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How I spent the most dangerous week in history

My wife and I had arrived at ground zero just in time for a possible nuclear war. Along with our neighbors in D.C. and the nearby suburbs, we could be incinerated. But there was no mad exodus of our neighbors fleeing the city.

President Kennedy meeting in the Oval Office with General Curtis LeMay and the reconnaissance pilots who found the missile sites in Cuba on October 30, 1962.
President Kennedy meeting in the Oval Office with General Curtis LeMay and the reconnaissance pilots who found the missile sites in Cuba on October 30, 1962.
Wikimedia Commons/Central Intelligence Agency

With another anniversary of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis on Oct. 16, many pundits will bloviate about how panicked the American people were. But I don’t recall it that way.

Most of us went about our business as usual. My wife and I arrived in Washington on Monday, the day the crisis became public. I was to be inducted into the U.S. Foreign Service the next morning, my first professional job. And, like the rest of America, we learned of the crisis through President John F. Kennedy’s TV address Monday evening. It was chilling.

The Russians had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. Kennedy wanted them removed, and he ordered a quarantine line of U.S. warships across the Caribbean. They would intercept any new armaments shipped to the island. And he would greet any nuclear weapon launched from Cuba with a full retaliatory response against the Soviet Union.

My wife and I had arrived at ground zero just in time for a possible nuclear war. Along with our neighbors in D.C. and the nearby suburbs, we could be incinerated. But there was no mad exodus of our neighbors fleeing the city as there would have been if we’d been as scared out of our wits as pundits claim.

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Military bases all over the country would also be targets in any nuclear exchange. But there is no record of sailors, soldiers or aviators fleeing their positions in panic. Instead, they showed up for work as mechanic or pilot or nurse or whatever their duties were. And every single member of my class of foreign service officers showed up on time the next morning for our induction into the service.

Why we felt so confident that the president would pull us through this crisis I don’t know. Kennedy’s foreign affairs record gave us little reason for confidence. He’d botched the ill-advised Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba the previous year. And at a subsequent summit meeting, he let himself be dominated by the blustering Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

To Kennedy’s credit, he possessed a remarkable ability to learn from his mistakes. His Bay of Pigs fiasco, he felt, came from relying too heavily on advice from one source, the CIA, which ran the operation. When the missile crisis erupted, he sought a broader range of advice and assembled a team called ExComm from the top officials of the executive branch.

To his good fortune, he was not afflicted with today’s 24-hour news cycle and rumor-mongering social media. Had that been the case, the public might well have panicked. ExComm never would have been able to explore its options in secret, and some of its delicate negotiations would have leaked out.

Had right-wing bloggers — which of course didn’t exist in 1962 — heard about his agreement to remove American missiles from Turkey after the Russians removed theirs from Cuba, they would have attacked him ferociously. Probably even called for his impeachment. It’s unlikely that we’d have ended up with the peaceful removal of the Russian missiles.

J.J. Harrington
J.J. Harrigan
I, of course, knew nothing about the secrets of ExComm. In any case, I was preoccupied with handling my immediate responsibilities. I had to start my new duties in the foreign service. I had to find a better sleeping arrangement for my wife. She was five months pregnant and vocally unhappy about having to sleep on the floor while we waited for our furniture to be delivered at week’s end. And once it got delivered, I had to spend time helping arrange it around the apartment.

While I was tending to these personal affairs, Kennedy and Khrushchev were losing control over events. In Kennedy’s case an American reconnaissance plane drifted into Soviet airspace, which almost provoked an air-to-air shootout. In Khrushchev’s case, a Russian anti-aircraft battery in Cuba shot down an American U-2 spy plane, killing the pilot. In response, U.S. military chiefs demanded an immediate bombing campaign of Cuba followed by an invasion.

The rising tensions came to a head on Saturday, Black Saturday as it was called. That night, Kennedy made what his advisers felt was the last offer of peace. He offered a pledge not to invade Cuba in exchange for a Russian withdrawal of all its missiles. War or peace now depended on Khrushchev’s response.

While civilization teetered on the edge of destruction that Black Saturday, I spent my time staining a bookcase. And afterward, no doubt, I searched the neighborhood for someone who’d enjoy chewing the fat over a few beers.

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On Sunday, Khrushchev finally accepted Kennedy’s offer, and the crisis ended. It might have been sheer luck that got us through that Black Saturday with civilization still intact. But part of our luck came from the fact that so many people stayed home to stain their bookcases, socialize with their neighbors and carry on their normal responsibilities. It helped that so few people disrupted negotiations by mobbing the streets with protests and rallies, as bloggers and pundits would urge us today.

May we be so lucky the next time.

J.J. Harrigan served with the U.S. Foreign Service in Brazil, subsequently taught political science at Hamline University and currently writes historical novels. His forthcoming “Goodbye Cuba” (Bronzewood Books, 2022) is set during the Cuban missile crisis. He lives in Stillwater.