An essay by Joshua Weinstein
Our fate will not dare to reject us.
This fact I know well, if we’re all blown to hell
It results from some need to protect us.
-Paul Winter, “Fallout”
Monday, October 22, 1962. John F. Kennedy addresses the nation. The Soviet Union, he reveals, has started to install offensive weapons in Cuba with the capacity to launch nuclear strikes against major U.S. cities and nations in Latin America, our allies. Chairman Khrushchev and his Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko lied by offering false assurances that Soviet military assistance to Cuba would serve defensive purposes only. U.S. intelligence has determined otherwise. The Soviet initiative, if allowed to continue, would upset the precarious balance of world power that restrains the use of nuclear weapons.
But the young charismatic President is resolute. “Our unswerving objective,” he says, “must be to prevent the use of these missiles against this or any other country, and to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western Hemisphere.” He declares a “strict quarantine” on the shipment of all offensive weapons and related equipment to Cuba. Ships found to be carrying such cargo “will…be turned back.” Continuation of the offensive military build-up already in progress in Cuba will justify “further action” to be undertaken by the U.S. military. If a nuclear missile were actually to be launched from Cuba, it would require “a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” The offensive weapons already in Cuba must be dismantled and withdrawn.
“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth,” Kennedy vows; “but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.”
I was 15 that fall. I had just reached two milestones—I started high school, and I got my learner’s permit, allowing me to drive with a parent in the car. These particulars fed into a larger theme, my yearning to be grown up. Childhood for me was a kind of captivity, and I hungered to take control of my life. After the long years of being little, and then bigger but still a child, when my dream of adulthood felt impossibly distant, I had finally reached the stage where it seemed within reach, or almost within reach.
It wasn’t the first thing I thought, lying in front of the television on our living room floor and watching President Kennedy rally the nation to stand up to the Soviets—that I was going to die in a nuclear war and never get to grow up. I thought about how well Kennedy spoke, how earnest he seemed. I thought about all the mess surrounding Cuba, the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and now this. I reacted with dismay to what the Russians were doing, and while I was already critical of U.S. foreign policy, generally believing that we were as much at fault as the Soviets for the state of the Cold War, I accepted Kennedy’s assertion that Khrushchev had instigated the current crisis. I puzzled over the notion of a quarantine, wondering exactly how it could be enforced.
The full magnitude of Kennedy’s speech was not possible for me, and I imagine for most people, to take in right away. But the events of the six days that followed, the bluster and the brinksmanship, the apparent narrowing of room for either side to back down, the nuclear trigger that hovered over each move and counter-move, quickly made it impossible for me not to recognize that we, that I, had been thrust into a life-threatening condition. I went to school not knowing if I would make it home alive; went to bed not knowing if I would wake up in the morning or be vaporized during the night.
As denial gave way to muted terror, my aspirations got squeezed into a single goal, the achievement of one last milestone: losing my virginity. Under the circumstances it seemed so reasonable, wanting to have sex before I died in a nuclear war.
The Cuban Missile Crisis happened just 17 years after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, still the only time any government has used nuclear weapons as an act of war. The horror of the twin nuclear attacks had been preceded by the horrors of firebombing campaigns in Germany and Japan. In February 1945, British and American planes dropped almost 4,000 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on Dresden, setting off a firestorm that destroyed almost 12,000 buildings and caused at least 20,000 deaths (some estimates were much higher). The firebombing of Tokyo on March 10, 1945, which included use of napalm, destroyed a fifth of the city and killed over 100,000—more fatalities than in the August bombing of Hiroshima. In the months following Tokyo, fire raids were conducted against more than 60 additional Japanese cities, resulting in another 250,000 deaths.
While the Bomb was a quantum leap in the technology of war—now one device could achieve what had previously required hundreds or thousands of devices—its use was a continuation of what by then had become a standing American war policy, the mass murder of civilians. General Curtis LeMay, who was in charge of the Japanese firebombings, is quoted as having said, “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.” LeMay went on to become Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, a position he held in 1962 during the Missile Crisis when, as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he advocated for a bombing campaign against the missile sites to be followed by the full scale ground invasion of Cuba, a strategy which surely would have led to nuclear war. Several years later, during the Vietnam War, he was infamous for saying that we should bomb North Vietnam “back into the stone age.” In 1968 he was the vice-presidential running mate of the equally infamous segregationist, George Wallace.
Born in 1947, I never knew a world without nuclear weapons (just as I never knew a world in which Jews had not been exterminated in gas chambers). On Saturdays at 1:00 P.M. in Detroit, air raid sirens went off, presumably to test the equipment; but it also served as a reminder, intended or not, that the threat of holocaust was hanging over us, had become a routine part of mid-twentieth century life. I don’t remember ever being subjected to those absurd dive-under-the-desk drills in school, but we did have air raid drills in which—only slightly less absurdly—we were herded into the basement, as if what had once served as shelter from conventional bombing had any relevance in the nuclear age.
The fledgling United Nations, in January 1946, called for the elimination of nuclear weapons. But the U.S. program continued unabated; then in August 1949 the Soviet Union exploded its first atom bomb, and the race was on. Great Britain joined the nuclear club in 1952; France in 1960. During the 1950s the U.S. conducted 188 nuclear tests; the Soviets 82. In November 1952 America set off the first thermonuclear bomb, 500 times the magnitude of the bomb exploded over Nagasaki. Nine years later the Soviets tested a 50-megaton device, 2500 times Nagasaki.
As a boy in the ’50s, aware of the arms race, the Cold War rhetoric, the rolling of Soviet tanks into Hungary, tensions surrounding Berlin, fears stirred up by politicians, including John Kennedy, about a phantom “missile gap” between us and the Russians, the intractability of international conflicts and the determined positions of national leaders on all sides—I grew up with nuclear war seeming inevitable. It was only a question of when.
I thought about this, especially when I was alone. Sunday mornings my parents would sleep late, there were boring religious programs on TV, and left to my own devices, along with the mundane things I did to fill the time—reading the sports section, combing the TV Guide for afternoon shows—I tried to imagine my future. Then I would think about my grandparents and I was jealous of them, how they had gotten to live their full lives while I was going to die in a sudden explosion so vast that there would be no time to notice my life ending or say good-bye or even to suffer; I would just be gone.
After Kennedy’s speech, as the danger was starting to sink in, I fantasized about escaping the city and its 50-mile radius that I had learned would be the death zone in the event of a nuclear attack. Detroit in 1962 was a city of almost two million, a major center of manufacturing, a certain target. My fantasy hinged on sufficient warning. Somehow we would get word that World War III was breaking out. All the roads out of the city would be clogged with cars, but Larry Goldberg and I would get on our bikes. Larry had been my best friend since seventh grade, and it didn’t occur to me to imagine doing this with anyone else. Two was the right number; a larger group would be cumbersome, and take too much time to gather; and my parents—I didn’t think about my parents. I only thought about getting away.
The monumental traffic jams would doom everyone stuck on the highways. But Larry and I would maneuver our bikes around the useless cars. The farther we got from the city, the clearer our path, and we would zoom. Reaching the 50-mile mark, we would keep going, another 20 or 30 or 40 miles. Finally we would stop in some small town, a place of safety and survival. We would find a small group of Detroiters gathered there, and among them, amazingly, would be Emily Stein and Nancy Jacobs, girls we had known since junior high. They would have also ridden their bikes. Or maybe we would get there first and then see the two girls approaching.
That’s where my imagination stopped. It wasn’t even that I was embarrassed at how juvenile my fantasy was, though it was juvenile and I knew it. The problem was the premise, getting warned in time to flee the city and travel 50-plus miles by bike. I knew the speed with which ballistic missiles struck, and I also knew the speed at which I could ride a bike. There would be no warning, just a blinding flash. I didn’t even get to the point of worrying about the spread of radiation beyond the 50 mile zone, the collapse of social and economic structures, what you could possibly imagine life to be like in the aftermath of World War III.
Six days before Kennedy went public, the Crisis began on October 16 when the President received aerial reconnaissance photos showing that ballistic missile sites were being built in Cuba. Kennedy convened the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, known as ExComm, which served as his inner circle for the duration of the crisis. ExComm consisted of 15 white men perched at the highest ranks of government—key cabinet officials, the CIA Director, National Security Adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Vice-President.
We have extraordinarily detailed and accurate information about the ExComm’s deliberations. Known only to John and Bobby Kennedy, they were secretly taped, as described by historian Sheldon Stern in The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory. And so we know, for example, that ExComm members including both Kennedys professed outrage at Soviet deception about the missiles—a kind of “shocked, shocked” reaction without conscious irony. These men were fully aware that Adlai Stevenson, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, had been given doctored photos to present to the UN in an effort to cover up our actual involvement in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion—a double deception because Stevenson himself was not aware of the falsification. They were equally aware of U.S. covert activities in Cuba, called Operation Mongoose, designed to destabilize the Castro regime and to assassinate Castro himself. But they never connected the dots between U.S actions and Soviet responses, or between a symmetrical pattern of deceptions on both sides.
Instead, the members of ExComm were preoccupied with not appearing “weak”—to Khrushchev, to our allies, to Congress, to the American public, to themselves; an approach that Benjamin Schwarz, writing in The Atlantic, has called “a school-playground view of world politics.” On October 16, notes Stern, “by the end of [ExComm’s first] meeting, the president had all but decided in favor of…air strikes” against the missile bases. Unknown to Kennedy and his team, and only revealed 25 years later, Khrushchev had covertly deployed 42,000 troops to Cuba armed with tactical nuclear weapons, which field commanders were authorized to use at their own discretion. “In the event of American bombing or invasion,” Stern goes on, “Soviet forces…had nuclear cruise missiles in place to destroy the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo—which almost certainly would have ignited a nuclear war.”
Then Kennedy reconsidered, decided on quarantine rather than bombing as his opening gambit, and for the moment he inched us away from the brink.
At school, and among the guys I hung out with after school, no one was talking about nuclear war. Everyone had to be aware of what was happening. Elephant in the room doesn’t begin to describe it, and there is no substitute metaphor I can think of that does justice to the atmosphere of the days that followed Kennedy’s announcement, the dissonance between global events and daily life, the margin between normalcy and annihilation, thin as a spider’s thread. I don’t know what was going on in the minds of my teachers, my friends, how many were blocking out the crisis, how many were consciously terrified.
But in my mind, as I was letting go of my survival fantasy, I began to construct a story of how my life would end. It’s not that I was sure we were going to blow up, or that I wanted to go out in a blaze of romantic glory. I wanted to live, baldly, desperately, and I knew there was a chance—I couldn’t judge how remote—that somehow Kennedy and Khrushchev would bungle through this without pushing The Button. But to me, that didn’t seem the likely outcome.
How my life would end. Not just doing all the same old stuff, games of touch football and cards, grunting my way through homework assignments, sitting in front of the TV at the end of the evening with a bowl of ice cream. Something had to change, to give meaning to the final days of my life. The discarded fantasy of meeting up with those two girls in the town beyond the death zone morphed into something that should be possible, right here, in the diminishing time I had left—to finally have a girlfriend—if only I could figure out how to make it happen.
My father was the one person I could talk to, not about my fantasies (I’d have been mortified), but about the Missile Crisis. He was a professor of sociology at Wayne State University, a serious intellectual, the author of books and articles, and he loved to talk about ideas. When I was younger the things that appealed to me—sports, physical activities outside—were alien to him; he would make an effort, play catch with me in the backyard, take me to a baseball game in the spring and a football game in the fall, but it wasn’t hard to tell that he was going through the motions. Now, as an adolescent, with my own intellectual capacities and interests blossoming, we had long sprawling conversations about books and ideas and politics. When he’d been drinking, almost a sure thing if it was after noon, Dad could get especially animated and passionate, which I enjoyed except when he got really drunk and incoherent.
The foundation of my father’s politics was Old Left, the union movement, civil rights and civil liberties, socialism and standing up to McCarthyism. The year before the Missile Crisis, he’d been out of town to give a talk and came back with a copy of The Communist Manifesto as a gift for me. I knew he wasn’t a communist—he’d flirted with it in the ’30s—but I thought it was the coolest thing that my dad, in a political atmosphere in which “communist” was the equivalent of monster, would give me something like that.
So as the crisis erupted, it didn’t take long for both of us to cast a critical eye on all of the anti-communist rhetoric, the demonization of Castro, who we thought was infinitely better than Batista, the notorious right wing dictator he’d overthrown. We were also critical of the Soviet Union, we thought the ideals of Marxism had been distorted and betrayed, but in light of the embargo on Cuba and the Bay of Pigs it seemed more than understandable that Castro would have turned to Khrushchev. The main point, we told each other, was that the U.S. was no better than the Soviets, this was not a question of good guys and bad guys, and now Cuba was a pawn in a geopolitical tug of war that had absurdly escalated into a nuclear crisis.
Wednesday, October 24, 10:00 A.M. The naval blockade of Cuba goes into effect. Russian ships are reported to be approaching. No one knows what will happen. If the ships attempt to break the blockade, what then? Will shots be fired, exchanged? Or even if they do stop, will they allow themselves to be boarded by the Americans, inspected for offensive military equipment? And if such equipment is found, will the Russians turn back? Or will they initiate a military confrontation at sea? If they do, how quickly will it escalate? And what about Soviet submarines, equipped with nuclear weapons, known to be in the vicinity? Will they attack U.S. ships? If they attack, how will we respond? Flash points are everywhere, all of them pointing in the direction of an outbreak of war.
In fact, against great odds, six Soviet ships turn around. Later another eight will do the same. Somehow the world survives the first day of the quarantine.
But it’s only a reprieve. The Soviet decision not to challenge the blockade doesn’t resolve the crisis, does not even diminish it. Anxiety persists about the Russian submarines and what they might do. This concern leads U.S. Navy ships to drop “signaling depth charges” that explode next to one of the submarines in an effort to force it to the surface. The Soviet captain, out of radio contact with Moscow, orders “the arming of a nuclear-tipped torpedo.” Decades later, two versions will emerge of what happens next. In one version, the captain reconsiders and decides to surface at night; in the other, he issues an order to fire the torpedo but is persuaded by another officer to rescind the order. Another flirtation with nuclear war; another reprieve.
Meanwhile, the fact that Soviet ships turned back does nothing to stop construction of missile sites already under way with materials already in hand in Cuba—this is the exact point on which the hawks on ExComm, the Joint Chiefs, critics in Congress have been attacking Kennedy’s strategy. The quarantine itself, despite a day of apparent success, is in disarray. No one thought to make provisions to have someone fluent in Russian on board each American ship, which is now hastily ordered, almost after the fact, by President Kennedy. There is no plan in place about whether to board ships that turn around, a topic of much debate in ExComm, with Kennedy finally deciding to let the ships go rather than risk a provocation. What to do about passenger ships? Cargo ships? None of this has been thought out in advance. Kennedy and his team are flying by the seat of their pants.
At first it seemed like I had traded one fantasy for another. The truth was I had never even gone out on a date—unless you counted the one time during junior high when I went for ice cream with Emily Stein, which in the moment I desperately tried to consider a real date, but all we did was go to Baskin-Robbins, order our cones, walk about two blocks from the store until we got to my street, and say good-bye. It worked well enough to imagine a fortuitous rendezvous with Emily and Nancy 80 miles in the distance, the comfort of joining forces with girls Larry and I had known for years; and the intended next step, the pairing off into girlfriend and boyfriend, was something that only had to happen in my head—or would have if I had gotten that far.
But to actually pursue a girl in real life, the short remaining span of it, was a different matter entirely, and neither Emily nor Nancy seemed the least bit plausible and for the same reason, how long I had known them. If something was going to happen it would have by now. I really had gone for ice cream with Emily, whether or not you could call it a date, and nothing came of it.
The question answered itself on Wednesday afternoon in Spanish class. Seating was alphabetical, so I was in the back row. Next to me was a guy named Weintraub, and next to him a girl named Rosa Weiss. My school, Mumford High, drew students from a large swath of Northwest Detroit, and we must have gone to different feeder schools because that class was the first time I’d laid eyes on Rosa. I didn’t know anything about her; we had never spoken; but I thought she was cute, and whenever I glanced over at her, which was fairly often, she seemed to be looking back at me. It’s easy now to say that we were flirting, that I might have realized sooner what that implied, it shouldn’t have taken a global emergency for me to go up to her after class and say hi. But I was 15, shy, socially challenged. I had no clear idea how to make the moves that might lead to a romantic relationship, or that it didn’t have to be a question of making moves, just treating a girl like a human being you were interested in getting to know.
Even that day I didn’t do anything. Class ended, we all gathered up our things, Rosa walked away, and I watched her go. Things in my head were moving too fast and I couldn’t catch up. But the rest of the day she stayed in my head. I saw us together in some nondescript place, the setting was beside the point, what mattered was that she was with me and we were saying interesting things, what really mattered was that she thought I was interesting and she was looking straight into my eyes and her face was alive and our shoulders were touching and then she slipped her hand in mine and then we were kissing, and then we were more than kissing.
As a fantasy, it was painfully banal. But as a plan of action, it brought something into focus for me—“having a girlfriend” had a completely different meaning during a nuclear crisis. In normal times, along with the status and esteem of Being Someone Who Has A Girlfriend there was, or would be, a sense of a steady state, a manner of being in the world that would pervade your days and nights, and as long as it lasted it would define who you were. It would have substance and depth and duration. Now there was no duration, and all the substance and depth had to compress into a single moment. That’s when it crystallized, what it meant to be facing death without ever having had sex; what it would mean to me to have sex one time before I died.