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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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