October 20, 2018 – Fifty-six years ago today, President John F. Kennedy announced he had a cold.
He certainly looked the part. He went so far as to be photographed wearing a hat and overcoat, and he twisted his features into an I-feel-like-crap expression.
But as we know now, his uncomfortable look was not due to the sniffles but because he knew he would soon make a decision that could end the world in nuclear fire. Days earlier U.S. intelligence sources had discovered the Soviet Union was installing tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba. The weapons had the capacity of reaching most of the continental U.S., including Washington and New York.
Kennedy had called his top advisors together to discuss in secret what to do about it. In order to obscure these harrowing discussions from the USSR and the U.S. public, the President embarked on long-scheduled six-state campaign tour so that all would appear normal.
But 56 years ago today he had to return to Washington to decide what to do next. He feigned a cold and hopped on Air Force One. But Associated Press reporter Doug Cornell sensed there was more to the abrupt cancellation of a crucial campaign trip than a common cold. As soon as the President returned to Washington, Cornell wrote, “His cold quickly began showing improvement.”
Two days later, President John F. Kennedy announced a quarantine of all ships approaching Cuban harbors.
He used the word “quarantine” advisedly because he was actually ordering a blockade of Cuba, which is an act of war. War would have triggered the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union. It wouldn’t have mattered that the U.S. arsenal was vastly superior to that of the U.S.S.R. There were enough nuclear weapons on both sides to obliterate life on earth.
I was 16 that dark Monday night when my family and I watched Kennedy’s ominous address. I assume most Americans who had a television were tuned in because White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger had announced the President would address the nation “on a matter of the highest national urgency.” That night at 6:30 p.m. Walter Cronkite couldn’t report all the news until the presidential address began. He started to end the CBS broadcast with his usual sign-off: “That’s the way it is.” But he stopped and looked directly into the camera: “Well, we’ll find out the way it is in a few minutes.”
President Kennedy, speaking calmly but firmly – and with no hint of a sinus infection – announced the Soviet Union was installing offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba.
“To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated,” Kennedy said. “All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back.”
The line in the presidential address that frightened me the most was this:
“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
It occurred to my uncompleted adolescent brain that we might be on the verge of extinction, but I wasn’t sure what that meant. We had read John Hershey’s Hiroshima in class and knew how devastating a single atomic bomb could be. But by 1962 the bombs had multiplied geometrically and were infinitely more powerful. It was impossible to imagine the effect of all of them exploding simultaneously all over the world. No doubt everyone shared the thoughts of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara: “When I went to bed that night, I wondered if I’d wake up to see morning.”
We did wake up the next morning, but the crisis had deepened. My Dad and siblings and I prepared silently for school, where Dad was a business teacher. We were scared but silent. Dad may have been expecting the worst, but he tended to keep his anxieties locked up inside. Mom, who often talked about what worried her, was also mute.
In school I sat next to my friend Pam. “My mother didn’t get dressed this morning,” she whispered. “She just sits at the kitchen table in her night gown, listening to the radio and holding her head.”
I nodded. I could understand that.
In history class, Mr. Gourley – a World War II veteran like many of our male teachers – stood in front of the room and seemed to be studying our faces.
“I’ve had my life,” he said. “It will be too bad if you don’t get to have yours.”
He may have drifted into his lesson plan after that, but I don’t remember. I’ve remembered his opening sentence, word for word, for 55 years.
Throughout the next several days, most of us stayed close to our radios, which were the most convenient source of news. I remember John Steinbeck was asked how he learned he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. “I was turning on my radio to see if we were about to be blown up,” he said.
Even now, most people don’t know how close we came to being blown up in October 1962. Decades later, declassified documents revealed the Soviet nukes were armed and ready for use before the quarantine was announced, and Soviet colonels had been authorized to launch them at the first sign of a U.S. attack. President Kennedy’s more hawkish advisors, including Vice President Lyndon Johnson, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, urged an immediate airstrike of Cuba. Their bellicosity could have ended the world. No one will ever know if Soviet colonels, who, after all, were human with family and children at home, would have responded as ordered.
There are still hawkish historians who criticize John Kennedy for needlessly creating a military crisis that could have been addressed diplomatically and solving it by backing away from a brink of his own creation. But it was his caution and, to a great extent, his courage to resist the strident calls of his advisors to attack, that prevented a nuclear holocaust. And for that we can be thankful.
In 1962, there were many things I didn’t know. I didn’t know that my future wife, Martha, had already emigrated from Cuba with her parents and that her family was watching the crisis unfold from their five-story walk-up at 452 Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. I didn’t know that many primos y primas I would come to love dearly were still living in Cuba among the potential targets of U.S. attacks. I didn’t know how close the future we would build together came to never happening.
Happily, the Cuban missile crisis passed in 1962 and the world went on.
Fifty-six years later it’s impossible to reflect on that past without thinking of the nuclear threats that are now being hurled back and forth between the U.S. and North Korea.
In 1962, the two men in position to push the nuclear button – John F. Kennedy and Nikita S. Khrushchev – were sane and rational human beings.
I wish we could be more certain that the current nuclear jousters are sane and rational. Because, as we learned decades ago, sanity and rationality are important ingredients for keeping the planet alive.
And only sanity and rationality will assure we will never have to tell our grandchildren that we’ve had our lives. And it would be too bad if they didn’t get to have theirs.