Fifty years ago this week, America faced a perilous moment and was on the brink of a nuclear war. Cuba was allowing Russian missile sites to be built, allowing the potential for an all out nuclear attack on the United States. Most younger Americans are not aware of how close the world came to nuclear conflagration, as historians would argue that this would become the most dangerous moment up to that time in human history. If you were living then, where were you fifty years ago?
In the fall of 1962, I had traveled to England to undertake post graduate work in English Literature at Cambridge University. My focus was on British authors Kingsley Amis, C.P. Snow, T.E. White, and many other writers whose works I had read as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina. From breakfast seminars to daytime lectures, then afternoon readings and evening tutorials, I was immersed in English literature. International politics and foreign intrigue were the furthest things from my mind — that is, until the Cuban missile crisis.
I had rented a room in the house of an English family who lived a few blocks from the Cambridge campus. Mrs. Davenport, the lady of the house, awakened me at 2:00 A.M. on October 22, 1962. She said a neighbor had just called and told her to turn on the radio to hear a major press conference by President John F. Kennedy.
It was an extremely cold morning, and there was no central heating in the house, so I grabbed a blanket off my bed, threw it around me, and went downstairs to the living room. A fire was going in the fireplace, and the Davenport family had gathered around the radio. President Kennedy was just beginning his remarks.
“Good evening, my fellow citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western hemisphere.”
The President then announced a naval blockade of Cuba, which he called a “quarantine.” He made it clear that any ship bound for Cuba that was carrying offensive missiles, or any other military hardware, would be stopped and turned back. He continued:
“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 on the Soviet Union. And any hostile move by the Russians anywhere in the world against the safety and freedom of peoples to whom we are committed, including in particular the brave people of West Berlin, would be met with action.”
As he ended his speech, the neighbors from next door joined us in the living room. I was not sure how serious the matter was, but there was no doubt in the minds of my British hosts, who had lived the day-in, day-out horror of two world wars; they believed that we were on the brink of another world war, and they were devastated. The women in the room were crying. Eventually, everyone turned to me and asked why the President would want to start such hostility over a minor island south of Florida. I had no idea how to respond.
The next day several members of the Cambridge Union, the local debating society, approached. They had sought me out because I was one of very few Americans at Cambridge. They wanted to have a full airing of America’s position on the Cuban crisis, and they requested that I speak on behalf of the United States. I protested that I wasn’t well versed in American foreign policy, and that they really should find someone else. But they said no one else was available and they hoped I would have the courage to stand up for my country.
I knew I was in over my head, and I needed help. The only place I could think of was the American Embassy in London; maybe someone there could give me some background information about why the blockade was necessary. After a ninety-minute train ride, I was in London by mid-day.
It was about forty degrees, much colder than usual for October in London, as I made my way on foot up Grosvenor Square toward the Embassy. I was surprised to see several thousand protesters outside the diplomatic compound, and hundreds of British policemen surrounding the Embassy. The crowd was chanting, “Get out of Cuba!” and “American imperialism!”
I pushed my way to the gates and identified myself to the military guard as an American citizen. I was asked for my passport, which I did not have with me, but my Louisiana driver’s license was proof enough, and I was allowed to go through.
At the information desk, an Embassy official asked my business. “I really could use some help,” I said, explaining that I was an American studying English literature at Cambridge. “I’ve been challenged to debate some Brits at the Cambridge Union this evening, and defend America’s position of blockading Cuba. Quite frankly, I am not that well versed in our foreign policy, and I’m really in over my head. Can you help me?”
An Embassy staffer gave me a verbal briefing and a little background information. It is an understatement to say that I was lost in the forest of international conflict.
When I spoke up for the American position and tried to defend my country that evening, I was hissed and booed by an overwhelming majority of the crowd. The Russians had stated that the only missiles in Cuba were “defensive,” and that America was the villain. Try as I might, I could not convince the Brits any differently. I was up against several other speakers who rattled off numerous dates, events, and consequences of World War II and the Cold War. They were well versed in the politics of the day, and it was clear that I was less than qualified to be my country’s sole defending voice.
The Cuban crisis was defused, but fifty years later, the world continues to be a dangerous place. Terrorism is on the rise, there are nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, and we have an increasingly unstable relationship with Pakistan, a country with a substantial nuclear arsenal. Add to that the tough talk coming from both presidential candidates, including the degrading of Russia, China, and South American countries including Venezuela – and the world is not a safer place.
Cooler heads prevailed fifty years ago, under the leadership of John F. Kennedy. There is hope that the next president will offer the same leadership on a cross section of international issues that both serve America’s interests and defuse the violence taking place across the globe. Yes, there is hope. But based on the last decade, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, don’t count on it. International peace continues to be elusive and still light years away.