Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Eyeball to Eyeball a Half-Century Ago, Two Men Confronted Each Other from Afar as Civilization Hung in the Balance

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Eyeball to Eyeball a Half-Century Ago, Two Men Confronted Each Other from Afar as Civilization Hung in the Balance

Article excerpt

There was a time when nuclear war was a threat and not a theory, when Americans faced the very real 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 very few half-century anniversaries that doesn't grow faint or quaint with the telling. It was the real deal, and it was utterly 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 Khrushchev move on Cuba because he sensed President John F. Kennedy's apparent weakness at the Vienna summit? Why didn't 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 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.

The appearance of missiles in Cuba was a startling development, disrupting the midterm congressional campaigns of 1962, paralyzing the entire 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.

The discovery of those missiles prompted an extraordinary nationally televised presidential address, in which Kennedy threatened "a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union" for any missile launched from Cuba, announced a "strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba" and demanded the removal of the missiles.

Khrushchev's answer: "Imagine, Mr. President, what if we were to present to you such an ultimatum as you have presented to us by your actions. How would you react to it? I think you would be outraged at such a move on our part. And this we would understand. …

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