“One Minute To Midnight,” by Michael Dobbs
“In October 1962, at the height of the Cold War, The United States and the Soviet Union appeared to be sliding inexorably toward a nuclear conflict over the placement of missiles in Cuba. Veteran Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs had pored over previously untapped American, Soviet and Cuban sources to produce the most authoritative book yet on the Cuban missile crisis.”
At those times, in 1962, the link between school and church, and in general between everyday life and the church was extremely tight in Sardinia. I remember three clear episodes of those October days: the first one is just connected with the school. From the “Scuola Media”, our Middle School, in Deffenu Street, the teachers brought us to the Cathedral to attend a particular Mass dedicated to the Cuba crisis, on Friday. There was not the same joyful atmosphere of the walks outside the school, when the classes went to discover archaeological sites or say a cheese farm, or to attend the yearly students championships. And also the choice of the Cathedral, the imposing, solemn church instead of our Le Grazie one, more friendly and informal, was a sign of importance. Something serious was happening, even though it was not so easy for us teens to understand the whole threat. The Cathedral was crowded with all classes of the town, and the entire Chapter officiated the Mass.
The second memoir concerns the next Saturday, in the afternoon. We, all the kids of the condo, were playing outside, in the fields that surrounded the building, when a fan of military planes passed over our heads, roaring. Immediately, some mothers – and my mother too – from the windows called us with nervous voices. In our house my parents were worried, focused. The radio was crackling the latest. Cuba, Cuba, Cuba. That far island and the names of Kennedy and Khrushchev became the leitmotif for the evening and the lullaby of the night. The day after, on Sunday, all the bells of the town were ringing, high pitch sounds over the roofs (third clear memoir). Again in the church, late in the evening, the Mass was a thanking ceremony: the songs and the music underlined that the future was still alive: war had been shifted.
When Angelo Paratico gave me the book “One minute to midnight” by Michael Dobbs suggesting to read it because it was worthy of attention, I left all the other books in my night table to give priority to that, feeling the wind of history. Moreover, it was something that I brushed in my youth; of which I have memories: great. Also, Kennedy’s story itself is very interesting, his dynasty, his family and events, and his end. A great character of the twentieth century. Not so many years ago I read James Ellroy, maybe it was “The cold Six Thousand”, about the Dallas saga, that impressed me so much, but, of course, I read a dozen of essays about Kennedy and his assassination, from the Warren Commission Report (that soon sounded hypocrite). One of the most compelling report about Kennedy, for me, came from another perspective. I was studying Argentinian history, I remember some black days in Milan, for a book that I had in mind to write, and reading documents and the local newspaper La Prensa of 1961, I found a visit of JFK in Buenos Aires in that year. The Argentinian President was then Arturo Frondizi, and Kennedy brought a push of new air, new hope. He was tremendously charismatic, able to change perspectives and scenarios. Argentina too was crossed by that renovation wind – for a short period, unfortunately. Frondizi was overthrow by a military coup d’état and sent to Martin Garcìa Island and then to Bariloche, in the Andes where he would spend more than one year. After that, the renovation period was over.
Each book (each worthy book) has its story, its fragrance and music. A book is always something magical for me, linked with a particular moment, owner of a specific sound track. This “Two minutes to midnight” speaks about my youth in a far Sardinia, about the BB period, “Before Beatles (1964/5 for me)”, when the sound track was still Elvis Presley, while Pat Boone (Magic Moments, Quando Quando Quando) and especially Paul Anka (Diana, Put your Head on my Shoulder) were just fading.
My dream is to be able to write a History of Modern Literature, from the First WW to today, linked with its sound tracks, music and songs. Example of at-the-end-of-the-chapter-exercise: What influence Simon & Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence had on the poetry of the 60s?
Now, I think that Michael Dobbs missed a terrific opportunity, with his book. He discovered new documents (after 50 years he had access to new institutional files and witnesses), had the time to interiorize that period and the possibility to write a highly catching book. Unfortunately, I think he is utterly lacking in imagination and especially in the art of suspense (what a pity for a book called “One minute to midnight”). Moreover, he doesn’t extract any lesson from history but simply two or three considerations that are poor and not underlined, in the end of the book. He follows the events (that are catching by themselves), but he doesn’t manage, dominate them. He thinks that only the show of a new set of photos and new interviews makes an excellent book.
For example, during the hot days of the crisis there have been two crucial episodes connected with the use of the U-2 spy planes. The first one had a happy end. Pilot Captain Charles Maultsby overflew the Soviet Union by mistake. His plane missed its direction (because of strange phenomena in the atmosphere near the North Pole) and passed over the northern Chukot Peninsula of the Soviet Union. Fortunately, the pilot succeeded to leave the enemy territory just in time. It was 1:28 p.m. Saturday, October 27 (the Black Saturday). Since Dobbs discovered unpublished maps and documents of this flight, the episode looks like to be central in the process of the crisis. Pages and pages are dedicate to this trip, including descriptions of the Aurora Borealis, then profile, feelings and thoughts of a pilot dead then in 1999, and including some digressions too about the Chukot Peninsula (“Located two hundred miles above the Artic Circle, Pevek was one of the most northerly, most isolated towns in Russia. The local Chukchi culture revolved around the raising of reindeer and the hunting of walrus. The population density was roughly two people per square mile. In winter, temperature dropped to 50 degrees below zero…”). And including JFK’s reaction (he vented his frustration with his phrase “There’s always some sonofabitch that doesn’t get the word!”).
The second episode – according to me more crucial – occurred while Maultsby was in the air over the Soviet Union: another U-2 pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet air defence unit without Khrushchev’s authorization. The poor Major Rudolf Anderson disappeared over Cuba (“Target number 33 is destroyed”), and completely disappears into this report of the crisis. Barely half a page is dedicated to this fact, maybe because Dobbs failed in his attempt to find the related documents, I don’t know. In any case, when you are reading the story, the curiosity to know more about this episode and about Major Rudolf Anderson too remains high and dissatisfied (also because you compare the weight of the two episodes in the pages).
In the end, I felt tremendously disappointed, I have to say. I like history and the opportunity to relive those days with new perspectives, new information, and especially with the “power of the time”, the power that we have now, by knowing the developments of history in the short and medium term after Cuba crisis, excited me so much. What a pity.
Humble suggestions to Michael Dobbs: a) re-write, please, the last chapter “Afterword” that is the most important of the book, giving it weight, deepness, and historical fragrance; b) don’t rush following the single minute-by-minute episodes, but try at the end of each chapter to give your synthesis of the facts, your considerations. The reader needs a break and, speaking about history, wants to know the opinion of the writer, his clear view; c) don’t confuse your role, you are trying to be a historian, not a journalist (writing this book). Some digressions, maybe tasty, are out of the theme or rather in the wrong position.