Tuesday, November 20, 2012

50 Years Later

Dinner dishes were carried to the sink as night fell on the evening of October 20th, 1962. My eighth birthday a month earlier was a distant memory. The coziness and warmth of our kitchen provided false security against the drama unfolding on the world stage. I played on red and white checkered linoleum with a toy truck while my parents sat transfixed by a radio address to the nation.
It was not unusual for my parents to linger in the kitchen for a while after dinner. They typically smoked cigarettes and shared stories of their day. There was frequently a cup of coffee or glass of wine to prolong the pleasant experience. Our togetherness was a comfortable blanket in an insular space. Television was not yet the irresistible force drawing us to another room that it is today. The 1960s had not yet erupted into the volatile mess we now remember. But that was about to change.
All networks carried President Kennedy’s address to the nation that evening. A crisis was brewing in Cuba. In his speech, the American people were told of a Soviet build-up of missiles ninety miles from our Florida shore. He commented that the "purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere."
The generation of parents raising children in the 60s had clear memories of World War II and the subsequent chill of a nuclear threat. Some of us practiced futile exercises in grade school, ducking and covering under desks and in hallways, as if a nuclear explosion would blow over like a thunderstorm. Others buried shelters in their back yards. The threat bonded us against a common enemy, but riddled our culture with an anxiety and feeling of helplessness that tarnished our otherwise good times.
The President continued, "Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift that any substantially increased possibility of their use, or any sudden change in their deployment, may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace."
"We will not...risk the course of worldwide nuclear war...but neither will we shrink from that risk.”
I looked up from floor-level at the frightened faces of my parents, who stared at the radio and hung on every word.
“Is there gonna be a war?” I asked.
“We don’t know honey. Let’s listen,” said my mother.
Kennedy then announced a naval blockade, a quarantine of all ships carrying offensive military equipment to Cuba. The United States increased close surveillance of the military build-up in Cuba with a promise of action by the Armed Forces should it continue.
“Any nuclear weapon launched from Cuba will be considered an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response,” concluded the President.

Kennedy then phoned Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev to halt this "reckless threat to world peace." The Soviets called on the world to "prevent the United States ... from unleashing a thermonuclear war..."

After his speech, the President moved the military alert to DEFCON 3, and Cuba began to mobilize its troops. I played with my truck on the floor.

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