Fifty years ago this week, my fellow eighth-graders were jolted out of our adolescent invincibility and apathy by the realization that we might all die with only a few minutes' warning. The Cuban Missile Crisis transfixed us in a way that is hard to imagine today. Every newspaper and television network provided constant coverage of the crisis and the anxiety in Washington and Moscow.
Two PBS programs last night reminded me of just how close we came to nuclear annihilation. Even President Kennedy did not know how close we came. The Soviet Union's missiles in Cuba were equipped with nuclear warheads that could reach U.S. cities in minutes and obliterate them. Kennedy and U.S. military commanders assumed the warheads had not yet been added to the missiles. Four Soviet submarines headed to Cuba were equipped with nuclear-armed torpedoes. One submarine came within a hair's breadth of launching its nuclear torpedo against U.S. Navy ships that were harassing and tracking it. If that weapon had been fired, the United States would have had to respond, and then the Soviet Union would have had to counter. The result could have been the elimination of human life in the northern hemisphere.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was the finest hour of John F. Kennedy's short-lived presidency. He won immediate praise as the crisis was disarmed, but Americans did not know just how close we had come to nuclear catastrophe. Kennedy's solution was to quietly and secretly work a deal with the Soviets, assuring them that he would not invade Cuba and that he would remove obsolete U.S. missiles from Turkey. Our youngest president stood up to the strong push by older, more experienced military personnel to strike Cuba immediately and take out the missiles before they could be launched. Had he followed that advice, a nuclear exchange was probably inevitable. Kennedy survived the crisis by being tough — quarantining Cuba with U.S. ships — and by being quietly willing to compromise and negotiate.
Because of Kennedy's skilled handling of the situation, we did not all die. But 13 months later, Kennedy himself was dead.