a time where generals such as Curtis LeMay are depicted by Kubrick as Buck Turgidson[2], the pressure is expressed to the reader as the crisis is taken from days to hours and minutes in explicit detail.

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Buck Turgidson [Doctor Strangelove] was based on General Curtis LeMay, too often is the fervour and bravado of generals brought to the screen. Stanley Kubrick didn’t have to look far to find his inspiration
Khrushchev’s desire to level the international playing field is driven home to the reader through the memoirs of his staff and meetings within the Presidium, and his desire to ‘put one of our hedgehogs down the American’s trousers’[3] through Operation Anadyr: the transport and preparation of Medium Range Ballistic Missiles which were of a longer range, and more dangerous potential than the Jupiter missiles given to the Turkish government. The tension is only matched with the farcical aspect that ‘signals can be sent up to satellites, but sending a message to the Premier took days’, Dobbs illustrating the painful lag between communications largely symbolic, and ones which symbolised the cutting line between salvation and oblivion.

Dobbs’ analysis is one of remarkable detail and character depth, demonstrating the utter toll of office on the Kennedy brothers, and how Robbie acted as a form of Mr Hyde, shouting in frustration and demand for information and action, to John’s sometimes begrudgingly reserved nature, bottling up his rage and projecting it in bitter jokes.

“There’s always one son of a bitch that doesn’t get the word”

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The pressure placed on the shoulders of the Kennedy brothers proved too much at times. wreaked with stress, John took on medications, gaining him the Dobbs-ian description as ‘A walking medicine cabinet’. While Bobby would find his outspoken rage given way to silent nervous fiddling, often switching from rapping the table with his knuckles and grinding his teeth.

While we focus attention on the ‘Eye-to-Eye’ moment between Soviet and US warships off the coast of Cuba, Dobbs draws focus to the very credible danger of nuclear war caused by a tragic delay of communication and navigational accident. The fuel for ‘Black Saturday’, the flight of Charles Maultsby had inadvertently found itself in Soviet territory, with limited fuel and with only the stars to guide him, Dobbs retelling of his odyssey is something told with a true feeling of the suspense by the author.

It is a definite read for those who seek to gain an understanding of the inner machinations of high office, as well as just how near-run the whole affair was, far be it from instant access to information the great amount of fear came from not knowing which demanded calm amid the storm. But in this day and age, knowing what kind of lessons were mistakenly learnt as well as just how a crisis mishandled can lead to catastrophe are two elements the United States can be seen as undergoing today.

The historian Arthur M Schlesinger Jr once wrote that “Writing about the past is a way of writing about the present, we re-interpret the past through the prism of our modern day”. Neo-Conservative thinkers originally believed that Cuba was an American triumph due to executive authority, combined with technological and military superiority prevailing over an outstretched USSR. What we see through Vietnam as well as the current state of affairs in the Middle East is the application of these thoughts, rendering exposed the botched surgery of mistakenly learnt lessons.

[1] Dobbs, M. (2008). ‘One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the brink of Nuclear War’. Arrow Publishing

[2] Dick, B, F. (2016). ‘The Screen is Red: Hollywood, Communism and the Cold War’. University of Mississippi University Press

[3] Elleman, B, A. Paine, S, C, M. (2007). ‘Naval Blockades and Seapower: Strategies and Counter-Strategies, 1805-2005’. Routledge, USA. Pp.157-159

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His divine, volatile majesty: Of Xerxes

“‘You dare to call that creature A KING?’… There was no mistaking Xerxes’ rage, even his kinsmen and senior officers were intimidated by the intensity… They all kept their eyes averted, in the hope of diverting his fury away from them.”[1] – Xerxes in the aftermath of Thermopylae 480BC

Greece is in the midst of the largest recorded invasion by a foreign power, which dwarfed any that came before it[2]; Herodotus speaking of a force that marches across oceans and drains rivers dry, of nearly two million men. While dramatised, modern historians place the figure at the still staggering three hundred thousand[3] that now bears down upon Attica, home of the Polis of Athens.

The king of kings, Xerxes I ruled his worlds empire with an iron yet volatile fist. Prone to irrational outbursts of rage, he lashed out with cruel and spiteful punishment; in the first attempted land crossing to Greece, with the destruction of the crossing bridges, Herodotus writes of his furious demand for the engineer’s heads to be cut off and for 300 lashes to be prescribed to the guilty sea:

“You salt and bitter stream, your master lays this punishment on you for injuring him, who never injured you. But Xerxes the King will cross you, with or without your permission. No man sacrifices to you, and you deserve neglect by your acid and muddy waters”[4]

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Fig 1: the symbolic/erratic punishment prescribed upon the sea is dramatised in this image; Xerxes looking on with anger at the seas rebellion

 

A pair of shackles was then thrown into the ocean, to finalise the prescribed justice for its revolt. Herodotus through this passage demonstrates to a listening audience that Xerxes would leave no illusion to the furious justice he would exact upon the polis of Greece. The mind of Xerxes is one conditioned by a boundless wealth he ascended into, as well as a hostile contest with his elder sibling, subordinates and vassals in his early life. With the death of Darius I, Artobazanes laid claim to the throne as eldest and therefore legitimate, the younger Xerxes was advised of his noble heritage; and while Artobazanes was eldest, Xerxes was the son of Atossa: daughter of Cyrus, the patriarch of the Persian Empire and therefore achieved the greater legitimacy[5].

“My father made me greatest after himself”[6]

Throne of Xerxes

Fig 2: The throne of Darius, his noble son Xerxes: carrying the torch onwards to a new age of prosperity/uncertainty

 

While historians argue that the ascent of Xerxes to the throne was smooth and painless, A T Olmstead summarises Xerxes’ reign as one of vacillating leadership; being seen as a weakling monarch [7]when compared to Darius and Cyrus; cowed by the opinions and views of the eunuchs and attendants of the Persepolis court. While using his architectural feats to set himself apart as the uncontested ruler and his own King of Kings:

“A great god is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created yonder firmament, who created man, who created welfare for a man, who made Xerxes king, one king of many, one lord of many. I am Xerxes, great king, King of Kings, King of countries containing many peoples, king of this great earth far and wide, son of Darius the King, and an Achaemenian.”[8]

While Xerxes had his eyes initially on being renowned as a great builder[9], he presided over a world empire with countries seeking to break away. Egypt and Babylon both[10] harboured religious resentment against Xerxes, which compelled him to repress Egypt. Babylon was reserved a harsher punishment, having its golden statue of Marduk, the patron god of their city, melted down to bullion and removed, demonstrating to both Egypt and Babylon that his rule is beyond contradiction.

With these challenges overcome, Persia knew no western rival and Xerxes had no motivations of conquest, but his cousin Mardonius had other aspirations over Greece:

“’Master’ he would say, ‘The Athenians have done us a great injury, and it is only right that they should be punished for their crimes… Do that, and your name will be held in honour all over the world, and people will think twice before they invade your country’”[11]

Mardonius sought to meld his ambition with the historic desire for vengeance on behalf of Persia, while stroking the ego of his newly powerful cousin Xerxes, who already desired to set himself apart from Cyrus, the patriarch of Persia and his father Darius who rescued the empire from Persia’s pretenders, nicknamed the ‘Shopkeeper’ of Persia[12] for securing it against the turbulent period after Cyrus. Mardonius positioned Xerxes as the avenging conqueror, exacting a long awaited revenge against Greece for its transgressions and beyond the feats of his ancestors, unconsciously guided by his advisors, Xerxes made ready for war.

Persian Empire Extent

Fig 3: The extent of the Persian Empire under Darius I, inherited by Xerxes. The line running from Susa to the eastern coast of modern day Turkey is the Persian Royal Road, one of the projects set by Darius to solidify Persia’s position. It would later become the road for Xerxes’ march on Greece.

 

[1] Schrader, H, P. (2012). ‘Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King’. Wheatmark, Arizona. Pp.1-2

[2] Herodotus, pp. 453

[3] De Souza, P. (2003). ‘The Greek and Persian Wars, 499-386bc’. Osprey Publishing, USA. Pp.41

[4] Herodotus, pp.456-7

[5] Herodotus. Pp.442

[6] Kuhrt, A. (2010). ‘The Persian Empire: A corpus of sources from the Achaemenid Period’. Routledge, New York. Pp.244

[7] Olmstead, A, T. (1959). ‘History of the Persian Empire’. Phoenix Books. University of Chicago Press. Pp.233-4

[8] Kent, R, G. (1933). ‘A New Inscription of Xerxes’. Linguistic Society of America, Language, Vol.9, No.1. Pp. 36

[9] Huot, Jean-Louis. (2014). “Xerxes: Reigned 486-465 BC.” The Latin Library. Web. http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/imperialism/notes/xerxes.html

[10] Mark, J, J. (2011). Ancient History Encyclopedia. Web. http://www.ancient.eu/Xerxes_I/

[11] Herodotus, pp.442

[12] Briant, P. (2006). ‘From Cyrus to Alexander: History of the Persian Empire’. Eisenbrauns. Pp.70

Ashes and Fear – After Thermopylae

“In darkness, and his foes shall not again render him blood for blood in amplest penalty” – Electra (247-8) Sophocles

Revenge acts as the major undercurrent to the Greco-Persian wars, and by this period both the Persian Empire and Greek city states either have a reason for revenge or need for being avenged. By 480bc, these states had formed a Hellenic League in order to counter the Persian invasion, though those passively aware of this war in retrospect believed this was a unified Greece, Herodotus references the polis’ of Thessaly, as well as Macedon as ally and intermediary for the Persian Empire, this idea dissipates. In tragic irony: acting as a diplomat as well as an ally of Persia, was the King of Macedon, Alexander the first.

The autumn of 480bc had plunged these states into a panic; the defeat of forces at Thermopylae resulted in resistance to Xerxes being driven back[1]. And for his march south towards Attica, the homeland of the Athenian polis, open to him and his army. While some submitted or fled before the Persian advance, Athens remained in a state of shock and political impasse; rendering their concerns unto the Oracle of Delphi, less commonly known as Pythia, the high priestess of Apollo, to advise them on their course of action. The message they were given was at once clear, and horrifying:

“Why sit you, doomed ones? Fly to worlds end, leaving home and the heights your city circles like a wheel. The head shall not remain in its place, nor the body, nor the feet, nor the hands, nor parts in-between; but all is ruined, for fire and the headlong god of war speeding in a Syrian chariot shall bring you low. Many a tower shall he destroy, not yours alone, and give you pitiless fire many shrines of gods, which even now stand sweating, with fear, quivering. While over rooftops black blood runs streaming. In the prophecy of woe that needs must come.”[2]

Woeful, they contemplated this message, Herodotus narrates that the son of the (alleged) politician Androbolus suggested taking cuttings from an olive tree, bearing them in their hand, and asking her again. With this symbol or peace, clutched in anxious hands, Pythia replied:

“Yet Zeus, the all-seeing grants to Athene’s prayer [Goddess of Athens] that the wooden wall only shall not fall, but help you and your children. But await not the host of horse and foot coming from Asia”[3]

While dismay was alleviated, their confusion did not abate and still pondering her words they rode to Athens and conveyed her prophesy. A young democracy and nervous delegation played host to the words of their delegation. Pythia’s words chilled them in her reflection of their deepest fears[4] and sent them into a tumultuous debate over actions and interpretations; one prevailed over others, Themistocles, the renowned general and admiral, whose bravery at Marathon drove back the first invasion of the Persians years before, and whose role in the naval battle months before at Artemesium pressed the congregation into silence and forced calm. With this, he urged them to use the time gained from Artemesium’s delay of the Persian navy to have the citizens of the polis be evacuated. With this course proposed by the rising military and political Themistocles, nervous action possessed them in organising evacuation properly:

“While, therefore, the rest of the fleet lay at Salamis, the Athenians returned to their own harbours, and at once issue a proclamation that everyone in the city and countryside should get his children and all his members of the household to safety as best he could”[5]

 

EPMA-13330-Themistocle_decree-2Fig 1: The Decree of Themistocles: a viewable exhibit at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens: (http://www.ancient.eu/Athens/) written on the tablet are the final words of the Oracle: “Divine Salamis, you bring death to women’s sons when corn is scattered, or the harvest gathered in”

In evacuating the women and children to Salamis and Trozen, he called upon the conscription of men to fight and row in the Athenian navy, and made it known of the blood, sweat and tears he resolved to give in his resolution to never surrender to what Tom Holland refers to as ‘The gathering storm’[6] of Xerxes and his long, ancestral vengeance.

[1] Herodotus (446bc). ‘The Histories’. Penguin Classics, London. Book 7, Pg. 488

[2] Herodotus (446bc). Pg.490

[3] Herodotus (446bc). Pg.491

[4] Farrar, C. (1989). ‘The origins of democratic thinking: The Invention of Politics in Classical Athens’. Cambridge University Press, London. Pg.22-3

[5] Herodotus, pg.537

[6] Holland, T. (2005). ‘Persian Fire: The first world Empire, Battle for the West’. Abacus, London. Pp.299

Introduction

Hello there.

This is a new blog and I honestly believe it to be an audience of one, as it is my own desire to tell a story which many may know verse by verse. But also those that we too often forget, pay no heed to, or simply do not take into consideration.

My Fiancé’s fascination for ancient  civilisations has proven infectious, as I’ve been carried away with the high drama, the uncertainty of Greece; from the utter uncertainty of Persia and its conception, the misunderstandings or diplomacy, into the suspense and nail biting politics of quarrelling city-states who stand with anxious baited breath, for the vengeance of Persia, whose armies, like a conflagration, seek to devour the freedoms, cities and people like no force before them.

But with the fears come the relief of triumph and survival, a remarkable moment where the few overcame the many, and Athens among others entering the high watermark of their history.

But the foreboding shadow of Persia would change the face of Athens, and much as Nietzsche would later warn:

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster”

The publications here will convey the humanity of the inhumanity of the Second Greco-Persian invasion, its wars toll on those that resisted, on the lands and citizens that interposed themselves between Xerxes and his vengeance.

But also of how great democracies can themselves, become the monster they once sought to defeat.