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?