Book Review

Uncovering truths and debunking myths on 'Black Saturday'

(knopf via bloomberg news)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Kenney
July 15, 2008

At 11:59 on the morning of Oct. 27, 1962 - barely 12 hours into a day that had already witnessed a heightening of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union over the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba - an American U-2 "spy plane" was reported missing over Siberia.

Less than 40 minutes earlier, on that day that became known as "Black Saturday," another U-2 had been shot down over Cuba itself. That mission had been ordered to observe the siting of the missiles.

The second plane, the one that had strayed over Soviet airspace, its pilot disoriented by a brilliant display of the Northern Lights, was on a "routine" spy mission over the North Pole. It had been scheduled before the crisis developed, and was proceeding with apparently no knowledge or understanding of the events that had triggered the threat of a nuclear war.

Within minutes of the second U-2 being spotted by Soviet radar, MiG fighters were ordered to intercept and shoot it down. And in response, US F-102s were scrambled to escort the U-2 - and if necessary, destroy the pursuing MiGs.

And as this potential casus belli was enfolding in the airspace over Siberia, in Washington, the Joint Chiefs, the US military's top commanders, were readying plans for an invasion of Cuba.

"The real danger," Michael Dobbs states, was whether at that point the civilian leaders, President Kennedy, and Chairman Khrushchev, "jointly could gain control of the war machine they themselves had unleashed."

The U-2 drama, played out in the early dawn of an Arctic night, and tautly described in Dobbs's "One Minute to Midnight," suggests just how close the world came to a nuclear war during that week of crisis.

Nearly a half-century later, there are still new details to be revealed, as well as several myths to be dispelled. Dobbs, a reporter for the Washington Post, has made use of Soviet sources that have only recently become available, and interviewed front-line participants - American pilots and Russian submarine crewmen - as well as military commanders and government officials on both sides.

Dobbs's chilling account of the U-2 incursion into Soviet airspace is based on the unpublished memoir of its disoriented pilot, Charles W. Maultsby, and a valuable map of his route is published for the first time.

And according to Dobbs's research in Soviet archives, it is not true that Soviet freighters carrying missiles to Cuba turned around just short of the US-declared blockade line - a belief that prompted Secretary of State Dean Rusk's "eyeball-to-eyeball . . . and the other fellow just blinked" remark. The Soviet freighters, Dobbs reports, had turned around on Khrushchev's orders some 24 hours earlier.

And among Dobbs's findings is one that will be of some local interest.

While President Kennedy was addressing the nation on the developing crisis on Monday evening, Oct. 22, the Strategic Air Command ordered its nuclear bomber fleet to be dispersed to civilian airfields from the Air Force bases that would be likely Soviet targets.

Boston's Logan International Airport was the dispersal site for the B-47s stationed at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire.

Logan, Dobbs writes, "was totally unprepared . . . for the hugely complicated logistics of hosting a strategic bombing force." An Air Force officer had to use his personal credit card to purchase fuel for the bombers at a local Mobil station, and with a shortage of vans to transport flight crews to their planes, logistics officers hired them from Hertz and Avis.

Previous accounts have documented the high-level deliberations by Kennedy and his executive committee of advisers and by Khrushchev's Politburo - the highly charged ExComm meetings even provided the scenario for the 2000 film "Thirteen Days."

Dobbs instead focuses on "Black Saturday," and the hour-by-hour pacing of his account captures the tumbling together of dangerous events that marked those hours.

His great accomplishment is in bringing those days alive for readers not yet born, or perhaps just old enough to sense their parents' fears - and to bring back the sense of anxiety for readers who lived through it all.

One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War
By Michael Dobbs, Knopf,, 426 pp., illustrated, maps, $28.95

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

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