THERE was a time when nuclear war was a threat and not a theory, when Americans faced the prospect of a massive missile attack on their soil, when the two postwar superpowers were poised for war — a brisk, brutal war that would have endangered if not ended the lives of tens of millions of people.
It was 50 years ago this week, and it is one of the few half-century anniversaries that doesn't grow faint or quaint with the telling. It was the real deal, and it was terrifying.
No one who was not alive then can quite comprehend the danger and the fear that infused those 13 days in October, when life and civilization themselves seemed in the balance, and were. They are among the most studied 13 days in history, picked apart by scholars, subjected to revision and revisionism, for the missiles of October 1962, never fired, posed as much of a threat as the guns of August, 1914.
More than a million people died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, with 60,000 British soldiers perishing on the first day alone. Many times that many were in peril in the battle of the strategists 46 years later.
Today, 50 years on, the episode remains shrouded in unknowns, full of questions never answered.
To what extent were the missiles in Cuba a mere sideshow to the struggle in Berlin? Did Nikita Khrushchev dispatch the missiles as a counterpoint to American missiles in Turkey?
What internal Kremlin politics were at work? Did Mr. Khrushchev move on Cuba because he sensed President John Kennedy's apparent weakness at the Geneva summit?
Why didn't Mr. Kennedy gain a long-term political benefit from his handling of the crisis, and why was he embarrassed in the so-called Skybolt Crisis, today remembered by almost no one, after having outmaneuvered Mr. Khrushchev in the crisis that mattered?
No definitive answers to these questions have emerged, even though the Cuban missile crisis is the subject of an untold number of academic conclaves and has become a veritable cottage industry at Harvard University.
The appearance of missiles in Cuba was a startling development, disrupting the midterm congressional campaigns of 1962, paralyzing the Kennedy administration, and positing the direct Soviet-American confrontation that Cold War diplomats had sought to avoid in Europe and Asia.
The two nations truly were, as Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it in an unforgettable phrase, “eyeball to eyeball,” and it wasn't clear until the end that the other guy would blink.
On the U.S. side of the world, claims of moral or strategic equivalence held no water.
The introduction of missiles in Cuba was seen as a violation of the Monroe Doctrine and was by any measure an expression of aggressive intent, or perhaps a potential platform for nuclear blackmail. No administration could tolerate it, and the Kennedy administration didn't.
The crisis produced a kaleidoscope of unforgettable images: The primitive U-2 surveillance pictures. The huddling of advisers in the ExComm, the inner circle that managed the crisis. U.S. ambassador Adlai Stevenson describing missile photos to a hushed United Nations audience. The Soviet ships turning back in the Caribbean.
In the end, U.S. missiles in Turkey also were removed, but that was part of a secret agreement and it wasn't for six months that the last Jupiter left Turkey.
A month and a half later, Mr. Kennedy delivered his American University address outlining his vision for world peace: “Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war. Almost unique among the major world powers, we have never been at war with each other.”
The speech won praise from Mr. Khrushchev. Ten days later, the hot line was established between Moscow and Washington.
Just more than a year after the crisis, Mr. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. On Oct. 14, 1964, precisely two years after the U-2 flight took the first pictures of the missiles in Cuba, Mr. Khrushchev was ousted from power.
The new world order was far from orderly, led by two men — Lyndon Johnson and Leonid Brezhnev — who could not have been more different from each other or from their predecessors.
Troubles in Vietnam and a crisis in Czechoslovakia would follow, leaving tragedy in their wake. It is left to us, 50 years later, to remember the missiles of October, and the tragedy that was averted.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org