But unknown to the public — and certainly unknown to this 18-year-old freshman at Vanderbilt University — the greatest crisis of the Cold War was brewing. Afraid of a possible U.S. invasion of Cuba, the Soviet Union had in September begun deploying intermediate-range ballistic missiles to the island, which lies just 90 miles off Florida. These missiles were capable of carrying one-megaton warheads (enough to destroy a large city) and had ranges of up to 2,400 miles. That was great enough to put much of the Western Hemisphere and most of the United States under threat.
Reports of large cylindrical objects being moved through towns in Cuba at night — objects too long to make turns easily — made the CIA suspicious. Defensive missiles were not that big. U-2 flights confirmed the presence of offensive missiles and this news was reported to President Kennedy on October 14. He convened a meeting of the National Security Council to consider options. These ranged from accepting a fait accompli to a major bombing strike.
On October 19, the nation still oblivious to what was happening, President Kennedy met with Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet foreign minister. Gromyko said the Russians were only supplying defensive weapons. Kennedy knew he was lying but kept silent. To prevent alerting the Russians, Kennedy went on a scheduled trip to Chicago but returned to Washington early, the White House press office blaming a cold for the early return.
Then, on October 22, it was suddenly announced that the president would speak to the nation at 7:00 p.m. Foreign leaders, including the Soviets, were informed of what the United States knew and what it proposed to do about it. An air of foreboding swept the country. We did not know what was happening, but it was obvious that it was very serious.
We were facing nuclear war. We looked at each other in utter silence, eyes wide.I and many of my college dorm mates gathered in the TV room in the basement of the dorm to listen to the president, 50 years ago today. There was none of the usual college horsing around. We were dead quiet when the president began to speak. He explained the situation. In response, he said, we were imposing a blockade (called a “quarantine,” because a “blockade” was, technically, an act of war).
Then Kennedy said that, “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
We were facing nuclear war. We looked at each other in utter silence, eyes wide. It was the scariest moment of my life and, I’m sure, everyone else’s in that room. Kennedy finished his speech, but the tension still filled the air.
Just then, as luck would have it, a fire engine roared down West End Avenue a hundred yards away, its sirens blaring. Everyone’s immediate thought was “air raid!” But then we recognized what it actually was and the tension broke with laughter.
The crisis continued for several days until the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for the removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey — missiles that were, in fact, already obsolete. That allowed Khrushchev to save face.
Within a few years, several means of lowering tension between the superpowers had been devised and implemented, including the “hotline” for direct telephone communications between Washington and Moscow. The world, shown what the brink looked like, edged back.
The Cold War is long over and the Soviet Union is where Ronald Reagan said it would be — on the ash heap of history. The threat of nuclear war between great powers is now remote. But for those of us who are old enough to remember those days in October 1962, it once seemed imminent. I, for one, will never forget.
John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of .