The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis by David G. Coleman. Published by W.W. Norton, New York, 2012. 256 pages.
When discussing the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the United States and the Soviet Union close to nuclear war, it is common to frame it within thirteen days. This is because the first account of how President John F. Kennedy handled the crisis was written and by his brother in 1969, then Attorney General Robert Kennedy and titled, “Thirteen Days,” later made in to a film by the same name. David Coleman, the chair of the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia, has written a new angle on this much discussed element of the Cold War. Instead of focusing on Oct. 16-28, 1962, he takes us to the next day, the fourteenth day of the crisis. Popular history has Kennedy ordering a naval quarantine of Cuba, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordering Soviet cargo ships to reverse course at the last moment, and that to avoid escalating Nuclear confrontation, Khrushchev also ordered that the nuclear missiles in Cuba be dismantled. In those thirteen days are the discovery of the missiles by U-2 planes, verification that they were indeed offensive nuclear weapons capable of striking the United States, diplomacy with the Soviets, back-channeled negotiations with Moscow, Kennedy announcing the missiles in Cuba, military buildup, and confrontation in the halls of the United Nations between Adlai Stevenson and his Soviet counterpart Valerian Zorin. There were also the heated negotiations to get consensus among U.S. agencies and the military to invade, strike or conduct both offensive options against Cuba.
But after the Soviets blinked, to paraphrase former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, how do you verify the Soviets had removed all their missiles from Cuba? What about the IL-28 bombers capable of reaching the United States with a nuclear payload? How many Soviet combat troops will remain in Cuba? What did it mean when Khrushchev said in s cable on day thirteen, “removal of weapons you consider offensive.” You will quickly understand that while the main crisis had been defused, a series of crises were brewing by negotiating what is an offensive weapon in U.S. eyes versus Soviet eyes, particularly in the context of the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion, and multiple attempts by the United States to topple Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Coleman gives readers a ring-side seat into the discussions with Kennedy administration leaders from the Secretary of State and Defense, the Intelligence Agencies, to include an infant Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The author uses a declassified archive that captures the realities of the work that needed to be done to bring both sides back from the abyss of nuclear war. For instance, one question is if the United States conducts over flights to verify the Soviets are abiding by their agreement to dismantle the missiles, and an SA-2 surface to air missile which already had downed one U-2 plane, killing its pilot, downs another one, would this restart the conflict? Of note, pages discuss how SA-2s were mainly crewed by Soviet military personnel at that time, since Cuba was still in the process of training enough anti-air crews in the Soviet Union. This is the level of detail Coleman captures and is a delight to read, particularly for anyone wanting to see how America’s executive branch operates under severe crisis. Simply put, “The Fourteenth Day” is a recommended read. It is a fitting read in light of the fact that the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis was just last fall.
Editor’s Note: Cmdr. Aboul-Enein is author of two books on the Middle East. He teaches part-time at the National Defense University and maintains a regular book column in the NDW newspaper, Waterline. He wishes to thank his Teaching Assistant Ms. Sara Bannach a student of International Relations at George Mason University for her edits and comments that enhanced this column. Also, the National Defense University Library must also be thanked for providing me this book and a quiet place to write this review.