There was a time when nuclear war was a threat and not a theory, when Americans faced the very real prospect of a massive missile attack on their soil, when the two postwar superpowers were poised for war — a brisk, brutal war that would have endangered if not ended the lives of tens of millions of people. It was 50 years ago this week, and it is one of the very few half-century anniversaries that doesn’t grow faint or quaint with the telling. It was the real deal, and it was utterly terrifying.
No one who was not alive then can quite comprehend the danger and the fear that infused those 13 days in October, when life and civilization themselves seemed in the balance, and were. They are among the most studied 13 days in history — picked apart by scholars, subjected to revision and revisionism — for the missiles of October 1962, never fired, posed as much of a threat as the guns of August 1914.
More than a million people died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, with 60,000 British soldiers perishing on the first day alone. Many times that many were in peril in the battle of the strategists 46 years later.
Today, 50 years on, the episode remains shrouded in unknowns, full of questions never answered.
To what extent were the missiles in Cuba a mere sideshow to the struggle in Berlin? Did Nikita Khrushchev dispatch the missiles as a counterpoint to American missiles in Turkey? What internal Kremlin politics were at work? Did Khrushchev move on Cuba because he sensed President John F. Kennedy’s apparent weakness at the Vienna Summit? Why didn’t Kennedy gain a long-term political benefit from his handling of the crisis, and why was he embarrassed in the so-called Skybolt Crisis, today remembered by almost no one, after having outmaneuvered Khrushchev in the crisis that mattered?
No definitive answers to these questions have emerged, even though the Cuban Missile Crisis is the subject of an untold number of academic conclaves and has become a veritable cottage industry at Harvard.
The appearance of missiles in Cuba was a startling development, disrupting the midterm congressional campaigns of 1962, paralyzing the entire Kennedy administration and positing the direct Soviet-American confrontation that Cold War diplomats had sought to avoid in Europe and Asia. The two nations truly were, as Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it in an unforgettable phrase, “eyeball to eyeball,” and it wasn’t clear until the end that the other guy would blink.
The discovery of those missiles prompted an extraordinary nationally televised presidential address, in which Kennedy threatened “a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union” for any missile launched from Cuba, announced a “strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba” and demanded the removal of the missiles.
Khrushchev’s answer: “Imagine, Mr. President, what if we were to present to you such an ultimatum as you have presented to us by your actions. How would you react to it? I think you would be outraged at such a move on our part. And this we would understand.”
Two days later, Khrushchev wrote Kennedy: “You are worried over Cuba. You say that it worries you because it lies at a distance of 90 miles across the sea from the shores of the United States. However, Turkey lies next to us. Our sentinels are pacing up and down and watching each other. Do you believe that you have the right to demand security for your country and the removal of such weapons that you qualify as offensive, while not recognizing this right for us?”
But on the U.S. side of the world, claims of moral or strategic equivalence held no water.
The introduction of missiles in Cuba was seen as a violation of the Monroe Doctrine and was by any measure an expression of aggressive intent or perhaps a potential platform for nuclear blackmail. No administration could tolerate it, and the Kennedy administration didn’t.
The crisis produced a kaleidoscope of unforgettable images: The primitive U-2 surveillance pictures. The huddling of advisers in the ExComm, the inner circle that managed the crisis. U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson describing missile photos to a hushed United Nations audience. The Soviet ships turning back in the Caribbean.
In the end, the missiles in Turkey also were removed, but that was part of a secret agreement, and it wasn’t for six months that the last Jupiter left Turkey. A month and a half later, Kennedy delivered his American University address outlining his vision for world peace:
“Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war,” the president said of the United States and the Soviet Union. “Almost unique among the major world powers, we have never been at war with each other.”
The speech won praise from Khrushchev himself, and 10 days later the hotline was established between Moscow and Washington.
“During the crisis, with the nation directly threatened, Americans had rallied around the flag,” David G. Coleman, a University of Virginia historian who heads the Presidential Recordings Program in Charlottesville, writes in “The Fourteenth Day,” a new book on the crisis and its aftermath. “Kennedy himself carefully avoided any talk of ‘winning’ the crisis — and forbade his staff from talking in such terms — but in the eyes of much of the American public, and indeed the world, that was precisely what he had done.”
The world, having changed utterly, was about to change some more.
Just more than a year after the crisis, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. On Oct. 14, 1964, precisely two years after the U-2 flight took the first pictures of the missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev was ousted from power.
The new world order was far from orderly, led by two men — Lyndon B. Johnson and Leonid Brezhnev — who could not have been more different from each other or from their predecessors. Troubles in Vietnam and a crisis in Czechoslovakia would soon follow, leaving tragedy in their wake — but it is left to us, 50 years after the fact, to remember the missiles of October, and the tragedy that was averted.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.