Fifty years ago this week — on October 14, 1962 — a U.S. reconnaissance plane flying over Cuba took photos that confirmed that Soviet missile sites were being constructed on the island, just 90 miles from the U.S. mainland. Since the U.S. had previously deployed more than 100 nuclear missiles in both Italy and Turkey capable of reaching Moscow, the Soviets had concluded that this deployment gave the U.S. an advantage for first strike capabilities in a nuclear confrontation. Therefore, their perception of the balance of powers required them to mount missiles in the Western Hemisphere.
As Soviet ships headed for Cuba, presumably with intermediate-range ICBM missiles on board, President John F. Kennedy ordered what was, in essence, a military blockade around Cuba to prevent the ships from reaching their destination. The action was officially deemed a “quarantine” in order to avoid using the term “blockade,” since doing so was considered an act of war. Nikita Khruschev accused the U.S. of an act of war and from there the incident crossed over into a crisis that has been described as the closest point to nuclear confrontation by the two countries than at any other time in the Cold War. It was at this time that the term mutually assured destruction was coined. Estimates of a full nuclear war between the two powers stated that the result would entail 100 million deaths on each of the sides.
While the Soviets publicly denounced the actions by the U.S., privately they were negotiating with the U.S. through the United Nations to resolve the situation. By early November, the Soviets agreed to dismantle the sites and return the missiles already on the island back to the Soviet Union. The U.S. agreed to dismantle the 100 sites it had deployed against the Soviets in Italy and Turkey and to publicly state it would never invade Cuba. These were amazing compromises considering the brinkmanship both had displayed, and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion that the U.S. had supported just one year earlier. Another part of the settlement was the creation of a hotline between Washington and Moscow. This is the often-called “red phone” that sits on the President’s desk in the Oval Office. The idea was that if another crisis arose, the two leaders could instantly talk and the situation might be diffused more quickly and easily.
The hotline plays a prominent role in the satirical nuclear movie, Dr. Strangelove (1964), when a rogue Marine commander initiates a first strike order against the Soviets without authorization. The movie is perhaps the greatest satire ever made on the folly of a nuclear exchange between countries.
Several books were written about the Cuban Missile Crisis, most notably the then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days. A 1974 movie, The Missiles of October, was based on his book. The movie Thirteen Days (2000), though bearing the same name as Kennedy’s book, was actually based on The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow (1997). However, most of the movies have been criticized for historical inaccuracies by living members of the Kennedy administration.
In 1962, Mister B was in elementary school. He doesn’t recall the Cuban Missile Crisis being talked about openly in the classroom or by his parents. He does remember hearing about it on TV, and sensed the tension that was rising among the adults around him. This was especially confirmed when his school conducted “tornado drills,” where the kids would hunker down as low as possible against an interior hallway wall. Mister B knew that October was past the traditional tornado season, and had been “briefed” earlier by the government Duck and Cover movie on what to do in the case of a nuclear blast (see Mister B’s earlier post, Laughing Through the Cold War). He didn’t think they were about tornadoes at all. The factories of the Midwest had become the U.S. center of manufacturing during World War II and, now in the early 1960s, it was the engine that was propelling the economic boom that helped facilitate the Baby Boom. Even the school kids knew our area would be targeted by a Soviet attack. That’s why bomb shelters became so popular.
In the end, Mister B was too young to fully comprehend the severity of the situation until many years later. It is truly amazing to think how the leaders of the two countries were able to come to an acceptable conclusion while saving face with their own citizens, and the world. Now that history is part of our shared boomer history.
What memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis come to mind for you, boomers?