Florida: Front-Line State in 1962: Mark Weisenmiller Explains How, Forty Years Ago, the `Sunshine State' Played a Pivotal Role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Cross Current)

Article excerpt

THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS of forty years ago lasted from October 16th, 2002, when US President John F. Kennedy was informed that the Soviet Union was building and maintaining missiles and atomic weapons in Cuba, to November 1st, when the missiles were removed. Not surprisingly, it had many ramifications in Florida. Key West (the southernmost point of Florida, and of the land mass of the United States) is but ninety miles from the Communist Caribbean island nation.

Florida's ties to the Crisis range from the drastic (among the first Soviet targets for the SS-4 Sandal ballistic missiles stationed on Cuba were the cities of Jacksonville, Key West, Miami and Tampa) to the minute (much of the drinking water in the containers in bomb shelters in America came from springs near Lake Wales, which is almost exactly in the middle of the state).

Florida was then, as now, one of the most popular tourist destinations for people from all over the world, and the Crisis occurred near the beginning of the state's tourist season (which lasts from October to April). Three of Florida's major sources of income have always been the cattle, citrus fruits and tourism industries. In the tense atmosphere of the Missile Crisis, Governor Farris Bryant, State Senator George Smathers and other key authorities of the state government never forgot the role of tourism in bringing billions of dollars to the state's economy. During the Crisis one woman called the Police Department in Bradenton on the west coast to ask if it was safe for her to visit Florida. The Police Chief still encouraged her to visit the `Sunshine State'.

When Bryant, Smathers and other major government players weren't hawking tourism, they were dealing with the day-to-day developments of the Crisis. Hard as it may be for us to comprehend in 2002, they were not made fully cognisant of the basic facts of the matter before President Kennedy's address to the nation at 7pm Eastern Standard Time, October 22nd. They learned of the severity of situation at just the same time as the American public.

To the credit of the Governor and State Senator, they reacted quickly--and, more importantly, in a responsible manner--after hearing the President's speech in which he told the world (most) of what was going on in the Caribbean. Mere hours afterwards, Bryant put Florida National Guard and Civil Defense units on `alert status' and sent President Kennedy a telegram: `I listened to your message to the American people with complete approval, and I assure you that the government and people of Florida are prepared to stand with you in every way'.

Governor Bryant told staff at the headquarters of the Florida National Guard building in St Augustine to stay on call twenty tour hours a day. Like JFK, Bryant and Senator Smathers were Democrats. Smathers, who was up for re-election in 1962, told H.W. Tarkington, Florida's Civil Defence Director, `to be ready for possible enemy action', according to a United Press International dispatch, from Jacksonville, dated October 22nd, 1962. Smathers, a close friend of Kennedy's, was one of sixteen Congressmen who met in a closed meeting with the President and who were informed by JFK that he planned to announce a quarantine of Cuba.

Thus the attitude of the two main officials of the state government during the Crisis was one of preventive measure-taking. Civil defence replaced legislative work as the state government's top priority, from October 23rd until the 28th, when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev announced the withdrawal of the Russian-made missiles. Each of Florida's counties stocked medical supplies in school infirmaries. Civil defence fliers--telling people what to do in case of disaster--were printed and put in all state government buildings.

Hovering around all of the activities of the state authorities During the crisis was the spectre of tens of thousands of Cuban exiles, living in Miami in particular. …