So they fired first. Could you push the button in response?

The aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis on America

I was in the second grade when the Cuban Missile Crisis broke. Over the years there have been a number of great documentaries about what really happened during the crisis, but even now, I am not sure I know what really happened.

The Cold War was well into its second decade and the threat of nuclear holocaust was very real very real. I distinctly remember having a lot of family discussions about what to do in the case of an attack and where we would all hide. Our brick house was built on a hillside but had a concrete basement. Pretty ideal for a nuclear attack according to the pamphlets from the Civil Defense people.

Food would be an issue. With five kids, food never seemed to stay in the hose for very long. The booklets talked about crackers and water but to an eight year old, that seemed like it would get pretty old in a hurry.

Plus, if enough bombs were used, would everything be so radioactive that we wouldn’t be able to leave the basement for a while? And what would we do if we had to go to the bathroom? Even a kid knows that the outcome of the human waste cycle needs to go somewhere. (This knowledge would come in handy someday when I became a submarine Auxiliaryman).

As far back as February 1959, the intentions of the Soviet Union were understood to be hostile to the Free World. In a speech to the World Affairs Council of Portland Oregon, ADMIRAL JAMES S. RUSSELL, USN, VICE CHIEF OF NAVAL OPERATIONS From his address:

“On the basis of performance alone, I Suggest we have unmistakable proof that the Russians really mean What they have frankly said for so long — that their objective is a Moscow-dominated, Communist-controlled World. Americans who have conferred with Khrushchev recently have emphasized his firm conviction that Communism will triumph in the end. Has he not arrogantly boasted on the television that our grandchildren will live in a communist United States?

He believes this implicitly and fanatically and he also believes that any means of achieving Russian victory in this struggle is a proper and fair means. If, one does not work, he will try another. Honesty, integrity, and mercy have no place in his vocabulary. Victory is the only word he knows.

Khrushchev is the leader of a large gang of dedicated followers who believe implicitly, as he does, that the Communists are destined to rule the World. They may vary in their ability and method, but they are all motivated by the same ceaseless urge to conquer. They brag of their past accomplishments and forecast their future gains with no restraint. They preach the inevitability of the Success of the World Revolution and use this false prophecy as a psychological tool to spread defeatism. Their successes have encouraged others in the world to join actively in their endeavors, or at least not to oppose them. –

In the face of such evidence, who can say there is no challenge to the democracies of the world? Who can ignore this Sinister and relentless drive? Who can believe that “peaceful co-existence” is anything more than a catch phrase to lull the cowardly or unwary into a completely false sense of temporary Security? Who, then, can believe that we are not, in fact, at war. This is a fight we must all join.”

One study that I recently found was a limited study but it was done using submarine candidates both before and after the crisis.

The study was a limited study and probably doesn’t reflect America as a whole. But one of the outcomes was to determine if submariners had a change in thoughts as a result of the Crisis.

From the study:

The Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962 provided a complex naturalistic situation intervening between two administrations of an experimental Likert type questionnaire designed to assess pacifistic-belligerent kinds of attitudes of submariner candidates. The speed with which the crisis developed, reached its peak and crystallized, resulting in one of the most unambiguous resolutions in recent history, made it an ideal event for the study of attitude change. This event constituted an overt threat to national security, largely because of the proximity of a Communist military power to the confines of the United States. In addition, the propagandization effect upon the populace was greatly enhanced by the rapid and detailed reporting by the news media.

  1. P. Janicki and J. de Rivera (personal communication, 1964) state that the missile crisis was viewed quite clearly in national patriotic terms. Fears related to the threat of Communism as a political and ideological force did not increase during the critical period but remained scattered throughout the responses at about a 15 to 20% level regardless of political developments. On October 25th, the danger appears to have been regarded not so much as an increase in the Communist threat, but as a challenge of our right for independent action. Consequently, at the critical time, statements in news bulletins and articles dealing with the maintenance of our prestige in the world, as well as the maintenance of independence and freedom of all people increased in frequency. In contrast, the frequency of coverage dealing with other international topics dropped precipitously.

Rankin and Jones (1963) found that only two items from the Taylor Manifest Anxiety Scale (TMAS) showed a change in the direction of increased anxiety in a pre- and post-Cuban crisis group of college students. However, it was shown that a high percentage of the items in the TMAS were situationally sensitive to the Cuban crisis.


The population for this study consisted of 128 enlisted candidates for the U. S. Naval Submarine Service. The pre-crisis group of 56 men was tested on October 11th; the post-crisis group of 72 men was tested on the morning of October 25th, when the crisis was presumably at its maximum. Both population samples were Navy enlisted volunteers for the Submarine Service. Their ages ranged from 18 to 32, with a mean of 25.

The 9-point response distribution from Agree Strongly through Neutral to Disagree Strongly was split into high, low, and neutral categories for each item. t ratios were then computed between the proportions of pre- and post-crisis groups responding in the three categories. Twenty-one items significant at the 5 % or less confidence level were identified.


As can be seen from Table 1, those items having to do with preparedness (Nos. 53, 56), nuclear radiation aboard submarines (Nos. 42, 51), and patriotism (Nos. 67, 68) were answered disproportionately more in the Agree direction by the post-crisis group.

On the other hand, items dealing with avoidance of war (Nos. 10, 33, 84), the U. S. Government’s stand toward other countries (Nos. 56, 60, 90), and submariners’ attitudes toward firing missiles (No. 59) were answered disproportionately more in the Disagree category after the crisis.

Motivation toward the Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile program (No. 71) seemed to increase also.

More favorable attitudes toward the leadership of our country may be inferred from Items 68 and 78.

Finally, the item group (Nos. 25, 59, 68, 84) seems to reflect an attitude that nuclear war is not only a possibility, but is, in fact, a distinct outcome of the Cuban crisis. A majority responded in a way which expresses confidence in the final victory of the United States should a nuclear war occur.

In general, the interposition of the Cuban crisis between two administrations of an attitude questionnaire designed to assess pacifistic-belligerent attitudes of submariner candidates tended to “sharpen” those attitudes related to the realities of the situation, the dangers of nuclear war, modes of defense and preparedness, and relationships with other countries. It appears that attitudes toward the international situation were viewed in more black and white terms, resulting in a tendency toward a short-term viewpoint. All in all, the pattern of post-crisis attitude differences suggests that, when a nation’s international posture shifts toward the belligerent, military men’s attitudes change in the same direction.

  1. From Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Navy Department Research Task MR005.14 2100
  2. “Portions of this paper were read at the Eastern Psychol. Assn meetings, Philadelphia, Pa., 1964.
  3. The opinions and assertions contained herein are the private ones of the writer and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Navy Department or the Naval service at large.

I wonder what the results would be if the survey was given today?

The home front

Pittsburgh was a strategic area because of the mills, mines and companies working on nuclear power for the Navy. The hills around the city were dotted with Army Nike Sites and we had Air Force jets stationed at the Pittsburgh Air station. It just seemed to be a fact of life that we were not going to be left alone in the next war.

But the Cuban crisis came to a head and no atomic bombs were dropped on McKeesport.

The whole country seemed to have a change of heart about the threats that existed. Secret studies had already been conducted for the President that showed that there was not enough shelters or food to survive a large attack so maybe the country was not as prepared as we were being led to believe.

Sometime after the crisis passed, our family just stopped talking about the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

The Nike Sites that were placed all around Pittsburgh to defend against attacks were mostly gone by the time I was in High School in the early seventies. I am glad that the umbrella of nuclear deterrence was enough to shield us for as long as it has.

Back to the original question. Could you push the button?

I was on two boats that got to shoot practice missiles. Both sets of birds were dead on accurate. Not that it matters when you are talking about a nuclear bomb I suppose. But both firings left an impression on me at either end of my career.

I’m glad that in all those years, we never had to actually fire one in anger. Maybe we have a chance to make it a few more years before some new global threat arises.

Mister Mac


4 thoughts on “So they fired first. Could you push the button in response?

  1. I was on the Carp on the back from the med when the Cuban crisis began. We were deverted to Cuban with orders to stop and search cargo ship near Cuba..I felt kind of stupid standing on deck with a Bar asking a really big ship to stop. One did stop but we had no way of getting to it. Life was fun in the 60’s.

  2. There was a question like this on the Sub School psych test in the summer of ’70. I was interviewed by the shrink about my answer (Hell Yes!). I told him that my response was based on the fact that if we were directed to launch, then my family had already been vaporized, so yes, I would push the “Button”. He had no more questions, and like you, I am glad that the order was never given in my 21 years of service.

  3. A very sobering topic and one that fascinates me, having been born in the mid-60s. I read Arthur M. Katz’s “Life after nuclear war: the economic and social impacts of nuclear attacks on the United States” a few years back and really got a comprehensive look at the effects on that scale.

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