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Novelist Jeff Shaara talks about his new book on Cuban Missile Crisis

  • Scott LaMar

Aired; May 9th, 2024.


The Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962 may have been the closest the world has come to a nuclear war.

The Soviet Union placed nuclear missiles in Cuba – just 90 miles of the coast of Florida.

President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev stared one another down as the U.S. demanded the missiles be removed.

New York Times best-selling novelist Jeff Shaara’s new book The Shadow of War, tells the tension-filled story of those two weeks through the eyes of major figures in the crisis, including Khrushchev and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was his brother’s closest adviser, but not the president,  John Kennedy.

On The Spark Thursday, Shaara was asked why he decided to write the books through different characters, but not the president,”Through Bobby’s eyes, through his brother’s eyes, you get the opportunity to see what Kennedy is going through, to see the impact of other people on who have their different philosophies. Plus Bobby, also a family man and who’s also deeply concerned about the world blowing up. He’s the one who ends up being the conduit between the Americans, the American government and the Russian ambassador who’s in Washington passing a long negotiation on just how they can settle this. That to me, that’s one of the the most fun scenes to write. And it’s all historically accurate, of what it was like at the end when these two sides got together through the eyes of these two men who end up sort of hammering out what has to happen. The Russians have to save face. They can’t simply I mean, Khrushchev can’t say to his Presidium and in the Kremlin, oh, I’ve decided to chicken out. I just pulled the missiles out. No, he can’t do that. So there’s got to be some face saving. And it’s a very sort of complex negotiation, very complex issue.”

There are other major characters who aren’t as well-known but provide examples of what ordinary Americans were thinking and feeling at the time and on people close to Kennedy and Khrushchev from both sides.

Another unique aspect of the book is the Khrushchev is not portrayed as a one-dimensional character bent on destroying the United States. Shaara said he used Khrushchev’s memoir as a resource for his characterization,”This is a two sided story. And it will actually, if you include Castro, it’s a three sided story. Khrushchev realizes he’s sort of surprised, and then he’s not surprised by how belligerent Castro is and when the Russians are trying to keep all this quiet, they’re trying to keep the secret of what they’re doing, Castro is shooting his mouth off. There are there are Spanish language newspapers in Miami who are printing things that Castro is saying, because he’s saying them publicly. And, Kennedy knows that. And then the CIA is picking up all this information, and then Khrushchev realizes it as well. But for Khrushchev, it’s a problem because he’s giving away the store. At the at the end of this when they do pull the missiles out, and that’s not giving anything away because we’re all alive today because they pulled the missiles out. But when he does that, Castro is furious because there goes his muscle. He likes the idea of threatening United States any time he feels like it. And suddenly that goes away and it changes the whole relationship.”

Shaara writes about another frightening, true story in the book, “A Soviet submarine commander who was out there in the Caribbean, whose job has been to protect the Soviet merchant ships to make sure the Americans don’t start sinking them, which will start a real mess. But this guy, I love the fact he been under water for quite a while. His batteries are low, and he can’t raise his base back in the Soviet Union with his radio. That tells him the war has started. He’s actually convinces himself that it’s on, and he’s got nuclear missiles in his sub or nuclear torpedoes. He’s ready to go. He’s ready to fire them. And it’s one of his subordinates who talks him out of that. You have to wonder what the world would be like today with that one scene on that submarine had it gone differently?”


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