Imagine the psychic shock of 9/11 multiplied a hundredfold. Add an imminent nuclear exchange to kill millions after only minutes of warning. Take away the Internet, cable news, cell phones and other sources of instant information.
That’s how the Cuban Missile Crisis struck Americans, almost two weeks of helpless huddling in the dark awaiting global devastation.
In a Los Angeles hotel on October 22, 1962, I saw a grim JFK on TV telling the nation the Russians had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from our borders:
“To halt this offensive buildup, 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 he 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, Kennedy would tell me such an exchange could have led to untold millions of deaths, but even that night there was no doubt that all humanity was 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 long, nothing is the same and nothing else matters.
So it was in the Crisis. Business executives were drunk at their desks before noon while supermarkets in Los Angeles were besieged 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 (he had learned his Bay of Pigs lesson well) 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 who had worked down the corridor in Manhattan. In that atmosphere, the bizarre world of Joe Heller’s Catch-22 seemed like pure realism.
A year later, when JFK was looking back during a White House interview, he told me, “Too many people want to blow up the world. In Cuba, a lot of people thought we should take more drastic action. I think we did the right thing, more drastic action would have increased the possibility of nuclear exchange. The real question now is to meet conflicts year after year without having to escalate."
Six years later, I relived it all through his brother’s eyes while publishing Robert Kennedy’s posthumous memoir, “Thirteen Days.” Ted Sorensen, JFK’s speech-writing alter ego who was handling the Kennedys’ literary estate, had called me about it and my company bought all rights. I oversaw publication in the magazine and around the world.
Decades later, RFK’s book could have served as a primer for George W. Bush in confronting his pseudo-nuclear crisis in Iraq. With hard evidence of missiles 90 miles from our shores, JFK rejected military advice for an air strike or invasion, lined up support from the United Nations, gave the Russians every chance to back down and, when they did, ordered there be no exultation: No hint of CIA “slam dunk,” “Mission Accomplished” or “Bring it on!”
RFK wrote that his brother "permitted no crowing" and ordered "no interview should be given, no statement made, which would claim any kind of victory.”
One of the first calls the President made was to the wife of the only American casualty, a U2 pilot who had been shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile.
At the height of the uncertainty, RFK wrote, his brother who had been reading “The Guns of August,” a book about how Europe had blundered into World War I, told him, “If anybody is around after this, they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move.”
Robert Kennedy 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."
Those of my generation had literally faced the end of the world, and it was mostly thanks to the mind and heart of John Fitzgerald Kennedy that we survive now to tell the story.