I was eight years old on October 16, 1962.
It was a Tuesday and I was in grade school probably day-dreaming about anything but the world coming to an abrupt end.
But on that day, President Kennedy was shown some pictures of Soviet Missiles being assembled in a place called Cuba. It may has well have been the moon as far as an eight year old is concerned but my parents were very concerned. Dad had been in the Pacific theater when the last nuclear weapon was actually used and the fifties were filled with news story after news story about the Soviet buildup. Duck and cover in schools was just winding down and the fallout shelters were already starting to deteriorate. The size and scope of the weapons being built would prove to be so powerful that there probably weren’t enough shelters anyway and they would not provide enough safety for any survivors.
So here we were facing a threat that brought the weapons close enough to our shores to matter. After all, Florida is only ninety miles from the shores of Cuba. A weapons launch from that distance would prevent any adequate sheltering of the population in large urban centers. Our population would literally be obliterated with little time to save most.
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide
I remember hearing my Dad talking about using the basement as a shelter. The problem would be food. The types of food we had in 1962 were not designed for long term storage. We had a freezer, but it became obvious that without an alternative source for electricity, the food would not last very long. And we had five kids and Mom and Dad. How long would the crackers and peanut butter last? The news had stories about the effects of radiation on the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Radiation was in visible but would cause great sickness. And what about water?
The Soviets had actually been building up their forces on Cuba for some time.
The abortive Bay of Pigs disaster had pushed Castro even closer into the Soviet sphere of influence. Prior to the 16th of October, many discussions had already occurred about blockading the island. On October 14, before the missile pictures were revealed. The Washington Times had a lengthy article about the plusses and minuses of blockading Cuba. Much of the article talked about the dangers of trying to stop a Soviet ship as it sailed towards Cuba. Not the least of these were the recognition that a full blockade was considered an act of war. How would the Soviets react?
Long after the crisis ended a number of facts finally emerged.
One of the first was that our understanding of the number of Russian forces was grossly underestimated. Official estimates placed that strength at only a few thousand. Later revelations from official documents released after the fall of the Soviet Union was that there were over 40,000 troops and technicians on the ground.
More important were the amount of tactical nuclear weapons that were still in Cuba long after the missiles were removed.
- Although the Kennedy administration thought all the Soviet nukes were gone, they weren’t.
President Kennedy, satisfied with Soviet assurances that all nuclear weapons had been removed, lifted the Cuban blockade on November 20, 1962. Recently unearthed Soviet documents have revealed, however, that while Khrushchev dismantled the medium- and intermediate-range missiles known to the Kennedy administration, he left approximately 100 tactical nuclear weapons—of which the Americans were unaware—for possible use in repelling any invading U.S. forces. Khrushchev had intended to train the Cubans and transfer the missiles to them, as long as they kept their presence a secret. Soviet concerns about whether Castro could be trusted with the weapons mounted, however, and the Soviets finally removed the last of the nuclear warheads from Cuba on December 1, 1962.
The military forces of the United States came close to being used in a way that was only evident in nightmares. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and we were able to walk back from the brink. The Cold War would heat up and cool down many times over the next few decades. But the nuclear weapons remain in the silos and submarines.
October 16, 2022
Sixty years after this event, the presence of tactical nukes and long range missiles still remains a threat. As Putin is further and further pushed into a corner, I wonder how well we are prepared for another 13 days in October?