The best books on the Cuban Missile Crisis since the opening of JFK's White House tape recordings

Sheldon M. Stern Author Of The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis
By Sheldon M. Stern

Who am I?

In early 1981, the JFK Library began the process of declassifying the Cuban missile crisis ExComm tapes; as the Library’s Historian, the responsibility for reviewing these recordings was mine—and it changed my life. I spent most of the next two years listening to the tapes from the legendary 13 Days (and subsequently from the November “post-crisis”). I was the first non-ExComm participant and professional historian to hear and evaluate these unique and definitive historical recordings. After the tapes were declassified in the late 1990s, I wrote three books (published by Stanford University Press) about their historical importance.

I wrote...

The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis

By Sheldon M. Stern,

Book cover of The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis

What is my book about?

For thirty years, the American perspective on the Cuban missile crisis was dominated by Robert Kennedy’s memoir Thirteen Days. RFK claimed that war was avoided because the president stood firm against Nikita Khrushchev’s threats. JFK's advisers later evaded many errors and falsehoods in Thirteen Days, especially the fact that the president had actually cut a secret deal with Khrushchev to jointly remove Soviet missiles from Cuba and US missiles from Turkey; Thirteen Days became the accepted template for understanding the Kennedy administration’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis.

In the late 1990s the secret White House ExComm tape recordings were declassified. The Week the World Stood Still, offers readers a narrative of these historically unique ExComm discussions, enabling them to get beyond the accumulated myths of three decades.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love this book?

This book is the culmination of the late Professor Sherwin’s lifetime legacy of scholarship on the development, use against Japan in August 1945, and subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for an authoritative biography of Robert Oppenheimer, Sherwin deftly reconstructs the thinking, expectations, miscalculations, and blunders of policy makers and politicians from the end of World War II to the Cuban missile crisis. He also warns that the continued presence of nuclear arms in the post-Cold War world presents even greater dangers (such as acquisition by terrorists). Sherwin recalls former secretary of state Dean Acheson’s conclusion that war was avoided in 1962 due to “plain dumb luck” and concludes: “When I began my research for this book I was certain he was wrong. Now that I am finished I know he was right.” 

By Martin J. Sherwin,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Gambling with Armageddon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Prometheus 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…

Book cover of The Silent Guns of Two Octobers: Kennedy and Khrushchev Play the Double Game

Why did I love this book?

Voorhees' assessment of John F. Kennedy's leadership during the Cuban missile crisis is strikingly different from most books on the subject. He examines JFK's decision-making through the lens of the president's domestic political concerns and use of back-channel diplomacy with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev rather than through the conventional workings of his foreign and national security policy establishments. He also challenges the prevailing view that Kennedy's ultimate strategy for resolving the crisis was primarily shaped by the “ExComm” or by the top officials at the Pentagon, State Department, and CIA. Voorhees insists, supported by an impressive array of evidence, that the Cuban missile crisis did not bring the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon and his book promises to become an integral part of the historical conversation.

By Theodore Voorhees,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Silent Guns of Two Octobers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Silent Guns of Two Octobers uses new as well as previously under-appreciated documentary evidence to link the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Checkpoint Charlie tank standoff to achieve the impossible-craft a new, thoughtful, original analysis of a political showdown everyone thought they knew everything about. Ultimately the book concludes that much of the Cold War rhetoric the leaders employed was mere posturing; in reality neither had any intention of starting a nuclear war. Theodore Voorhees reexamines Khrushchev's and Kennedy's leadership, decision, and rhetoric in light of the new documentary evidence available. Voorhees examines the impact of John F. Kennedy's…

Book cover of Blind Over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis

Why did I love this book?

In 1960, a planned summit meeting in Paris between the US, the USSR, England, and France was suddenly jeopardized when an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia and the pilot captured. Khrushchev demanded an end to the flights and an apology. President Eisenhower agreed to suspend flights until the end of his term (nine months later), but the Soviet leader angrily denounced the offer and returned to Moscow. Ironically, President Kennedy’s concern in 1962 about “another U-2 crisis” convinced him to suspend U-2 flights over Cuba—a pause that lasted from late August to early October. JFK did agree to authorize one flight over western Cuba in response to pressure from CIA director John McCone—and the missiles were luckily discovered just before they had become operational.

By David M. Barrett, Max Holland,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Blind Over Cuba as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, questions persisted about how the potential cataclysm had been allowed to develop. A subsequent congressional investigation focused on what came to be known as the "photo gap": five weeks during which intelligence-gathering flights over Cuba had been attenuated.

In Blind over Cuba, David M. Barrett and Max Holland challenge the popular perception of the Kennedy administration's handling of the Soviet Union's surreptitious deployment of missiles in the Western Hemisphere. Rather than epitomizing it as a masterpiece of crisis management by policy makers and the administration, Barrett and Holland make the case that…

Book cover of Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis

Why did I love this book?

At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy met with the Pentagon’s head of civil defense, Steuart Pittman, to assess plans for protecting the American civilian population in the event of nuclear war. JFK mistakenly claimed that rural America could be better protected from radiation than urban America; Pittman, however, bluntly told the president that he was wrong: insisting that, “the only protection today is in the cities and there is little or no protection in the rural areas.” Kennedy became quite irritated, but unfortunately, his harsh reply was largely lost because the sound quality of the tape recording suddenly went from poor to inaudible. The fact that the President himself was so misinformed about civil defense sums up the research and conclusions of Alice George’s sobering book: planning for civil defense had been chaotic and inadequate and if nuclear war had come the results would have been catastrophic. 

By Alice L George,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Awaiting Armageddon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For thirteen days in October 1962, America stood at the brink of nuclear war. Nikita Khrushchev's decision to place nuclear missiles in Cuba and John F. Kennedy's defiant response introduced the possibility of unprecedented cataclysm. The immediate threat of destruction entered America's classrooms and its living rooms. Awaiting Armageddon provides the first in-depth look at this crisis as it roiled outside of government offices, where ordinary Americans realized their government was unprepared to protect either itself or its citizens from the dangers of nuclear war.

During the seven days between Kennedy's announcement of a naval blockade and Khrushchev's decision to…

Book cover of The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November

Why did I love this book?

The books discussed above concentrate on the missile crisis in the US, but there was also a crisis in Moscow and Havana. Americans called this event “the Cuban missile crisis,” the Soviets called it “the Caribbean Crisis,” and the Cubans “the October crisis”—because conflict with the US had become a recurring fact of life in Cuba. The Kennedy administration had also been sponsoring sabotage and political assassination in Cuba kept secret from the American people but well known to the Russians and the Cubans. The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis opens a window into Castro’s fury at not being informed or consulted about the secret October 27 Kennedy-Khrushchev deal to remove the missiles from both Cuba and Turkey; only the masterful November diplomacy by Khrushchev’s personal envoy in Cuba, Anastas Mikoyan, kept the deal on track. 

By Sergo Mikoyan, Svetlana Savranskaya (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based on secret transcripts of top-level diplomacy undertaken by the number-two Soviet leader, Anastas Mikoyan, to settle the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, this book rewrites conventional history. The "missiles of October" and "13 days" were only half the story: the nuclear crisis actually stretched well into November 1962 as the Soviets secretly planned to leave behind in Cuba over 100 tactical nuclear weapons, then reversed themselves because of obstreperous behavior by Fidel Castro. The highly-charged negotiations with the Cuban leadership, who bitterly felt sold out by Soviet concessions to the United States, were led by Mikoyan.

Adding personal crisis,…

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