Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis

Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis

by Martin J. Sherwin


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From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer comes the first effort to set the Cuban Missile Crisis, with its potential for nuclear holocaust, in a wider historical narrative of the Cold War—how such a crisis arose, and why at the very last possible moment it didn't happen.

In this groundbreaking look at the Cuban Missile Crisis, Martin Sherwin not only gives us a riveting sometimes hour-by-hour explanation of the crisis itself, but also explores the origins, scope, and consequences of the evolving place of nuclear weapons in the post-World War II world. Mining new sources and materials, and going far beyond the scope of earlier works on this critical face-off between the United States and the Soviet Union—triggered when Khrushchev began installing missiles in Cuba at Castro's behest—Sherwin shows how this volatile event was an integral part of the wider Cold War and was a consequence of nuclear arms. Gambling with Armageddon looks in particular at the original debate in the Truman Administration about using the Atomic Bomb; the way in which President Eisenhower relied on the threat of massive retaliation to project U.S. power in the early Cold War era; and how President Kennedy, though unprepared to deal with the Bay of Pigs debacle, came of age during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Here too is a clarifying picture of what was going on in Khrushchev's Soviet Union. Martin Sherwin has spent his career in the study of nuclear weapons and how they have shaped our world. Gambling with Armegeddon is an outstanding capstone to his work thus far.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307266880
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/13/2020
Pages: 624
Sales rank: 64,962
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

MARTIN J. SHERWIN, George Mason University Professor of History, is the author of A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies, winner of the Stuart L. Bernath and the American History Book prizes, and the coauthor, with Kai Bird, of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2006. He and his wife live in Washington, DC, and Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

In October 1962 I was a junior officer in the U.S. Navy attached to Patrol Squadron 31, an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) training unit based at North Island Naval Air Station. This was California, but from the prime San Diego real estate we inhabited, we looked across to “Florida,” the elegant Hotel del Coronado, where Marilyn Mon­roe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon had ushered in the sixties with the film Some Like It Hot.
Despite my modest rank—I was the squadron’s air intelligence officer—my responsibilities made me the custodian of our top-secret documents: our deployment orders in the event of war. Those orders were periodically updated, and when they were, a senior staff officer from Fleet Headquarters, always accompanied by an armed marine, arrived with a sealed envelope. A ritual followed: I signed for the new envelope, and he signed for the envelope that I removed from my top-secret safe, a miniature vault embedded in my large office safe. Except on these occasions, this inner sanctum was never unlocked. I had no expectation of ever learning what was in those envelopes (clippings from the New York Times, we joked), since they would be opened only in the event of a national emergency.
On a date in mid-October that I cannot recall, I was informed by telephone that a new envelope would arrive at an appointed time. This was soon after I received the disappointing news that an around-the-world flight I was scheduled to co-navigate for an admiral was cancelled. Within days all leaves were revoked. According to ru mors at our local hangout, the Mexican Village, the cause was rising ten­sions in Berlin.
Although we were on the West Coast, a sense of being engaged in an international crisis permeated my squadron’s ranks. Extra muni­tions, and weapons we had never before stored, were delivered to our hangars. Friends at El Toro, the Marine Corps Air Station north of San Diego, told me that marines in full battle gear were being flown east aboard military air transports. Something important was hap­pening, and we were going to be part of it.
On Monday, October 22, before President Kennedy informed the world that he had ordered Cuba blockaded, I was directed to retrieve the top-secret plans from my safe and deliver them—with the obligatory armed marine escort—to my commanding officer. Our squadron’s senior staff—the captain, the executive officer, and the operations officer—had assembled in the captain’s office to review the war plans. My recollection is that we would deploy to an airfield in Baja California, Mexico. The rationale was to disperse military aircraft beyond the reach of Soviet missiles. Some junior officers—all of us bachelors—joked that the beaches of Baja “would be a delight­ful place to die.”
I did not know until I researched this book how close to death we had come.


A world away from Coronado, California, another junior officer, stationed at a strategic rocket facility nine hundred miles east of Moscow, opened an envelope not very different from the one I had delivered to my squadron’s senior officers.
Valery Yarynich, who was exactly my age, had a different reac­tion to what he read. A junior officer and communications special­ist, stationed at division headquarters in Kirov, his unit was the central command center for five intercontinental missile battalions. After President Kennedy’s October 22 speech demanding that the Soviet Union remove its missiles from Cuba, Yarynich was deployed to a missile base in Siberia to help supervise command and control communications.
“At the peak of the confrontation,” he told the American journal­ist David Hoffman, he received a message containing the code-word “BRONTOZAVR.” That was the combat-alert go code—the dreaded signal to open the top-secret communications envelopes and transi­tion the R-7 liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles to war readiness. “I cannot forget,” Yarynich recalled, “the mixture of ner­vousness, surprise and pain on the faces of each operator, without exception—officers, enlisted men, women telephone operators.”
The unthinkable moment had arrived: Nuclear war was a mere press of a button away.
It was the most devastating war in world history. The estimated number of North American deaths was upwards of 200 million. Double, perhaps even quadruple that number of Soviet, Eastern European, and Chinese citizens perished, and no one had any reliable data on how many West­ern Europeans, Africans, Asians, South Pacific Islanders, and others the radioactive fallout killed as it circumnavigated the globe. Cuba became a wasteland, and there were few structures left standing in Moscow and Washington, DC.
It was an unthinkable war, but not an unimagined one. In 1957 the Australian writer Nevile Shute described its denouement in his eerily tranquil apocalyptic novel On the Beach. Adapted for the screen by John Paxton and directed by Stanley Kramer, in 1959 On the Beach premiered simultaneously in major U.S. cities and Moscow, to reports of viewers sobbing as Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins stoically prepared in Australia, where the movie is set, for the arrival of deadly radioactive clouds carrying the fallout from the nuclear war recently fought in the Northern Hemisphere. They were the last survivors of the human race, going quietly into endless night.
But the Cuban missile crisis did not replicate On the Beach, leaving thoughts of a Cuban missile war to pass into history. While partici­pants in (and historians of) the crisis never tire of recalling its details and dangers, the majority of the generation that lived through it, and subsequent generations, never became emotionally engaged with its potential consequences. It was neither Vietnam nor Watergate—nor Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.

It was just the most devastating event in world history . . . that somehow didn’t happen.
That somehow is the subject of this book.

Table of Contents

Prologue xiii

1 A Reflection on Luck in History 3

2 World War III Was About to Begin 5

3 "We Will Die, but We Will Sink Them All" 11

4 Capt. Vasily Alexandrovich Arkhipov 22

5 The Long Cuban Missile Crisis, 1945-1962 29

Book I The Making of the Nuclear Age, 1945-1962

Part 1 Truman and Stalin

6 "This Is the Greatest Thing in History" 44

7 "The Secret of the Atomic Bomb Might Be Hard to Keep" 55

8 "Our Momentary Superiority" 64

Part 2 Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Castro, and the "Weapon of Mass Destruction"

9 "We Face a Battle to Extinction" 76

10 "An Extraordinary Departure" 86

11 "There Is Not Communists … but Cubanists" 93

12 "General Disarmament Is the Most Important" 107

13 "We Cannot Let the Present Government There Go On" 122

Part 3 Kennedy Khrushchev, Castro, and the Bay of Pigs

14 "Eisenhower Is Going to Escape" 132

15 "AES Wholly Disapproves of the Project" 146

16 "Cuba Might Become a Sino-Soviet Bloc Missile Base" 160

17 "It Will Be a Cold Winter" 167

Book II The Thirteen Days, October 16-28, 1962

Part 4 Khrushchev's Missiles

18 "What If We Put Our Nuclear Missiles in Cuba?" 182

19 "Without Our Help Cuba Will Be Destroyed" 193

Part 5 October 16 (Tuesday), Day One

20 "They're There" 204

21 "Actions Were Begun on October 3 to Prepare for Military Action Against Cuba" 215

22 "Bomb the Missiles; Invade Cuba" 222

23 "I'll Tell My Big Brother on You" 236

24 "Negotiation and Sanity, Always" 241

25 "Last Month I Should Have Said That We Don't Care" 247

Part 6 October 17 (Wednesday)-October 12 (Monday)

26 "Possible Courses of Action and Unanswered Questions" 258

27 "What Action Lessens the Chance of a Nuclear Exchange?" 266

28 "Flipping a Coin as to Whether You End Up with World War or Not" 277

29 The Chief Confronts the Chiefs 287

30 "Pull the Group Together!" 296

31 "I Trust that You Will Support Me" 301

32 "Nuclear War That Week Certainly Was Not Excluded from His Mind" 309

33 "What's EDP?" 316

Part 7 October 22 (Monday)-October 26 (Friday)

34 "We May Have the War in the Next Twenty-Four Hours" 326

35 "Kennedy Sleeps with a Wooden Knife" 337

36 "A Game Which We Don't Know the Ending Of" 344

37 "The Mobs Turned Up in London Instead of Havana" 353

38 "You Would Have Been Impeached" 359

39 "We Are Trying to Convey a Political Message … Not Start a War" 361

40 "A Russian Submarine-Almost Anything but That" 372

41 "Events Have Gone Too Far" 383

42 "Trade Them Out or Take Them Out" 393

43 "Time Is Very Urgent" 403

Part 8 October 27 (Saturday)-October 28 (Sunday)

44 "Let Us Take Measures to Untie That Knot" 410

45 "Liquidate the Bases in Turkey and We Win" 416

46 "To Any Rational Man It Will Look Like a Very Fair Trade" 419

47 "Attacking Sunday or Monday" 423

48 "We're Going to Have to Take Our Weapons Out of Turkey" 426

49 "An Act of Legitimate Defense" 437

50 "There Is Very Little Time to Resolve This Issue" 440

51 "You Got Us into This, Now You Get Us Out" 449

52 "I Thought It Was My Last Meal" 453

53 "We Have Ordered Our Officers to Stop Building Bases" 456

Part 9 Lies and Legacies

54 "Most of Them Did Not Like Adlai" 460

55 "It Ain't Necessarily So…" 465

Notes 471

Bibliography 553

Acknowledgments 571

Index 577

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