What if you took once-bitter Cold War rivals -- former Soviet generals, a CIA intelligence expert, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Cuban President Fidel Castro -- and put them in the same room to discuss the anxious days in the fall of 1962 when the world was just a blink away from nuclear war?
That is essentially the premise behind an extraordinary meeting that took place in Havana in January 1992. Organizers of the event that brought together policy makers and missile-crisis scholars knew discussions could break down into finger pointing and accusations. Instead, the participants generally spoke with candor and honesty.
The meeting was the fifth in a series of missile-crisis conferences that began in 1987, and the scholars who wrote this revealing book -- James Blight (Brown University), Bruce J. Allyn (Harvard Law School) and David A. Welch (University of Toronto) -- were instrumental in organizing them.
In "Cuba on the Brink," they have provided brief summaries of each day's discussions in Havana and an analysis of the crisis and its aftermath, but for the most part they simply let the participants speak. It is largely a book of transcripts, but the riveting cast of characters more than carries the day. Just bringing together men of such diverse ideological mind-sets is high drama. Although the missile crisis is one of the most analyzed events in modern U.S. history, the meeting revealed not only new information but also surprising insights into the personalities of the key players.
There is Gen. Anatoly I. Gribkov -- former head of the Warsaw Pact and the man in charge of planning Operation Anadyr, the secret deployment of men and missiles to Cuba -- describing the U.S. inspection of missile-bearing Soviet ships departing Cuba as the most humiliating experience of his 54 years in military service.
And there is Mr. Castro joking as he accepts a gift baseball from his old Cold War foes, "I'm not going to imagine even for a minute that it has a bomb inside."
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., special assistant to President Kennedy; Ray S. Cline, the former CIA deputy director of intelligence, and others also provide insightful commentary.
But Mr. McNamara and Mr. Castro are the undeniable stars of the show as they recount their vastly different perceptions of October 1962. Mr. McNamara says he is convinced that Kennedy had no intention of invading Cuba; Mr. Castro's behavior was guided by the equally strong belief that an invasion was imminent.
The conference yielded new information that indicates the world was far closer to nuclear war than anyone imagined 31 years ago. Perhaps the most dramatic moment came as Mr. Gribkov rather dryly recited the weaponry that the Soviets had installed in Cuba. He disclosed that among the 45 nuclear warheads there were nine short-range or tactical nuclear rockets. U.S. intelligence had never detected them.
In addition, the United States had always assumed that it was Moscow that controlled the deployment of the nuclear weapons. But while the decision to fire medium-range strategic weapons rested in Moscow, Mr. Gribkov said, Soviet battlefield commanders in Cuba were authorized to use the nine tactical weapons if they saw fit, raising the specter of nuclear war had the U.S. invaded.
Several months later, however, Mr. Gribkov seemed to reverse himself in interviews with the authors, saying that Moscow had prohibited Soviet commanders in Cuba from using the nuclear weapons.
The book is must reading for scholars of the missile crisis and historians in general. And despite its academic tone, it provides important insights for anyone interested in the historical roots of the lingering hostility between the United States and Cuba.
For most Americans the crisis ended Oct. 28, 1962, when the Soviets agreed to dismantle and remove the missiles they had clandestinely shipped to Cuba. But the authors say that in a sense, the missile crisis never ended in Cuba. It was the pivotal event that pushed Castro firmly into the Soviet camp and widened the gulf between the United States and Cuba. As long as the geopolitical rivalry endured, Cuba could collect subsidies from Moscow that cushioned the island's weak economy.
Now the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union buried, but the authors say the unfinished business of the missile crisis -- normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations -- remains.
While Mr. Castro said at the conference that Cuba was changing in response to a changing world, the authors conclude that neither he nor the United States has changed enough to make a U.S.-Cuba rapprochement possible in the foreseeable future.
Title: "Cuba on the Brink"
Authors: James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn and David A. Welch
Length, price: 509 pages, $30