On a bright blue October afternoon 60 years ago I put my twins in the stroller, tied the (pre-Velcro) shoes of my three-year old, and walked a few blocks down Broadway to a birthday party. The invited guests were the Riverside Park sandbox regulars, and I was surprised when several didn’t show up. “Where are the McCrays?” I asked, “and what about that new family with the redheaded kids?” Our hostess, looking grim, said they had left town. “Gone? In the middle of the week? How come?” Then I understood what she was saying. They had taken their children and fled, fearing a nuclear attack on New York City.
In October 1962 an American spy plane discovered that the Soviet Union, at the request of Fidel Castro and in response to the presence of U.S. missiles in Turkey and Italy and to the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs, had placed nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy and his advisors had been watching the buildup of bases in Cuba for some months, although the general public was not informed about the developing crisis. When the plane reported the arming of the missiles, the president summoned his inner circle, some of whom urged an immediate US invasion of the island.
Kennedy chose a saner course, negotiating as directly as possible with Soviet Premier Khrushchev in private while publicly denouncing Soviet actions and proclaiming the position of the United States. The president demanded that the weapons be removed and ordered a naval “quarantine” of the island (as opposed to a blockade, which is officially regarded as an act of war). Behind the scenes, he agreed to remove US missiles from Turkey and stated that the United States would not again attempt invasion of the island, or what is now known as “regime change.” JFK walked a tightrope between the appearance of surrender to the Soviet/Cuba alliance on one side, mutual destruction on the other. In tense and secret negotiation, Kennedy and Khrushchev together stepped gingerly back from a situation that is generally believed to be as close as we have come to nuclear catastrophe since 1945. Until now.
I don’t remember the date of that birthday party, but I think it must have been Tuesday, October 23rd. The spy plane reported the arming of the missiles on October 14th, and tension escalated every day thereafter. By the 22nd the Cuban forces were mobilized and our own armed services stood at DEFCON 3, defined as above-normal readiness for engagement: at DEFCON 3, the Air Force is prepared to mobilize in fifteen minutes. President Kennedy addressed the nation on the evening of the 22nd, informing us—for the first time—about the buildup of “a series of offensive missile sites… the purpose [of which] can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” He described what the government was doing and proposed to do, emphasizing the danger to Latin American nations as well as our own but avoiding any mention of US missile sites in Turkey or elsewhere. It was a carefully worded speech, a revelation to most Americans outside the inner circles of the government, and thoroughly terrifying—more than enough to send my neighbors out of the city.
The news grew more frightening over the next few days. On the 25th, US forces stood at DEFCON 2, defined as the step just before nuclear war, with all our forces ready to deploy and engage in less than six hours. But while armies mobilized and fear spread around the world, Kennedy and Khrushchev kept talking. By the 26th the basic terms of agreement were established: the Soviet nukes would be withdrawn in exchange for a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba and to remove our missile bases in Turkey. On Saturday October 27th the residents of New York City—along with people all over the world—exhaled a collective sigh of relief. The two leaders achieved a settlement that satisfied both parties—sufficient, at least, to back away from the unspeakable horror of nuclear war.
What I remember best about that day is the sudden shock of terror, followed almost at once by anxious questions. Should I find a way to get my babies out of town, away from the likely target zone of New York City, now apparently well within reach of nuclear attack? The memory of 1945 was not distant In 1962; I had been old enough to be aware of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Furthermore, the years between—the decade of the 1950s, so unpleasant in so many ways—was made more hideous by sharp and frequent reminders of the shadow of nuclear war. And if that were not enough, there was the present reality of nuclear poison in the environment. We learned in 1961, the year my twins were born, about the high levels of Strontium 90 in milk, and in the baby teeth of children born in the 1950s. During my teens and twenties the threat never disappeared; like everything else, it became more immediate and much more frightening when I had children.
The recognition by the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union of the dangers to human existence, and their ability to communicate with one another, not only averted nuclear catastrophe in 1962 but moved us toward what looked like a more healthy and hopeful future. In 1963 the two nations signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting poisonous atmospheric tests. JFK made a fine speech in June of that year, a few months before his assassination: “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” It’s impossible to read those words today without thinking about the horrors of climate change, but back then we were reassured about the environment in which we were raising our children.
For several decades we have been able to put aside, even to forget, the threat of nuclear devastation. Recognizing that we are, as Kennedy said, all mortal, human beings have so far refrained from repeating the horror of Hiroshima and from continuing to poison the environment with atmospheric nuclear tests. Especially after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 it seemed likely, perhaps even probable, that we would not blow ourselves up after all. Even with the frightening reminders of the possibilities of an accident—Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986—there seemed good reason to hope that we had avoided that particular form of apocalypse.
On April 25th of this year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “warned the West not to underestimate the elevated risk of nuclear conflict over Ukraine.” When asked specifically how the present situation compared to the Cuban Missile Crisis, he said that back then, the U.S. and Soviet Union understood that “rules” governed the relations of nuclear superpowers, but now “there are few rules left.” I have to agree with Lavrov; his last remark rings entirely true in the 21st century. Putin seems to obey or be aware of no rules except those dictated by greed and ego, and the same was true of Trump, who collaborated with the Russian autocrat on Ukraine and much more. Trump apparently intends to run again in 2024, and even if he does not run or does not win, some of his most extreme followers are jostling to replace him. With such “leaders,” it is all too easy to imagine nuclear war. (According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, there are at least ten thousand nuclear weapons in the world today.) And even apart from the deliberate use of weapons, the nuclear danger keeps moving closer as Putin’s war grinds on in Ukraine. Missile strikes near Ukrainian nuclear power stations have already occurred, and “accidents” are more likely every day.
The terror of 1962 was subdued by Kennedy and Khrushchev, neither of whom was a saint or a hero. They were, however, sane heads of state who recognized the possibility of destruction and pushed it away—for a time. In the present bright blue October, with the midterms approaching, I cling to that memory, and to the hope that we will elect leaders who recognize that we are, as President Kennedy said, “all mortal,” and all in the target zone.