This is not a history lesson. Innumerable books and essays have been written about this event that occurred in October, 1962. Movies have been made on the topic. If you don’t already know the Cuban Missile Crisis, there are multiple sources of information. Or you could just try Google.
This is the story of what it was like to live through those times. Okay, a few basic facts. John F. Kennedy the President of the United States. He was young, untested, and had suffered a major political setback with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April of 1961. Nikita Khrushchev, a much older, more experienced man, was the head of the Soviet Union. The flashpoint was Cuba, not North Korea.
Here is what I remember, although I was only 11 years old at the time.
President Kennedy told the country that we had discovered Russia was building launching pads for rockets in Cuba. These pads would enable them to launch nuclear missiles at the United States. He had imposed a military embargo around Cuba so that no further ships or supplies could reach that country. Then the world began to hold its breath.
The adults, my parents and their friends, were somber. The television news was somber also. Neighbors of ours talked about building fallout shelters in their backyards. What kind of food they would stock. How long before it would be safe to come out.
Schools had practice drills where students hid under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack. Somehow that was supposed to make us feel safe. I guess it did in a way, since none of us had any idea how totally useless the exercise was.
Every city had designated fallout shelters in buildings that were marked with yellow signs. My little town was too small to have one. Maybe one of the churches did, but I don’t remember.
Our parents were really scared, but they tried not to let me or my little sister know that. But we heard the grown ups talking. We listened to the nightly news – either Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley. And we were scared too.
Our little town was about 30 miles south of the Atlanta airport. To this day, I remember hearing planes flying over our house, way up high, and thinking, each and every time, is this the plane that is going to drop bombs on us? Am I going to die? It didn’t even last two weeks, but it seemed like an eternity.
Then, suddenly, it was all over. Khrushchev backed down. The crisis was over and life could return to normal. It was a long time before America and the rest of the world learned just exactly how close we came to the brink of a nuclear war. To the realization of my nightly fears at the sound of airplanes overhead.
Today we are vastly more sophisticated than in 1962. We have instant access to news of world events through the Internet, 24-hour cable news, and social media. So we are able to see, almost in real time, another missile crisis unfold before our very eyes. Through the tweets of a 71-year-old man who can’t quite grasp the idea of why we shouldn’t use nuclear weapons first. And the statements of a juvenile delinquent who happens to run a country with nuclear weapons of its own.
Nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia) has been averted since World War II through the policy of MAD (mutually assured destruction). To order the launch of nuclear weapons would ensure the deaths of millions of people in both countries. But for that policy to be effective, both sides have to buy into it.
North Korea has posed a serious threat for decades. But they didn’t get where they are today without help. There can be no doubt that they would not have their current military capability without the active help of China and probably Russia.
By launching an ICBM this week, perhaps Kim Jung-un is simply posturing, both for the benefit of his own people and to send a message. Don’t mess with me, cause I can now strike back. So we are now facing a crisis that has the potential to rival the Cuban Missile Crisis with a President who conducts foreign policy via Twitter, and a nearly non-existent State Department.
And I am now just as scared as I was 55 years ago.