Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Cuban Missile Crisis

It hard to believe that 50 years have passed since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Last night NBC Nightly News ran a story about the event and showed video of President Kennedy speaking to the nation about the matter. A very young president said: 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.

President Kennedy certainly got our attention.

I was in high school at the time and remember that period vividly. Of course, there had been talk about the so-called nuclear threat all during the Cold War. Ever since the end of World War II -- even before I was born -- the majority of people were aware of the dangers of atomic warfare.

At first, the nuclear threat was explored in films starring gigantic insects and organisms resulting from nuclear tests. We giggled as we silently pondered whether such things might actually exist.

Waves of paranoia ebbed and flowed throughout the 1950s, accompanied by other hysteria, like the "Red" witch hunt conducted by the late Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was a period of post-war apprehension and uncertainty.

Then began more open discussions about nuclear war. Some folks constructed bomb shelters in their back yards. Others created survival kits for their homes -- flashlights, food and water -- just in case. At school, we practiced "duck and cover" drills in which we got on the classroom floor beneath our desks, face down and rolled up like a ball so we would be able to withstand a nuclear attack.

But suddenly an actual situation had developed. The missile crisis involved a challenge by the Soviet Union which had established missiles in Cuba, a stone's throw away from the United States. It was a tense thirteen days until the matter was resolved and the missiles were removed.

In hindsight and based on all accounts of those involved in 1962, the United States was very close to entering nuclear war.

Graham Allison, professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard has said: Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. During the standoff, U.S. President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was ''between 1 in 3 and even,'' and what we have learned in later decades has done nothing to lengthen those odds. We now know, for example, that in addition to nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, the Soviet Union had deployed 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba, and the local Soviet commander there could have launched these weapons without additional codes or commands from Moscow. The U.S. air strike and invasion that were scheduled for the third week of the confrontation would likely have triggered a nuclear response against American ships and troops, and perhaps even Miami. The resulting war might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.

What if the American people had been fully aware of the situation in 1962? It seems likely that panic might have ensued, causing riots and worse. Perhaps that would not have been the case in view of the American mindset of 50 years ago. We were not yet ruled by sound bites and instant information.

So, what's the point of exploring this event?

The point is that sometimes instant information should be reined in a bit. Today pundits are so anxious to get a scoop that they leap to conclusions which are both ill-advised and incorrect. As the present political campaign nears to an end, perhaps we should try to exercise a certain amount of restraint before reporting any rumor to be a verified fact.

This country has come a long way. It would be shame to see us regress into a nation of Chicken Littles who run through the streets screaming, "The sky is falling."

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