One Hell of a Gamble: The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, John Murray, $425 On October 22, 1962, the world stood on the brink of Armageddon. President John F Kennedy, who only days earlier had discovered the presence of nuclear missiles on Cuba, issued an ultimatum to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. If Khrushchev did not accede to the ultimatum, nuclear war was an almost foregone conclusion. Many books have been written about those days, with the Soviets' motivation and thinking made the subject of endless speculation because the files remained locked in Kremlin vaults. Now, after various Soviet archives have been opened, these two authors - Russian historian and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Aleksandr Fursenko, and Yale University history lecturer Timothy Naftali - have had access to documents that provide revealing information about the crisis, including Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's instability during the stand-off. In recent days, further re-opened files have shown that there were more missiles, of worse potential, than Kennedy knew about at the time. But for this book the authors had access to the documents of the GRU (the intelligence wing of the Red Army) and to Khrushchev's own files, which give hour by hour updates at the heat of the crisis, sometimes in the form of scribbled notes, and provide a unique insight into what was going through the minds of Khrushchev and his advisers in his cabinet, the Presidium. What they and the tapes of Ex Comm, Kennedy's crisis think-tank, show is that an elaborate intelligence network on both sides simply failed to provide the information the two superpower leaders needed so they could make the right decisions promptly. The KGB relied on hearsay and bar-room gossip for much of its information, then passed it to Moscow as truth. If it was not so close to tragedy, it would be farcical. Fursenko and Naftali argue that the origins of the Cuban missile crisis can be found in September 1959, when against the advice of his foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, Khrushchev agreed to Castro's request for arms. Castro had taken power nine months before and although not yet a communist, he was moving further to the left and feared a backlash from the United States. Gromyko warned the US would not take kindly to Soviet meddling in its backyard and pointed out that Stalin had always believed it prudent to leave Latin America well alone. Khrushchev considered the 1961-inaugurated Kennedy an unknown quantity but thought his youthful idealism might lead him to be conciliatory towards the Russians. Yet from the start of Kennedy's administration, both he and his more hawkish brother Bobby were plotting to overthrow Castro, who in December 1960 had publicly declared he and his country were now officially communist. Kennedy approved the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, and later publicly admitted crucial strategic errors on his part had led to its disastrous failure. Moscow detected this as a sign of weakness and the KGB concluded he was 'a man caught between warring sets of advisers'. This was the flaw in the KGB and Khrushchev's thinking. After testing the mettle of the new president, first at a Vienna summit in the summer of 1961, and then with the order to build the Berlin Wall in August, Khrushchev constructed his own psychological profile of Kennedy - which was wrong. When, in April 1962, the Presidium agreed to send the first missiles armed with nuclear warheads to Castro, Khrushchev believed that once in Cuba, Kennedy would have to accept their presence as a fait accompli. Then Khrushchev grew bolder with each fresh debate on the issue at the Presidium, and stage by stage he upgraded the planned missile shipment. He was angry that the US was able to station nuclear weapons in Europe, so close to the Warsaw Pact nations. So, apart from wanting to give Cuba some leverage and ward off the threat of future invasions, he also wanted to even the nuclear odds. Under his initial proposal, only surface-to-air missiles - those used just to ward off an attack - were to be dispatched. However, by the time the freighter Indigirka was ready to leave for Cuba in September, the warheads it carried comprised an awesome arsenal, say Fursenko and Naftali. 'In sum, the ship carried the equivalent of roughly 45,500 kilotons of TNT, over 20 times the explosive power that was dropped by Allied bombers on Germany in the Second World War.' The now famous picture taken by an American U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over San Cristobal, Cuba, on October 13, revealed two medium-range ballistic missiles. Subsequent photos showed intermediate-range ballistic missiles. For Kennedy this was devastating news, as they were designed specifically as first-strike weapons that could cause catastrophic damage to his country. The KGB had been right in thinking that Kennedy's Ex Comm was divided, but wrong in believing that this would force the president to retreat into a shell and endlessly procrastinate. He rejected the advice of the hawks to launch an all-out air strike of the missile sites and opted instead for the Cuban blockade and the now famous October 22 speech that if Soviet ships crossed the quarantine line, they would risk all-out war. He appealed to Khruschev to 'move the world back from the abyss of destruction'. Khrushchev now realised that his instincts and KGB intelligence had been wrong. But, by a twist of fate, the KGB's continued incompetence probably averted disaster. A bartender overheard a Washington journalist Warren Rogers saying that an invasion of Cuba was imminent. By the time this snippet of wildly inaccurate gossip was passed on to the Kremlin, it had become irrefutable fact. The KGB went even further by saying that US armed forces were on Defcon-2; Defcon-1 is all-out war. Always the pragmatist, Khrushchev accepted that he must climb down, and after protracted negotiations all the missile sites were eventually dismantled and the weapons shipped back to Soviet soil. The authors discovered that Castro's response to this climbdown was histrionic. Urgent memos were sent from his Russian minders back to Khrushchev, warning the Cuban despot wanted to launch the missiles immediately. This was followed by a nervous breakdown, which had been successfully concealed until now. This is not a book with dramatic revelations on every page, despite the reviews on the dust jacket. It is more a re-telling of the crisis, with additional information gleaned from the Russian archives. That does not diminish its importance: a deeper understanding of what the main figures were thinking can only make a major historical event more accessible. An abundance of Kremlin archives are being opened, and as they yield their secrets, many books are written claiming to provide dramatic new information. Fursenko and Naftali live up to this claim. This is a drama with a cast of thousands, and it is hard keeping track of all the players. The authors should have done some paring down.