Averting 'The Final Failure': John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings

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The Cuban missile crisis was the most dangerous confrontation of the Cold War and the most perilous moment in human history. Sheldon M. Stern, longtime historian at the John F. Kennedy Library, here presents a comprehensive narrative account of the secret ExComm meetings, making the inside story of the missile crisis completely understandable to general readers for the first time. The author's narrative version of these discussions is entirely new; it provides readers with a running commentary on the issues and options discussed and enables them, as never before, to follow specific themes and the role of individual participants. The narrative highlights key moments of stress, doubt, decision, and resolution—and even humor—and makes the meetings comprehensible both to readers who lived through the crisis and to those too young to remember the Cold War. Stern demonstrates that JFK, a seasoned Cold Warrior who bore some of the responsibility for precipitating the crisis, consistently steered policy makers away from an apocalyptic nuclear conflict, which he called, with stark eloquence, "the final failure."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Anyone who lived through the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the most perilous moments in contemporary history, will find Sheldon M. Stern's Averting 'The Final Failure' a real page turner. In highly readable fashion it details the inside story based on Oval Office tapes of the 13 days that shook the world."—Arnold Beichman, The Washington Times

"...Stern's skillful analysis of these Kennedy tapes provides a welcome addition to the voluminous literature on the crisis, showing that evaluations of Kennedy's leadership, crisis resolution, and Cold War policies are far from complete."—Journal of American History

"Stern's Averting the Final Failure greatly contributes to our understanding of the ExComm deliberations and JFK's role as a crisis manager."—Presidential Studies Quarterly

"Anyone seeking to expand their understanding of the missile crisis would do well to entertain the arguments contained in [this book]....It now stands to reason that Stern's work must be taken into account if one is to undertake any serious investigation of decision-making on the American side. Indeed, simply as a corrective to Robert Kennedy's own crisis memoir, Thirteen Days, Stern's work is indispensable."—The Journal of Conflict Studies

Library Journal
Stern, a historian at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library from 1977 to 1999, presents here the most significant interpretation of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis to date. He is the first historian to have full access to the October 16-29 tapes, from which he has drawn this account of the meetings between Kennedy and the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. Kennedy is portrayed by Stern as a cool, in-control leader who, despite the bellicose recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other advisers, made rational diplomatic decisions aimed at avoiding the "final failure" of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, Kennedy, along with his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, are faulted for helping to precipitate the crisis by their anti-Castro obsession, which continued until JFK's assassination in 1963. This absorbing narrative is densely packed with information that may overwhelm the general reader, but historians and informed readers are richly rewarded by this first "interpretative narrative account" of the most dangerous Cold War confrontation. How ordinary Americans responded to the Cuban Missile Crisis is the theme of independent historian George's admirable social history, which is especially notable for its portrayal of how children were traumatized by air raid drills and other futile protective measures "[that] had little more credibility than the Easter Bunny." Many anecdotes are humorous only in hindsight-of panic buying, attempted evacuations of cities, and denial, which led to a mini-boom in private fallout shelters. George skillfully demonstrates that the crisis was inflamed by the Cold War culture, which led to a dangerous war of words between Kennedy and Khrushchev in a political setting where diplomacy was viewed as appeasement. Both of these first-rate investigations are strongly recommended for academic and larger public collections.-Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804748469
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 7/11/2003
  • Series: Stanford Nuclear Age Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Sheldon M. Stern was the Historian at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library from 1977 to 1999.

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Table of Contents

Preface: The JFK Cuban Missile Crisis Tapes
Introduction: the Making of the Cuban Missile Crisis 1
The Secret Meetings of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council 57
Epilogue: The November Post-Crisis 403
Conclusion: Listening and Learning: Insights from the JFK ExComm Tapes 413
App The Published Cuban Missile Crisis Transcripts Rounds One, Two and Beyond 427
Bibliography 441
Index 451
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2004

    A Must Read for History Buffs

    Averting The Final Failure reads like a novel that has you riveted to your seat quickly turning pages to find out what happens next, yet the solid, meticuluous research and scholarship that went into it will make it the standard text for students of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the crisis unfolds, the reader gets to glimpse a real lesson in history - that real people, make real decisions, that have real consequences, and that other choices could have been made. This book will stand as essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the events of October 1962 and JFK's stable leadership during it. Kudos to Sheldon Stern. Be sure to read the epilogue. You will be glad you did.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2003

    Far Superior to 'Thirteen Days'

    For nearly 20 years, I have taught an elective for high school seniors that surveys the origins and spread of nuclear power & weapons from 1895 to the present. Every year the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was a highlight, especially because we drove vans right to the JFK Library and heard its historian Sheldon M. Stern lay out stunning detail, complete with audio clips, transcripts of ExComm tapes, Adlai Stevenson's actual UN photo set, and more. But now, Stern has put it in book form, and if ever the devil was in the details, this book is a glorious teaching opportunity to show students how details and exact evidence are indispensable -- especially in a 9/11 age where imprecise Intelligence can have huge consequences at home and abroad. Certainly Intelligence proved breathtakingly faulty before and during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and the consequences then were almost cataclysmic, as Stern's book demonstrates in chilling chapter and verse. The Cuban missile crisis is a history teacher's dream assignment anyway, for its layers and layers of historiographical changes, as new revelations have kept trickling out, not only with the gradual release of the ExComm tapes, but also Soviet sources after the Cold War ended. Stern's volume makes this 'crystal,' and breaks through student glaze, by showing as well as any monograph I have ever read how once in a while an historian really can become the proverbial fly on the wall during momentous spoken history. Check out the moments when General Curtis LeMay provocatively invokes Munich, or JFK snaps uncharacteristically at Dean Rusk, or the Cabinet room almost goes nuts when the U-2 gets shot down. Even the footnotes are a treasure trove, pointing out remarkable links to Winston Churchill in 1940, Joseph McCarthy in 1954, and the Bay of Pigs & Operation Mongoose as somewhat terrorist activities in the 1960's. For 20 years, we had assigned RFK's Thirteen Days, aware of its faults as a kind of 1968 campaign document, but grateful for a short, readable, if flawed, first-hand account ghosted by Ted Sorensen. In 2001 we added Hollywood's film Thirteen Days, grossly misleading but useful in its own ways. Now, however, we have a source, Averting the Final Failure, that shows with a trained historian's meticulous concern for evidence, wherever it may lead, how dangerous it can be for students to rely on Thirteen Days, either the book or the movie. The fact that a disheartenly huge percentage of Americans will judge the 1962 Cuban missile crisis -- and any other historical topic for that matter -- by what either Hollywood or a self-serving participant told them about it, makes Sheldon Stern's careful study almost urgent reading, at least for high school teachers and the young citizens they nurture. It will take time: 459 carefully crafted pages and then some. But Andover students are finding that this time translates efficiently into historical treasure, where an historian eavesdropping in a library basement can find more real-life drama in unvarnished evidence than countless Hollywoods.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2003

    Final Failure Rates an A+

    Averting the Final Failure is a chilling, provocative page-turner. It¿s a riveting story and the fact that we are here to read it gives away the ending. The 'Final Failure' is President Kennedy¿s phrase for the nuclear holocaust that he hoped to avert in confrontation with Russia over the presence of their missiles in Cuba. We who are old enough to remember those days in 1962 and the years that followed know that we came close to annihilation. Sheldon Stern, retired Historian of the Kennedy Library, tells us just-how-close-we-came. Dr. Stern was the first person to listen to the secret tapes of JFK¿s executive committee meetings on the crisis. He is one of a very few people to listen to them all. He knows his subject well and in the course of his work, got to meet some of the participants who had never known they were being taped. Hollywood has visited this episode in our history several times with their usual indifference to accuracy. The facts of the matter are more dramatic than any fictional treatment to date. This is a book for those who love or hate John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It will temper dislike with respect and add doubt to adulation. We often hear the term, 'loose cannon' to describe a reckless, irresponsible individual. While reading Averting the Final Failure, I was reminded of a Victor Hugo story, 'The Runaway Gun.' Finally, I had to find it and read it again. Hugo tells of a cannon that is improperly secured aboard a sailing vessel. It comes loose in a storm; as the ship rolls, so does the cannon. It seems certain the gun will burst through the wooden planking and sink the ship. A man is killed trying to get a rope around it. Nobody can stop it. It is as if it were alive. At last, one young sailor manages to flip it over on its side so that it can be made secure. The brave young man has saved the ship and all the men aboard! Ah, but then: It is revealed that he was the individual who was charged with securing the cannon in the first place. The young sailor is honored and decorated for his bravery. Then, the ship¿s captain orders that he be executed for his negligence. President Kennedy reminds me of the young sailor in the Hugo story. As we read the unfolding events of those 13 days we are amazed at his leadership skill and intelligence but then realize that it was JFK who got us into it! It could have gone the other

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2003

    The Ultimate Test of Leadership

    Never before have we had such a definitive insider account as Stern's reconstruction of how JFK averted war during the Cuban missile crisis. One finally puts down this book with an appreciation of his role in precipitating the crucial encounter with the Soviets but of also how, in the final test, his was the coolest head that prevailed.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2003

    An excellent and exciting view of the U.S. in crisis...

    ...Portraying President Kennedy and his team in action at a tense and trying moment, with great attention to a precise rendering and analysis of the verbatim records. And a fine account of the context in which the crisis unfolded.

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