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The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Threat of Nuclear War: Lessons from History.

The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Threat of Nuclear War: Lessons from History. By Len Scott. (London, England: Continuum, 2008. Pp. xii, 222. $49.95.)

There has been no shortage of scholarly interest in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, often described as the moment when the world came closest to nuclear destruction. In this work, Len Scott utilizes much of this scholarship "to examine the role of nuclear weapons" in the crisis "and to evaluate the risk of inadvertent nuclear war" (2). Unlike some recent studies of the crisis, Scott does not rely on newly discovered primary sources or make use of interviews of yet-unheard-from participants. Instead, he has carefully mined the secondary (and memoir) literature for insights into three related areas: "the role of nuclear weapons in the conduct of foreign policy, in deterring armed conflict and in risking nuclear war" (17). For Scott, these are the salient issues involved in the Cuban missile crisis, which the Soviets referred to as the "Caribbean crisis" and the Cubans dubbed the "October crisis." Throughout this brief but engagingly written and extremely well-documented volume, Scott takes on the received wisdom regarding what future generations of policymakers as well as scholars might learn from the crisis, concluding in the end that the lessons were uneven, imbalanced, and not universally applicable. At heart, he focuses on two hierarchical levels of decision making: high-level policymakers and subordinate actors/organizations.

Methodologically, Scott by design employs counterfactual scenarios as he engages in what might best be characterized as "What If" history. As a result, much of this volume is taken up with subjecting other authors' conclusions and assertions to various counterfactuals in an effort to determine the true role of nuclear weapons in the Cuban missile crisis, a method Scott defends as "essential in examining how close we may have been to nuclear war" (23). Besides, he avers, if policymakers on both sides employed such a tool when framing their own positions during the crisis, does it not make sense to do the same when seeking to understand those positions?

As far as Scott's conclusions are concerned, there are many, two of which are of particular import. First, he notes that John F. Kennedy's and Nikita Khrushchev's determination to reach a negotiated settlement rose with the risk of escalation. In other words, neither really wanted the crisis to spiral out of control. Second, he notes that there were times when lower-level actions threatened upper-level efforts at restraint and accommodation. Put another way, Scott envisions scenarios in which, Kennedy's and Khrushchev's best efforts notwithstanding, a nuclear crisis might have occurred. This is a sobering thought indeed, and an indication that the most important things to happen in a crisis might not be the decisions taken at the highest levels.

Without a doubt Scott has produced a volume worth careful study and consideration. The just over one hundred sixty pages of text in this volume are heavily documented with valuable references to the extant literature--a literature Scott obviously knows well--and the counterfactual methodology used throughout provides a useful model that others might employ with much success.

Mary Ann Heiss

Kent State University

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Author:Heiss, Mary Ann
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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