One Minute to Midnight
By Michael Dobbs
The death of Osama Bin Laden was met with many emotions and prompted much rhetoric in the press. One of the commentaries which I found quite compelling was one by a talking head on CNN who spoke of “the children of 9/11.” He was not referring to the children of victims of that tragic day’s attacks, but the children who have grown up under the specter of terrorism. He wondered how growing up in an “unsafe and unpredictable world” would affect these kids as adults. That got me thinking back to my childhood and the specter of nuclear annihilation which my generation grew up with. I was ten years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis and I lived and went to school 3.8 miles from the Pentagon. We had a Civil Defense air raid siren on the corner of our playground. We were made to bring bottled water and canned goods to school in case we were trapped. We practiced getting under our desks during a nuclear strike. Who were we kidding? We knew we were toast. I have recollections of John Kennedy appearing on TV that fateful Sunday to inform the American people that the U.S. had discovered Russian missiles on the island of Cuba. I remember the Naval embargo and watching the TV with bated breath as Soviet ships approached the embargo line in the Caribbean. Then my recollections get a bit fuzzy, but I remember that it seemed like it was quickly all over: the Russians backed off, Kennedy had prevailed and the world was sort of safe again. That was not exactly the case.
Michael Dobbs has written what is probably the definitive book about the Cuban missile crisis. He uses recently declassified American and Soviet documents and photos. He also interviewed many of the key players (American, Soviet and Cuban) who were part of the Russian weapons deployment, the United States’ response and the Cubans who were ostensibly the pawns in this whole nuclear showdown chess match. He has written a minute by minute narrative of every detail of the crisis which reads with more spell binding, fear inspiring, trembe inducing terror than any Ludlum, Clancy or Le Carre novel.
The opening of the book recreates the political atmosphere which created the crisis. America was feeling technologically inferior to the Russians and the common thinking (albeit false) was that the US lagged the Russians badly in the production of nuclear weapons. This supposed “missile gap” was, in fact one of the major issues which got John Kennedy elected in the first place. The US had also been embarrassed by the loss of a U2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union and Dwight Eisenhower’s obfuscation of the plane’s mission (he claimed it was on a weather data collection flight over Turkey, when in fact, the Russians proved it was taking photos of military installations while flying over the Soviet Union). Castro, not long in power and paranoid of an American led counter-revolution, was in fear of a more organized Bay of Pigs style invasion of his island country. The Soviet Union felt besieged by NATO (i.e., American) nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. This led to the unlikely alliance of Castro and Nikita Kruschev and the placement of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba.
What the US was unaware of then and until recently, was that the Soviets also had battlefield or “tactical” nuclear weapons in Cuba which would have easily annihilated an American invasion force. The US was also unaware of the number of Soviet troops in Cuba and the fact that there were longer range missiles there which could have easily reached New York, Washington and many other Southeastern American cities. There were, indeed, preparations in place (code named “Operation Mongoose,” organized by the CIA and under the control of Robert Kennedy) for an invasion of Cuba. The American leadership was also under the impression that there were no nuclear warheads in Cuba yet, but this, again, has been proven to be false.
The American people had no idea of the division of opinion in the upper levels of government regarding how to respond to this Soviet nuclear threat in our own back yard. The author makes it painfully clear that there were many who advocated a “first strike” approach with a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Air Force General Curtis LeMay, the commander of the Strategic Air Command and future Vice Presidential candidate with George Wallace (1968), when asked what he would do about the Cubans, replied “Fry ‘em.” (Incidentally, LeMay was the inspiration for the crazed Air Force General Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie “Dr. Strangelove.”) Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara and others felt that Kruschev could not be trusted and that an aggressive first strike was the only acceptable response. Fortunately, or we all would not be alive to learn about this, cooler heads prevailed. The Naval blockade was implemented after much debate, and, after much wringing of hands, Bobby Kennedy met with the Soviet ambassador late on “Black Saturday”, October 27, 1962, the day which nuclear war seemed imminent. He proposed the exchange of aging American weapons in Turkey and a promise of no American invasion of Cuba for the removal of the nuclear weapons from Cuba.
While debate was raging in Washington, Castro became furious that the Soviets were backing down from their commitment to defend his island from America. He demanded a Soviet first strike on the United States, anticipating an imminent invasion (which was, in fact, scheduled for the following Tuesday if talks broke off between the Americans and Soviets). His willingness to die for his cause and take his island nation into nuclear holocaust with him is unbelievable.
The author also writes of many inadvertent events, any of which could have triggered a nuclear holocaust. Another U2 wandered off of its flight path over the North Pole and mistakenly entered Russian airspace just as Kennedy and Kruschev were exchanging the beginnings of what became the ultimate compromise. American ships dropped dummy depth charges on four Soviet submarines (armed with nuclear tipped torpedos) in the Caribbean to try to pinpoint their location. These subs had lost communication with Moscow and they were uncertain as to whether they were actually at war or not. One of the subs came incredibly close to firing its nuclear torpedoes which would have taken out an entire carrier group and, obviously, triggered a nuclear response. Another U2 was shot down over Cuba, despite orders from Moscow to the contrary. Any or all of these events could have triggered nuclear war.
This book is packed with facts and documented like an academic treatise. It is suspenseful and terrifying at the same time. It is an event which seems almost anecdotal nearly sixty years later, but had one small decision or event gone differently and the world as we know it would not exist.So, this gets me back to my original question? Do the “children of 9/11” have more uncertainty and lack of safety than previous generations? I think not. I think that, unfortunately, every generation has had its 9/11, its Cuban Missile Crisis, its Pearl Harbor, its near-Apocalyptic event. This age of information may make us more aware of our dire straits, but they have always been there. Awareness of these historical events is prudent, though, because as was stated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: