That’s how the Cuban Missile Crisis struck Americans half a century ago this week, 13 days of helpless huddling in a dark cave awaiting global devastation.
This is how it looked back then.
In a Los Angeles hotel on the night of October 22, 1962, I watched a grim President Kennedy on TV tell the nation the Russians had been installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles away from our borders.
“To halt this offensive buildup,” he announced, “a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. 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. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers.”
Then JFK added, “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.”
Months later in an interview, he would tell me such an exchange could have led to many millions of deaths, but even that night, it was clear we were facing the possible end of the world as we knew it.
Most of our days go by in a smooth stream of subdued consciousness: family, friends, work, expected sights and sounds, the low hum of our felt lives. Once in a great while, something breaks the surface and, for that time, nothing is the same.
So it was in the Crisis. Business executives were drunk at their desks before noon while supermarkets in Los Angeles were beset by hoarding inhabitants and ran out of toilet paper. Madness was in the air.
As JFK wove through the face-off, declining military advice for a preemptive strike on Cuba and offering the Soviets ways out of the confrontation, we knew little of what was going on.
During that time, I was reading a novel by a friend of mine who worked down the corridor in Manhattan. In that atmosphere, the bizarre world of Joe Heller’s Catch-22 seemed like pure realism.
Six years later, I was involved in publishing Robert Kennedy’s memoir of that time, “Thirteen Days.” When the Crisis had finally eased, he wrote, JFK "permitted no crowing" and ordered that "no interview should be given, no statement made, which would claim any kind of victory.”
He foresaw “other missile crises in the future--different kinds, no doubt, and under different circumstances. But if we are going to be successful then, if we are going to preserve our own national security, we will need friends, we will need supporters, we will need countries that believe and respect us and will follow our leadership."
What we experienced in the Cuban Missile Crisis 50 years ago is not likely ever to happen again in such stark terms, but survivors of that time have a duty to future generations to bear witness to what the end of the world was like.
It was terrifying.