October 1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis Dark Days When the World Held Its Breath; Nearly 40 Years Ago, an Anxious World Was Enduring a Crisis That Produced Similar Fears Evoked by the Terrible Terrorist Devastation of New York. Ross Reyburn Recalls the Cuban Missile Crisis
Byline: Ross Reyburn
On October 29, 1962, the heading on the leader column of The Birmingham Post simply stated 'Tension Relaxed'. Who today would guess that understated observation referred to the fact millions were breathing a collective sigh of relief as the Cuban Missile Crisis ended?
Nearly 40 years later it is difficult convey how worried people in the western world were that a nuclear war would break out between the two superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union.
The words written by the Post leader writer conveyed the mood of the nation rather better than the headline:
'After a week in which the world had stood on the brink of unimaginable catastrophe the way appears to have been found to a resolution of the Cuban crisis . . . both Mr Kennedy and Mr Khrushchev appear to have shown qualities of statesmanship to meet what has been perhaps as grave as any threat to world peace since end of the war.'
The Cuban crisis erupted when an American U-2 reconnaissance aircraft flying a high-level sweep to the west of the capital Havana on October 16, 1962 returned with evidence that Soviet technicians were building missile sights.
Within a week, the presence of missiles in Cuba was confirmed.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff urged a full-scale invasion of Cuba that would almost certainly lead to war with the Soviet Union. Kennedy's advisers suggested a 'surgical' air strike against the missile sites.
The young president's foreign policy track record had hardly been impressive prior to this crisis.
He had inherited the Bay of Pigs fiasco but disastrously backed military advice that a low-key invasion by an anti-Castro force would produce a successful insurrection.
In the Vienna Summit in June 1961, Kennedy suffered a verbal mauling from the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev after being naive enough to attempt a college-level debate on the merits of Marxism.
A very different Kennedy handled the Cuban crisis. He refused the reckless military options and chose instead the equivalent of a naval blockade, setting up a 'quarantine line' of US Navy ships 500 miles off the Cuban coast to prevent Soviet vessels taking weapons to the island.
In a letter to Khrushchev, Kennedy wrote nuclear war would 'only result in catastrophic consequences for the whole world'. Fortunately he was dealing with a man who believed in peaceful co-existence with the non-Communist world.
On October 24, two Soviet ships neared the quarantine line. A report came through that a submarine was between them and the aircraft carrier Essex prepared to force the submarine to the surface. Then a report came through that some six ships on the edge of the quarantine line had stopped dead in the water.
On October 26, a Soviet-chartered freighter was boarded inside the quarantine zone but allowed to sail on after being searched. As the tension mounted, the breakthrough came when Khrushchev offered a face-saving solution: he would dismantle the missile sites in return for an American pledge not to invade Cuba.
A long letter confirmed the offer while protesting the missiles were installed solely to prevent American aggression.
But on October 27, the stakes in the poker game rose when the Soviets also demanded the Americans withdrew their Jupiter missiles from Turkey. …