The Charlotte News

Tuesday, October 19, 1937


Site Ed. Note: On October 19, 1962, the President went to Ohio and Chicago for another mid-term campaign trip. Meanwhile back in Washington, EXCOMM would meet again to develop in finer detail the pros and cons of air strike versus blockade and the relative likelihood on either scenario of accomplishing the goal, removal of the missiles without "general war", i.e., nuclear exchange. By day’s end the consensus would continue to favor blockade as an initial step, followed by dedicated attempts at the U.N. and through O.A.S. to develop first an allied consensus of the justification for the blockade and the need for removal of the missiles, then, in the process, also developing a justification for the necessity of air strike and follow-on invasion if it became necessary, that is if the Soviet Union would not desist and attempted to run the blockade. To get around the technical illegality of a naval blockade without a formal declaration of war under international law, the suggestion was made by Dean Rusk to label the maneuver instead a "quarantine". The question remained whether the quarantine would apply only to military supplies and not also to the necessary provisions of life, food and clothing, etc.

Meanwhile, from the U-2 surveillance photographic analysis, another startling discovery would be made, to be communicated the following morning, requiring the immediate cancellation of the President’s remaining weekend schedule of campaign stops in the midwest and west: 16 of the missiles were now believed to be operational, over a week ahead of the two-week window supposed on Monday. As many as fifty missiles could be operational by December.

C.I.A. Director John McCone, however, would state paradoxically to the President on Saturday that they were not certain as yet that there were any nuclear warheads on the island.

Nevertheless, the new developments in this regard would cause the President to contract a sudden cold and fever, necessitating his return. The resulting photograph is one of the few, if not the only, such photo ever made public showing President Kennedy in a fedora, and a fairly ill-fitting one at that, obviously borrowed from someone else. That, coupled with the raincoat in hand, should have sent a clue—and probably in fact did—to the press to stand by for an imminent major news story. Perhaps a little of that theater learned from F.D.R., as well from Churchill, in grim humor. Perhaps, in ironic statement to be gleaned fully only afterward, also a bit of a visual pun on the Chamberlain umbrella, made famous at Munich. Perhaps not.

So, if there was so much redundancy anyway, nuclear missile-equipped submarines and ICBM’s capable of 7,500 mile hits, what was so emergent about the presence of nuclear weaponry in Cuba? Did it really significantly up the ante in destabilizing the balance of nuclear strike capability? Was it merely a political game on one or both sides to achieve face in the Cold War hysteria?

For one thing, anti-ballistic missile technology was not so good in 1962. The chances of being able to shoot down inbound ICBM’s, especially if coming in by the dozens, would have been largely futile. Some inevitably would get through the curtain.

And, when one considers it, the difference between delivery time from Cuba to Washington, about five minutes, and that from the Soviet Union, about 15-20 minutes, really was not that great.

It would, however, and significantly so, allow for greater preparation of our missile defenses and insure the ability to fire our own, thus creating the perception of mutual deterrence and forestalling thereby the likelihood of a first-strike initiated from the Soviet Union. So in that, there was a subtle shift in the strategic balance, and a substantial one.

The larger problem, however, was the psychological factor. The public in 1962 was fearful of atomic war, fearful beyond words, lived with it day and night, so much so that it became unconsciously held by most, subsumed to the tension of an age, but nevertheless real and living tension incessantly, explaining much of the strangeness and hysteria and violence of the 1960’s. People built fallout shelters in their backyards, however absurd the concept when one thought on it a little—we remember at least three being built by private property owners in the early sixties within 200 yards of where we lived, and those were just the ones we knew about. Civil Defense signs were everywhere. A cone-shaped Conelrad marker was installed on nearly every radio dial, car and home alike. And those weekly air raid tests.

People lived with it; people drank a lot.

And mass hysteria was a real possibility should something tip the balance suddenly; one need only look at the history of racial violence in the South at that time in response to something as simple and relatively easy and painless as integration of the public schools in some parts to understand the very real dangers and complexity involved in this psychological component. Tell the American people in 1962 that that bearded Commie Castro was going to be in charge of a nuclear arsenal, and the resulting social and political turmoil in the country could have become manifest in very short order, especially within the volatile South where xenophobia, and especially anti-Red xenophobia, ran at fever pitch, had historically since the 1920’s after the Bolshevik Revolution, and did to an unprecedented degree in some places in 1962.

Racism and anti-Red zeal, as Cash commented in The Mind of the South in 1940, often ran headlong to the crashing point of no return within the same person.

And, of course, then there was the concomitant threat to our allies, both in Europe and in Latin America, and the potential for destabilization in those countries by the presence of armed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Monroe Doctrine, with its various corollary extensions abroad over time, was, and still is, a strong precept historically ingrained in American life, and its rigid maintenance is considered a prime postulate for the assurance of mutual sanctity of borders and domestic tranquility, both for the U.S. and its neighbors in North and South America.

Thus, it cannot be overstated that the costs of allowing this stunt to continue in Cuba were real and exorbitant. The Soviets were playing a game of chess and this could be mate in two moves, were the missiles to be allowed to stay and become fully operational. The Cold Warriors, many of them, including the President, in direct combat, had learned the lessons only too well with the Nazi and the Japanese warlords in World War II. They were not going to allow the same game to be repeated such that we would be engaged in World War III, either by conventional warfare or through the use of nuclear weapons.

And here, it is worthy of note that Secretary McNamara had come to believe that reliance on mutual deterrence through nuclear weapons was an overly dangerous game, susceptible of too much tension, bound to lead ultimately to use somewhere if continued. He believed that a return to reliance on conventional weaponry for deterrence was a better approach to peace, and that the argument which had it that our own conventional defenses were far weaker than the Soviets’ was in error.

In hindsight, however, 45 years later, it all seems very strange and very foreign to us. We remember it, as we have said. But it seems somehow existing in some haze not susceptible now of rational understanding.

That is, until we picked up the paper this week and read that our current President, while meeting with the Dalai Lama during one part of his day, something which we applaud the President for doing and hope the discussions went well, had nevertheless told the Iranians during another part of his day that if they continued toward development of nuclear technology for the purpose of producing offensive weaponry, they would be "risking World War III."

To be or not was shortly to become the question, in 1937, in 1962.

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