[Alexei Larionov] was the faithful toady of [Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev], [Joseph Stalin]'s successor as near-absolute dictator of the Soviet Union. When Khrushchev was trying desperately to increase agricultural output in 1958, Larionov pledged to triple Ryazan's production of meat in a single year. Aides warned Khrushchev that this intemperate promise would be "impossible" to keep. Newspaper editors in Moscow tried to avoid publishing stories about Larionov's folly, but Khrushchev ordered them to report and praise it.
It was this appraisal that saved the day during the Cuban Missile Crisis. [William Taubman]'s account of the crisis is fascinating but also frustrating, because he doesn't try to resolve the question of why Khrushchev took the huge gamble of sending the missiles to Cuba. Taubman credits Khrushchev's own explanation, given in his memoirs: "The installation of our missiles in Cuba would, I thought, restrain the United States" from attacking Cuba, which he claimed to believe was an imminent possibility. Taubman also acknowledges support for the theory that Khrushchev wanted to use the missiles to win a resolution of Berlin's status on his terms. But he gives short shrift to evidence reported by other scholars (notably Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow) that Berlin was really the main reason, and Cuba's defense a cover story. Ultimately, Taubman suggests that it was Khrushchev's recklessness, and his confidence that Kennedy would not start a nuclear war over Soviet missiles in Cuba, that explain what happened.
Most important, Taubman writes, was Khrushchev's belief that "the missiles were meant to frighten, not to be used." When Kennedy reacted much more aggressively to the missiles than Khrushchev had expected, setting up a naval blockade around Cuba and implicitly threatening nuclear war if they weren't removed, Khrushchev quickly folded his cards. On the third day of the crisis, Oct. 25, 1962, he told his comrades that "we must dismantle the missiles to make Cuba into a zone of peace." He was humiliated, but nuclear war was averted.
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