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This Day In History, 1962

The Cuban Missile Crisis

This is a long one...

October 22, 1962

In a televised speech of extraordinary gravity, President John F. Kennedy announces that U.S. spy planes have discovered Soviet missile bases in Cuba. These missile sites--under construction but nearing completion--housed medium-range missiles capable of striking a number of major cities in the United States, including Washington, D.C. Kennedy announced that he was ordering a naval "quarantine" of Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from transporting any more offensive weapons to the island and explained that the United States would not tolerate the existence of the missile sites currently in place. The president made it clear that America would not stop short of military action to end what he called a "clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace."

What is known as the Cuban Missile Crisis actually began on October 15, 1962--the day that U.S. intelligence personnel analyzing U-2 spy plane data discovered that the Soviets were building medium-range missile sites in Cuba. The next day, President Kennedy secretly convened an emergency meeting of his senior military, political, and diplomatic advisers to discuss the ominous development. The group became known as ExCom, short for Executive Committee. After rejecting a surgical air strike against the missile sites, ExCom decided on a naval quarantine and a demand that the bases be dismantled and missiles removed. On the night of October 22, Kennedy went on national television to announce his decision. During the next six days, the crisis escalated to a breaking point as the world tottered on the brink of nuclear war between the two superpowers.

On October 23, the quarantine of Cuba began, but Kennedy decided to give Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev more time to consider the U.S. action by pulling the quarantine line back 500 miles. By October 24, Soviet ships en route to Cuba capable of carrying military cargoes appeared to have slowed down, altered, or reversed their course as they approached the quarantine, with the exception of one ship--the tanker Bucharest. At the request of more than 40 nonaligned nations, U.N. Secretary-General U Thant sent private appeals to Kennedy and Khrushchev, urging that their governments "refrain from any action that may aggravate the situation and bring with it the risk of war." At the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. military forces went to DEFCON 2, the highest military alert ever reached in the postwar era, as military commanders prepared for full-scale war with the Soviet Union.

On October 25, the aircraft carrier USS Essexand the destroyer USS Gearing attempted to intercept the Soviet tanker Bucharest as it crossed over the U.S. quarantine of Cuba. The Soviet ship failed to cooperate, but the U.S. Navy restrained itself from forcibly seizing the ship, deeming it unlikely that the tanker was carrying offensive weapons. On October 26, Kennedy learned that work on the missile bases was proceeding without interruption, and ExCom considered authorizing a U.S. invasion of Cuba. The same day, the Soviets transmitted a proposal for ending the crisis: The missile bases would be removed in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba.

The next day, however, Khrushchev upped the ante by publicly calling for the dismantling of U.S. missile bases in Turkey under pressure from Soviet military commanders. While Kennedy and his crisis advisers debated this dangerous turn in negotiations, a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, and its pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, was killed. To the dismay of the Pentagon, Kennedy forbid a military retaliation unless any more surveillance planes were fired upon over Cuba. To defuse the worsening crisis, Kennedy and his advisers agreed to dismantle the U.S. missile sites in Turkey but at a later date, in order to prevent the protest of Turkey, a key NATO member.

On October 28, Khrushchev announced his government's intent to dismantle and remove all offensive Soviet weapons in Cuba. With the airing of the public message on Radio Moscow, the USSR confirmed its willingness to proceed with the solution secretly proposed by the Americans the day before. In the afternoon, Soviet technicians began dismantling the missile sites, and the world stepped back from the brink of nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis was effectively over. In November, Kennedy called off the blockade, and by the end of the year all the offensive missiles had left Cuba. Soon after, the United States quietly removed its missiles from Turkey.

The Cuban Missile Crisis seemed at the time a clear victory for the United States, but Cuba emerged from the episode with a much greater sense of security. A succession of U.S. administrations have honored Kennedy's pledge not to invade Cuba, and the communist island nation situated just 80 miles from Florida remains a thorn in the side of U.S. foreign policy. The removal of antiquated Jupiter missiles from Turkey had no detrimental effect on U.S. nuclear strategy, but the Cuban Missile Crisis convinced a humiliated USSR to commence a massive nuclear buildup. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union reached nuclear parity with the United States and built intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking any city in the United States.

I don't suppose there's too many people reading this entry who have personal memories of this crisis. Anyone want to share?

For me, what this brings up is less the crisis itself and more the memories of growing up in the tail end of the Cold War. I still recall how in 6th grade (1980-1981), we routinely had air raid drills where they would bring the students down to the basement of the elementary school. That was the plan if the nukes started flying, and I can't imagine that we were very well protected.

In high school, I still recall how every time a special announcement came over the PA system, I had a minor fear that they might be announcing that World War III had begun.

On a perverse note, growing up in Queens I was proud of the fact that a short bus ride down Queens Blvd. would lead us to the main AT&T switching station for the entire northeast, including New England. You see, that building was a designated ground zero spot for Soviet missles, and for some reason, I was proud that Manhattan wasn't getting to hog all of the ones for New York City


Wow! You were in sixth grade when I was a year old!

No wonder your skin is so smooth!

Seriously, though, what do you remember of the Cold War? I was shocked in the late 1990s when I discovered that the era I had lived through was being taught by the history department at the high school where I was teaching Physics. The course, called "Cold War and Vietnam," covered 1945-1991.
I think I remember hearing about the Berlin Wall coming down, and seeing footage of the event. I know I remember the Challenger blowing up, but that's different.

I don't really remember much from that time period. I grew up in NH, and by the time I was sentient enough to be interested in history, I was much more concerned with my parents' first divorce than anything happening outside of my town. I'm woefully uneducated.
I'm always amazed to talk to people younger and older than myself, and to get their perspectives on history.

When the Berlin Wall came down, I was in college having pain in my right leg due to a slipped disc. I remember watching the news while in the university infirmary.
I remember participating in air raid drills in elementary school, lining up in the inner hallways—not even the basements—crouching down on the hallway floor against the walls and covering my head. I had a vague idea that it was in preparation for some kind of bombing, but I didn't really understand the full implications.

I also remember air raid sirens being tested in my home town. The alarms would go off every day at noonרwhich is how we knew it was noon—and I had this sense that someday they would ring when it wasn't noon. They would, not that they might.

I remember discussion of The Russians, this kind of abstraction. I never had the sense that they were The Enemy, so much as kind of People We Didn't Talk To. I'd hear the expression "The Cold War" and for years didn't really understand what it meant, not realizing that I understood exactly what it meant in truth.
1. Have you read the chilling "What If" account of the Crisis going wrong in "What Ifs of American History?" by Robert L. O'Connell. It's also the best essay in the book, written as a akterante history rather than an historical analysis of actual events.

2. Ironic that Castro has outlasted nine Americans presidents, the Soviet Union, his version of Communism, and the Cold War. Ironic also that he was in the news this week, taking a fall and break two bones at the age of 78.
It would seem I have invented a new word: akterante.

Meant to type "alternate" of course.
I don't think I've read that book, although I have read a nice SF novel called BRANCH POINT by Mona Clee, in which the Crisis led to WW III and three time travelers from that devastated future go back to 1962 to avert it.
I remember mostly talking about the red scare as something that had happened in the past. While there were perfunctory explanations as to why communism was A Bad Thing, they were mostly lip service. (late '70s, early '80s.)

One story that really stuck: A teacher in 7th grade told us of when, in the '50s, he was waiting on a street corner to cross a light in Manhattan. A woman who harangued him as a pinko commie, because he was wearing a pink shirt.

Oh, yeah, that and watching Dr. Stangelove as a kid. The threat of nuclear war was ever-present as a sort of half-hearted, doddering boogeyman. One summer, a camp counselor read us a chapter from On the Beach as a bedtime story. When I later read Farnham's Freehold it was after the wall had come down, ant it seemed quaint, a product of its time. The danger of nuclear war hasn't gone away, it'd just take a less-likely chain of events to set it going.
You were a very strange child. This is probably part of why I like you.

On history, I seem to have been absent for a lot of the major events: I was in Israel and obliviously 11 when the Wall came down, for example. But on 9-11, I finally got why my dad can't watch fictionalized accounts of the Kennedy assassination. Every time I see that plane footage, I whisper 'no', like maybe this time it'll miss because I begged it to. It's not so much my lifetime becoming history that freaks me, in other words; it's the notion of my lifetime's traumas becoming some writer's playground.

December 2016

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