A half-century ago, the world was a far different place.
In October 1962, James Meredith became the first black student at the University of Mississippi, Johnny Carson became host of NBC’s “Tonight Show,” the first James Bond film, “Dr. No,” debuted in the United Kingdom and the Beatles released the single “Love Me Do.”
And 50 years ago yesterday, President John F. Kennedy was shown a series of aerial photographs of Cuba, showing the construction of Soviet nuclear missile sites on the soil of that island nation just 90 miles from U.S. soil.
And the world lurched toward yet another planet-wide war. But this one, unlike the previous two, would not be fought in the trenches, on the beaches, on the seas, in towns and cities — but in the air, where nuclear devices were primed to detonate and spread their seeds of death and destruction.
The Cuban missile crisis brought the world as close to nuclear war as it has ever been.
“My fellow Americans, with a heavy heart, and in necessary fulfillment of my oath of office, I have ordered — and the United States Air Force has now carried out — military operations with conventional weapons only, to remove a major nuclear weapons build-up from the soil of Cuba.”
These were the opening words of a speech Kennedy never made, because the strike the piece was written to announce never became necessary. Fortunately, today the draft is merely a piece of history, housed at Kennedy’s presidential museum. Had the president delivered that speech, the world likely would have burned. The Soviet commander on the ground in Cuba in all probability would have responded to the attack by unleashing the 100 tactical nukes on the island, weapons Kennedy knew nothing about, each equipped with a warhead capable of more destruction than the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The status quo was clearly untenable, the U.S. could not allow the Soviets to have missiles that close to our soil. But good options were few. Fidel Castro was prodding the Soviets to strike, while some of Kennedy’s advisers were urging him to launch an attack. A 500-sortie air strike was planned, along with a follow-up invasion involving some 90,000 troops. But history has shown that Soviet troop strength in Cuba was greater than was known at the time, and there was the matter of those nukes the Russians had already squirreled away throughout Cuba.
Kennedy ultimately drew a line in the sand, ordering a blockade of Soviet ships carrying more missiles and equipment to Cuba. Behind the scenes, an agreement was forged that if Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev removed the missiles, the U.S. would agree not to invade Cuba, and would eventually remove its own missiles from Turkey.
Krushchev at one point sent a letter to Kennedy, in which he admonished the president not to “pull on the end of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied.”
Near the end of the crisis, Undersecretary of State George Ball said: “Unless we return to political arrangement, we will all fry. Need a bridge back.”
Ultimately, the public and private deals forged by Kennedy and Krushchev formed that bridge, the Soviet ships turned around, the missiles were withdrawn and the world lived to see that fateful October fade into November.
The Cuban missile crisis was recently cited by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a speech before the United Nations, in which he said Kennedy drew a “red line,” that the Soviets dared not cross 50 years ago, and urged President Obama to do the same as Iran grows ever closer to developing its own nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu overlooks the fact the U.S. did not strike the U.S.S.R., or China, for that matter, to keep them from developing nukes, but has instead maintained a policy of containment and deterrence.
Whoever is elected America’s next president, he may well face his own crisis in the not-too-distant future, if Israel carries out a threatened strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
We should recall the lessons of October 1962.
When drawing red lines, we also should remember to leave ourselves a bridge back to sanity, and away from the gates of Armageddon.
Drawing lines in the sand is far easier than building bridges or untying the knots of war.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.