missile crisis

Today is the 51st anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On October 14, 1962, intelligence analysts walked into John F. Kennedy’s White House to show him photos of Soviet missile launchers being assembled in Cuba, only 90 miles from the United States. For the next thirteen days the world hung on the brink of nuclear war.

Many wonderful books have been written on the Cuban Missile Crisis, such as Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days. The whole story of the missile crisis is too long and involved to recount in a short blog post. But people should know about it. When I taught a 20th century American history class back in 2011, college level, I was amazed at how few students knew anything about the incident. Most had heard of it, but virtually none were aware of how close the superpowers had come to all-out war. The Cold War specter of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) is something of an abstraction to today’s 19- and 20-year-olds, who were born after the collapse of Communism. From their standpoint, the Cuban Missile Crisis doesn’t look that scary. I mean, the US and the USSR weren’t really going to annihilate each other, were they?

They almost did. The scariest thing about the missile crisis, arguably, has been the revelations that have come out in the years since. In 1992, Fidel Castro said that the Soviets had equipped Cuban forces with more nuclear hardware than was known about at the time, and he would have recommended using it all in a retaliatory strike against the US if Kennedy had decided to invade Cuba. Ten years after that, in 2002, another conference attended by various veterans of the crisis revealed that a previously little-known confrontation between an American destroyer and a Soviet submarine came the closest to actual shooting. The Soviet sub was armed with a nuclear torpedo, and the commander of the sub had wanted to use it; only insubordination by a junior officer who disobeyed his order to arm the torpedo prevented what could have been a terrible escalation. Robert McNamara, then US Secretary of Defense, attended this conference and remarked that this incident convinced him the superpowers were much closer to all-out war than anyone realized at the time.

u2 photo cuba

This is one of the actual U-2 photos, taken 51 years ago today, that started the Cuban Missile Crisis. Click for larger/more detail.

It’s hard to imagine the terror that hung in the air during those crisp fall days in October 1962. People went about their business, but they were nervous and tense. Crowds gathered on streetcorners outside electronics shops to watch televisions in the windows when Kennedy gave his famous address on October 22. As is well-documented in various accounts, diplomats in the Soviet Embassy in Washington were burning sensitive papers–which any foreign service person will tell you is a sure sign that a government is convinced war is imminent.

My father was a career military man, Air Force. He had just entered the service in the fall of 1962. He remembers being told to pack a bag and be ready to move out on a moment’s notice. Years after the crisis was over he still had the bag packed. I remember seeing it in the back of the closet when I was growing up. I was born in the 1970s, a decade after the crisis.

Could it have happened? Might civilization as we know it have ended in October 1962, over a crisis in a leafy land that most Americans (and Russians, for that matter) didn’t care much about? I think the answer is yes. We were lucky that saner heads–Kennedy’s, for one–prevailed, but we must always be vigilant that something like this never happens again, because we can’t always be counted on a fortuitous rescue by the better angels of our nature.