Nuclear Showdown: The Cuban Missile Crisis 50 Years Later

The White House in the Cuban Crisis

From October 24-28, 1962, the world held its breath and waited for the news that the Soviet Union and the United States had launched nuclear weapons at each other. This was no media-manufactured event; the Cuban missile crisis had people glued to their television sets, crowding into churches, and pondering how they’d like to spend their last minutes on earth.

If Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev had not backed down from President Kennedy’s blockade of Cuba, the two countries would probably have launched their nuclear weaponry at each other—and half of you wouldn’t be alive to read this. (According to one study, the fatalities of a nuclear war in 1962 could have reached 100 million, more than half of the country’s population.)

President Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara confer in the White House Rose Garden.

For those not old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis, it’s hard to believe how close the world came to Armageddon during those few tense days.

The entire crisis was covered in depth in a November 1962 Post article by Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett. The story, “In Time of Crisis” (December 18, 1962), recounts the long deliberations by Kennedy’s ExComm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council), which worked long, tense days from the start of the crisis to the first steps toward its resolution.

As the authors explained, when ExComm first learned the Soviets were building missile sites in Cuba, they weighed every option: invasion, bombing, and negotiation. Eventually they chose a strategy that was muscular enough to counter the perception that Kennedy was weak on foreign policy, but appeared reasonable enough to avoid immediate war. They would block Soviet ships from bringing the missiles to Cuba. “The option of destroying the missiles, and even of invading Cuba, would definitely be maintained,” Alsop and Bartlett wrote. “If the blockade did not cause Khrushchev to back down, then the missiles could and would be destroyed before they became operational.”

Reconnaissance photo of a missile site under construction in Cuba.

It was a risky move. The Soviet Union had a reputation for pushing its luck and rarely backing down. Very likely, it would consider the blockade reason enough to launch nuclear weapons toward America. Attorney General Robert Kennedy said, “We all agreed in the end that if the Russians were ready to go to nuclear war over Cuba, they were ready to go to nuclear war, and that was that. So we might as well have the showdown then as six months later.”

It might have been easy for Robert Kennedy to sound so certain a month after the crisis. At the time, the members of ExComm were anything but resigned to war. For five, nerve-wracking days, they sat with the president, trying out one idea after another, considering every possible move that would keep up the pressure without pushing the Russians too far.

Oval Office
Alone in his office, the president makes the final, fateful decisions.

In the end, to their unimaginable relief, Khrushchev backed down. He accepted a deal from Kennedy that would enable him to present the dismantling of the Cuban missile sites as a constructive move.

Alsop also recalls the evening after the crisis had passed that an elated and relieved John F. Kennedy chatted with his brother Robert. Savoring the moment of achieving peace, he was reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s brief enjoyment of victory between the end of the Civil War and his assassination. “Perhaps,” he quipped, “this is the night I should go to the theater.”

To read the full story, including the details of the weapons buildup and Khrushchev’s ultimate capitulation of the U.S., click here.

Also, check out our timeline of events—how the missile crisis started, and how President Kennedy brought it to a successful conclusion.

Living the 1962 Life

1962. It all seems so far away: President Kennedy, the Cuban Missile Crisis, “The Twist.” How can we relate to the time of the first Beatles’ hit, the first James Bond movie, and the first manned space orbit of the Earth? How did it feel to live in the year of Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You?” and the film To Kill a Mockingbird?

Well, judging from what people were telling the Post, it felt a lot like today.

1962 Collage
Life in 1962. Click image to enlarge.

“We don’t have the family as a unit as we used to have. As a result, a lot of the kids have got out of control.”

“People seem to have lost something. They don’t seem to care anymore. Maybe what we’ve lost is Americanism. They don’t teach it to the kids anymore.”

“These teenagers that really scare you, with their gangs … and all. What’s got into our kids? I don’t know.”

“We’re all living too fast. … We’re all running and we can’t catch up.”

“We’re becoming decadent. … Moral values have declined. People don’t feel patriotism as they used to.

These quotes were typical of the responses from the 500 people interviewed by Stewart Alsop for his article, “The Mood of America.”  Our country was in a “curious national mood” that year, according to Stewart Alsop. After talking to Americans in seven states, he concluded that the country’s odd mood was “balky, ambivalent, and contradictory.”

 “For example, the American people, to judge from their talk, are in an essentially conservative frame of mind. The word ‘socialism’ to most of them is almost as bad a word as ‘communism.’ They are worried about Government spending, and instinctively resistant to what they call ‘too much government.’ A surprising number of them are firmly opposed to any tax cut unless it is accompanied by a balanced budget.

“In view of all this, one might suppose that there was a great tide of public sentiment in favor of the … more conservative Republican party. [Yet] most voters prefer the Democratic Party, and they prefer President Kennedy to any now-visible Republican rival by a big majority. And except in the Middle West, most voters like the President’s Medicare program, which is anathema to conservatives.

“There are other odd ambivalences. For example, most of the people we talked to fear nuclear war more than anything else, but only one in five thinks there is much danger of such a war.

“Finally, the American people are by and large a strongly moral, even moralistic people, who are deeply worried about … the morality of the American people.”

Alsop interviews Mrs. Barbara Diamond
Conducting his cross-country study of Americans' attitudes, reporter Alsop interviewed Mrs. Barbara Diamond on a northside Chicago street.

It seems strange now that Alsop expected more consistency among American voters. It was understandable, though; the country was entering an age of changes and challenges. In February of that year, America had taken another giant step into space with John Glenn’s orbit of the earth. In October it would confront Russian missiles pointed at us from Cuba. Ready or not, the country would have to consider how it would respond to the changes of the modern world.

Many responded with divided loyalties between the old and the new. The division had already begun to show in the change of presidents. While America had always revered and identified with Dwight Eisenhower, they were increasingly drawn to the more aloof, intellectual, charismatic Kennedy. They were still soundly against ‘big government’ but they were growing more supportive of the struggling NASA program and Medicare.

The ambivalence between the old and new loyalties was particularly noticeable on the question of racial equality. The basic view of White Americans, according to Alsop, was summed by a Baltimore housewife who said, “They got rights, just like anybody else. They ought to vote and have just as good schools and all that, but I don’t see why we got to mingle together.” Many could accept the new thinking about equal rights; they just couldn’t yet accept Black Americans.

Kennedy's Greeting
President Kennedy stirred excitement wherever he went, as shown by the swarming greeting he received in Malibu, California.

It was a time of great challenge, not unlike today. And, like today, the uneasiness and uncertainty over the way forward lead some Americans to believe we have lost our moral compass. The economy had stalled, and some feared a recession was on its way. The Cold War was close to going ‘hot,’ and we were regularly conducting air-raid drills against the possibility of a nuclear attack. Yet, Alsop was “really surprised [by] the number of people who felt [our] greatest problems are moral rather than economic or political. … A surprising number seem to feel that somehow, somewhere, America has lost something—a sense of purpose, a sense of right and wrong, a sense of home and family … something that was good that has gone out of American life.”

If he was interviewing Americans today, Alsop would probably get the same sense of concern about our moral condition and the feeling of loss. He might feel the same atmosphere of “part nostalgia, part moral indignation.”

But would he find the character of the American people the same as he did in 1962: “a pleasant people, unsuspicious and openhearted”?