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Monday, October 22, 2012

The Cuban Missile Crisis

Department store employees and customers pause to listen
to the President's address on October 22, 1962.

It was 50 years ago today that President Kennedy alerted the nation to the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, during a nationwide broadcast at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I don't remember the President's broadcast itself, but I do remember the fear I felt that something awful might happen. My parents didn't let on that they felt afraid, but I can remember them discussing the situation with their friends, in tones of indignation over the Russian actions down there. The nerve of them!

Also, we started having air-raid drills at school for the first time. At first, my third-grade teacher taught us to listen for the alarm, then crouch under our desks. Which of course we kids thought was great fun, and a neat break from lessons. Then it was thought that we were in too much danger from being lacerated by flying glass from the bank of tall windows in our classroom, so were directed to go out into the hallways and crouch against the wall; and finally, we were all told to bring a white towel from home to use in our drills to cover ourselves with - teacher said that scientists had discovered that a white towel was the best for deflecting radiation away from us.

I'm not making this up.

As there were a number of military bases in the vicinity of where we lived at that time, everyone took it as a given that if war came, the bombs would surely fall on our town. We were never shown any of those "duck-and-cover" films that you've heard about; but I remember I developed a fantasy in my own mind of how I would rescue my stunned or wounded parents from the worst of it all by driving the family car myself to take us all to safety through a dismal, bombed-out landscape. It did not occur to me then that I was still too short to reach the foot pedals, nor did I ever quite figure out exactly where in the ruins of civilization we would go to - but it was a comforting little fantasy anyway.

Thanks be to God, nothing bad ever happened, and eventually our air-raid drills were quietly forgotten. But to review the whole situation now, as an adult, really brings some chills to my spine when I think of all that might have happened. Here's the first part of a PBS report on the crisis that was first aired in 1992. Scary stuff.

By coincidence, tonight's third and final presidential debate is to be on foreign policy. Quite apart from political leanings, I just can't imagine Romney handling a crisis like this one without losing his shit - can you?

CIA map from the crisis period, showing strike ranges of Soviet missiles in Cuba.


Tim said...

So there is something cool about Seatle, it's outside of missile range!

Grandmère Mimi said...

Quite apart from political leanings, I just can't imagine Romney handling a crisis like this one without losing his shit - can you?

No, I cannot.

We lived in Mobile Alabama, at the time, and I could imagine that if I looked long enough and hard enough, I could see the missiles pointing at us. I remember troop convoy movements through Mobile. My husband was in the US Army Reserves, and his unit came within an hour or two of being called up to staff a port somewhere on the southeast coast. That was an scary time.

It wasn't funny at the time, but I burst out laughing at the suggestion that a towel, especially a white towel would protect against radiation.

Red-Hot-Chilli said...

I must 've been conceived at about that time, of ALL times ... ... fancy that!!!

Stan said...

I know your not making this up because I lived through it too. I was 11 y/o in a Catholic grammar school. All we would hear was how bad the commies were.
The nuns scared us by saying we were just 30 miles south of NYC a major target too.

Russ Manley said...

I was old enough to understand that mean old Krushchev and Castro had missiles pointed at us but all the other details and implications, and the daily course of events, were beyond my ken. I'm sure all the grown-ups must have been very aware and worried, though.

About the white towels - sometime after the crisis was over, Teacher told us that she had been misinformed abou the color white. It seems that some scientists had indeed tested radioactivity-deflection but with different colors of paint - and the white paint was best, but later they realized it was not to do with the color but with the composition of the paint (I assume it contained lead).

Another tidbit of memory for you all: our principal rigged up a unique air-raid alarm which no one could mistake for an ordinary fire-drill alarm.

Our old-fashioned wooden school building was in the shape of a giant U, with a high-ceilinged central corridor running through all three sides. The school offices were on the inside bottom of the U.

Somehow Mr. Higdon rigged up with cables anchored to floor and ceiling a large piece of steel pipe, perhaps 8 inches in diameter and maybe 6 feet in length, just outside the door to his office, in the main corridor. When it came time for an air-raid drill, he would step through his office door and commence to wailing on that steel pipe with a baseball bat just as hard as he could.

My God, there was no mistaking that sound. I'll bet they heard it all the way down in Cuba.

Ted said...

Years later, as an adult, I was discussing this with my Dad. I did not remember any drills at school during the crisis, and he said that since we lived in Beaumont, Tx, on the gulf near a major petrochemical complex, drills would be a waste of time. We would be gone in the first round of attacks.

Russ Manley said...

Well, the sad truth is that all those drills and precautions *anywhere* in the striking range would probably have been useless if the bombs had fallen. Good thing we never had to find out.

Davis said...

I remember it well - the duck and cover over the years, watching Castro on the TV railing against the US, of visiting an expo of bomb shelters with my dad. Thank God President Kennedy managed to prevent the disaster that might have been

Russ Manley said...

Somewhere along in that period, somebody on our side of town with a large yard actually did build a bomb shelter, which I never saw the inside of - but it was an object of conversation and wonder, lots of people would drive by and slow down just to stare at the Airstream-trailer-seized mound in the yard.

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