Imagine the psychic shock of 9/11 multiplied a hundredfold. Add an imminent nuclear exchange to kill millions after only minutes of warning. Take away the Internet, cable news and other sources of instant information.
That’s how the Cuban Missile Crisis struck Americans half a century ago this week, 13 days of helpless huddling in a dark cave awaiting global devastation.
This is how it looked back then.
In a Los Angeles hotel on the night of October 22, 1962, I watched a grim President Kennedy on TV tell the nation the Russians had been installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles away from our borders.
“To halt this offensive buildup,” he announced, “a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers.”
Then JFK added, “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.”
Months later in an interview, he would tell me such an exchange could have led to many millions of deaths, but even that night, it was clear we were facing the possible end of the world as we knew it.
Most of our days go by in a smooth stream of subdued consciousness: family, friends, work, expected sights and sounds, the low hum of our felt lives. Once in a great while, something breaks the surface and, for that time, nothing is the same.
So it was in the Crisis. Business executives were drunk at their desks before noon while supermarkets in Los Angeles were beset by hoarding inhabitants and ran out of toilet paper. Madness was in the air.
As JFK wove through the face-off, declining military advice for a preemptive strike on Cuba and offering the Soviets ways out of the confrontation, we knew little of what was going on.