October 20, 2007

Living Through the Cuban Missile Crisis

[This aired as a Commentary on Vermont Public Radio on October 19, 2007. Streaming audio can be found here.]

Forty five years ago, I had barely just arrived. I was trying to put a little weight on, getting used to the sights and smells. Then suddenly this new world I had fallen into was teetering on the brink of nuclear annihilation. It's hard not to be affected by that sort of thing.

On October 22, 1962, I was less than two weeks old when President John F. Kennedy went on television to announce a military quarantine of Cuba. On October 14, a U2 spy plane flying over Cuba had discovered what had been suspected all summer: that the Soviets were secretly, despite repeated assurances to the contrary, building nuclear missile launch pads in Cuba. The Joint Chiefs argued for invasion of the island. Kennedy feared that the Soviets would retaliate by taking Berlin, so a blockade, euphemised as a quarantine, was declared.

If I had known at the time how close the world was to nuclear war, I would surely have been a bit upset. Who wouldn't be? You spend nine months gestating, you expect to get more to show for it than two weeks breathing oxygen and filling up diapers. There I was, working on developing my retinas and Kennedy and Khrushchev were standing eyeball to eyeball.

I was my mother's second child, so she was pretty relaxed about bringing another life into the world. But something about the threat of nuclear war upset her.

"It's all still so very clear," she says. "I was so frightened that I wouldn't be able to get formula for my new baby, that the grocery stores would go to a rationing program."

My mother had been a child during World War II and remembered the rationing. Plus, we lived in San Pedro, California - a major port and a likely nuclear target.

"There was also the concern about husbands being called to fight," my mother recalls. "We were glued to the black and white TV."

Then it was over as suddenly as it had begun. Just six days of terror, imagining what a nuclear war might be like, and the Russians had backed down. Nikita Khrushchev was chastened. His move, meant to redress Russia's huge nuclear disadvantage, lead to his downfall. It came - no small irony - two years to the day from when that U2 made its discovery over Cuba.

Needless to say, despite being a helpless infant in October 1962, I was scarred for life. My generation grew up in the shadow of nuclear annihilation. That shadow was my fellow traveler, affixed at birth.

Ironically, the shadow yanked me toward Russia. I became a Kremlinologist and, a quarter century after the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was working in Russia, where I watched communism unravel first hand.

We have come a long way in 45 years. Despite continued bilateral bluster, the ICBMs have stood down. The threat of nuclear war has essentially disappeared.

So why is it I can't shake this shadow?

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