When President Kennedy spoke to the nation about a U-2 plane’s photos of Soviet nuclear missile installations under construction in Cuba, the already tense stand-off between the US and the USSR grew dramatically worse.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, arguably the closest the US has come to a nuclear war.
Baby boomers likely remember the Cuban Missile Crisis the way younger generations think of the September 11th attacks. As unimaginably surreal as seeing passenger jets crash into New York City’s tallest buildings was, the Cuban Missile Crisis was one incident in a protracted event spanning months.
The US was already consumed by an almost fanatical fear of communism, and Cuba put the threat just 90 miles off the US mainland. Even though our sources of information were nothing like today’s non-stop news coverage, the gravity of the situation was clear.
As our black and white television sets showed images of a fleet of Soviet naval vessels thought to be carrying weapons and other materials crossing the Atlantic, we talked openly about survivability from a nuclear attack. Would Rochester be struck? What about Buffalo and the Niagara power lines?
We practiced emergency drills in school, and assessed where to hide in our homes. (In my family, it might be the root cellar in our basement, a small room with dirt walls where we stored apples and potatoes.)
It’s hard to say what we learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis. Possibly the most devastating war in human history was narrowly averted. But we continue to live with nuclear proliferation, and this election has both presidential candidates saying that they will not permit Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.
On the anniversary of an event that scientists say would have left hundreds of millions of Americans and Soviets dead, maybe we should know how the candidates plan to stop that from happening.