When Duck and Cover Drills Just Didn’t Cover It

Like most Baby Boomers born in the 1940s and early 1950s, I can vividly recall those 13 harrowing days in October of 1962 that came to be called the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I remember sitting in front of our family’s black-and-white television and hearing President John Kennedy describe in terrifying detail how the leaders of Communist Russia had installed nuclear missiles in neighboring Cuba and now they were pointed directly at the east coast of America.

I didn’t then, and certainly don’t now, recall all of President Kennedy’s speech. But I knew from his look and what I had previously read and seen on TV the situation was ominous. The president was talking about the possibility of the deaths of millions of Americans.

I don’t think I fully understood death then. What 10-year-old does?

But I was aware that the silly drills we were being subjected to in school were meaningless, if not indeed idiotic. We practiced two types. In one, we marched silently, single file out into the hallway away from the windows, put our arms against the wall in front of us, and placed our head on our arms. In the other, we were ordered to crawl under our wooden desks and remain there until an all-clear was sounded. To me, both were ridiculous. Hadn’t people seen the fiery blast and deadly mushroom cloud of fallout to follow? How were these positions supposed to protect anyone against that?

Obviously, I didn’t want to die, but my biggest concern centered around my mother and father. They worked in a city about 10 miles from my school. I determined I wasn’t going to let the world end and not be with them.

So, I came up with a plan. My 4thgrade teacher was Mrs. Dorothy Robinson. She drove a big Oldsmobile. I had observed that she always put her car keys in her large purse before starting class. She would then put her purse on the floor on the right side of her desk. I knew what I would do. At the initial signal for any attack, I would dash from my chair, grab her keys, bolt to her car, and drive the 10 miles to be with my parents.

Of course, there was a major problem with my plan. I had never driven a car before. But I was convinced I could do it if I had to.

Finally, on Oct. 26th, it was reported that the Soviet Union had backed down. They would remove the missiles. For now, the world was safe. I didn’t have to learn to drive during unimaginable destruction.

Seven years later, I did get my license. And one year later, I found myself in college, learning academic ways to support my growing belief that peace is always better than war. I made a life-long commitment to trying to be a person of peace. Over the years, I’ve come up with many reasons to support that decision. But I’ve never found any better than the two I learned in 1962 – there’s no way a wooden desk can keep you safe from an atomic bomb and a 10-year old is way too young to drive.

The End of the World as We Know It Was Only a Hair’s Breath Away

While almost all of America was filled with dread during those tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, if we had known then what we know now we probably would have been even more terrified.

“We came within a hair’s breath of the destruction of the world,” says Janet Lang, a professor of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “We look back on the Missile Crisis and it was peacefully resolved. But we didn’t know at the time how it was going to turn out.”

Lang and her husband James Blight, chairman of the International Affairs department, appeared at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to discuss their new book The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy/Kruschev/Castro in the Cuban Missile CrisisThe authors are also responsible for an interactive website on their project which you can access by clicking here.

Blight agrees with his wife’s alarming assessment. “If you don’t believe in divine intervention, this (piece of history) will really test you. We are fortunate to be here today and having this discussion,” he contends. “It shows that a nuclear was is possible even if no one wants it.”

The story involves three countries – the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba – and their three leaders at the time – John Kennedy, Nikita Khruschev and Fidel Castro.

Blight says that while many people focus on the 13 unbelievably stressful days in October, 1962, the story actually began 18 months earlier. Kennedy was then the new American president. He carried through with the authorization of a previously planned private attack on Cuba and its Communist leader Castro. That invasion, known as the Bay of Pigs, was an utter fiasco. However, it convinced Castro that Kennedy was intent in taking over his tiny island. He turned to his most powerful Communist ally, Russian Premier Khruschev. Khruschev ordered that nuclear missiles aimed at the United States be secretly installed and sent 43,000 Russians to Cuba to handle that task.

“Cuba’s often overlooked, but it was the mouse that roared,” Blight says. First, Castro was really wrong about Kennedy’s intentions. Privately, the president was saying after the Bay of Pigs that he would never undertake any military operation against Cuba (even though there were many covert plots to kill Castro). And, for his part, while Khruschev wanted to back Cuba – which at the time was considered the crown jewel in the Communist empire since it was located only 90 miles from the U.S. mainland – he certainly didn’t want to start a war with America.

But once America discovered the Soviet missiles, a showdown was inevitable. In America, on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. Kennedy delivered what Blight terms “the scariest speech that any president has ever given.” Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba, saying that if Soviet ships bound for the island didn’t turn back and the missiles already on the island weren’t removed, America would take action.

While Americans of all ages nervously waited for what would come next, low-level surveillance flights over Cuba continued. Cubans were convinced that such flights signaled an immediate American attack. In his mind, Castro was prepared to act, even if it meant possible world destruction.  He would allow Cuba to become a martyr for the socialist cause. “Cuba will matter. Cuba will make a difference,” Blight says, detailing Castro’s thoughts at the time. The Russians had ordered no action taken against the planes. However, besieged by his people, Castro, after witnessing one of the ear-splitting jet flights in person, issued the fatal order – shoot the planes down. The 43,000 Russians in Cuba were convinced that they would never return home, dying when the island “went up”.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Khruschev, when he was notified of Castro’s intention, exploded. “This is insane. Castro is trying to drag us into the grave with him,” he was said to have shouted.

Finally, after days of negotiations, the Soviet ships turned around and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. The options may have been few, but the right ones were chosen to avert a nuclear war. However, the positive outcome was never guaranteed. “You take Kennedy out and put someone like Lyndon Johnson in and we’re not here,” Lang maintains.

But what implications does studying the Cuban showdown have for us today in our 21stCentury world? The professors say there four:

  • Armageddon can happen. “You don’t have to go to science fiction, you can just go to history,” Blight says.
  • Nuclear war is possible even if no one wants it.
  • Big powers, for their own good, must empathize with smaller countries.
  • And, finally, you can’t know with any certainty what would actually happen in the event of another near-nuclear launch. “You can’t prepare. There are simulations, but in real life people can crack and crumble under such pressures. You can only do something like Cuba once. What happens next time is anyone’s guess,” says Blight.

One thought on “When Duck and Cover Drills Just Didn’t Cover It

  1. I enjoyed this post. I was a very compliant and trusting child, but even I could figure that getting under a desk was not going to help us. Unlike you though, I never had the imagination to hatch a plan.

    Great explanation of those events and sobering thoughts for us these days.

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