The Cuban Missile Crisis played out 50 years ago next month. Bud did it ever really end?
In this March 8, 2012 photo, sailors clean the flight deck as they move supplies and equipment in preparation for the final deployment of the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise at the Norfolk Naval Station in Norfolk, Va. The ship's storied 50-year history includes action in several wars, a prominent role in the Cuban missile crisis and serving as a spotter ship for John Glenn's orbit of the Earth.
We proudly wore leather Sam Brown belts festooned with metal badges denoting rank, a captain and lieutenants. Our red crossing-guard flags were affixed to 5-foot wooden staffs, and we positioned ourselves at three intersections outside Lincoln Elementary School in Chisholm, Minn., ushering our fellow students -- kindergarten through sixth grade -- across two avenues.
Even though it entailed more time at school, being assigned to that corps was a coveted honor. We were trained by a Minnesota State Trooper, and our paraphernalia was stored in a "guard room."
It was heady stuff for an 11-year-old, and it was a mark of the era that we were actually trusted to perform the duty. Teachers may have peeped from the windows, but none supervised us on the street. We did well, a force for order and safety, until one afternoon in October 1962.
It was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we were sharply aware of the threat. Teachers were afraid; parents were afraid; Walter Cronkite was somber. Nuclear war appeared imminent.
The yellow Civil Defense placards on the doors of Lincoln, labeling it a shelter location in the event of emergency, were suddenly prominent. It was generally believed by local residents -- not without perverse pride -- that Minnesota's Iron Range, the source of the iron ore that made the steel "that won two world wars," was targeted by the Soviets as strategic infrastructure.
Would we all die inside the school?
That brisk autumn afternoon, I left the last class period a few minutes early with my fellow guard Carla, to fetch our gear and trot out to our posts at the corner of Third Avenue and Fifth Street. Kids were soon pouring from the doors, and all began normally. The school grounds were almost cleared when the incident occurred.
A boy walked up to Carla's station. There was a car approaching slowly from the north, about a block away, but we guards were trained to err on the side of caution, and Carla held her flag blocking the sidewalk. The boy hesitated a moment then flung his arm upward, swept her flag aside, and strode into the street. Carla yelled at him to return and he ignored her.
I was shocked. I recall thinking "he's doing this because there's going to be atomic war." It was the only such rebellion I'd witnessed. He was halfway across the avenue when Carla hefted her flagstaff like a javelin, and stepping into the move like a little Amazon, launched it at the boy's back. It struck him square between the shoulder blades. He yelped and spun around, fists clenched. But Carla's face was etched in such fury, that he just called her a name and left.
We had the war already.
I cannot speak for all my peers, but the emotional impact of mutual assured destruction (MAD), the brief craze for back-yard bomb shelters, and the spectacle of Nikita Khrushchev banging his fists on the podium at the United Nations, instilled dread and paranoia.
Three years before, in 1959, I had prayed that Khrushchev, then on a state visit to the United States, would extend his stay. I had reasoned that while he was on our soil, there wouldn't be a nuclear war. Surely the Soviets wouldn't attack if their leader was here. As long as Khrushchev was here, I'd experienced a rare and soothing peace of mind. Annihilation was on hold.
Fifty years later, we're still here. A combination of diplomacy, luck and the lethality of the weapons themselves have kept civilization in the game. But what is also still here are nuclear weapons.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, as of February 2011, there were 4,380 active warheads between we and the Russians alone -- a tally sufficient to levy catastrophe -- with another thousand or so ready to use by other members of the "nuclear club." A grand total of about 21,000 warheads still exist on the planet.
It's well that the international community is concerned about the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, but it's sobering to remember that their current and potential atomic capabilities are trivial compared with those of the United States and Russia, and that we Americans are still the only nation to have unleashed nuclear bombs in war.
It's understandable -- if frightening -- that our adversaries and competitors should seek nuclear arms. China is building an arsenal.
What is also frightening is how little apparent fear we retain about nuclear war. It was a staple anxiety in the 1950s and '60s, but the last spike of collective worry was 30 years ago, during the Reagan administration, when the specter of "nuclear winter" and controversy over the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") were in the headlines.
Once the USSR dissolved, so too our angst over our ability to incinerate a billion or more people in several minutes, and likely destroy western society, not to mention savaging the planet's climate.
Reagan's SDI was a good idea -- destroy weapons instead of cities -- but only if the technology had been shared with the Soviets. If it became clear that the United States was close to developing a true missile shield, the Russians would've had an excellent strategic motive to strike first.
But the technological track was too daunting, the cost astronomical. The complex systems had to achieve perfect reliability -- how many nuclear bomb hits within the borders of the United States would be acceptable? Early tests led to early abandonment.
So far as we know, it was the last best hope for neutralizing nukes, since total atomic disarmament doesn't appear to be a politically viable option, nor any other disarmament for that matter. It may be nice to realize that in 1985 there were 65,000 warheads in existence, but is less lunacy, less overkill, truly that comforting? A step in the right direction loses its impact when there are light years to travel.
The U.S. Constitution mandates that Congress declare war, theoretically preventing one person -- the president -- from embroiling the nation in armed conflict. The last time Congress did so was in December 1941, though we've initiated plenty of combat since then, growing about 100,000 American battle deaths, and spending multiple hundreds of billions of dollars.
Clearly there's been some "mission creep" in the war powers of the executive branch, and one factor may be the scariest aspect of the nuclear threat: the abrupt, merciless time frame.
If the launch of hostile ICBMs is detected, the decision to counterstrike must be made in minutes. One of the issues with the Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962 was the further shortening of the reaction time.
In 1941, Congress didn't declare war until the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, which was more than quick enough. But because response to a nuclear assault needs to be immediate, part of the launch procedure is automated, and to what degree computer software controls our fate is, of course, one of the most closely guarded state secrets in history.
The stability of the MAD deterrent depends upon it. It's an open question how much control the president of the United States, or any other person, actually has over the retaliatory protocols. In the heat of the moment, it appears Congress has very little. We citizens have none.
Nuclear arsenals are like a force of nature. You may have a few minutes warning of an approaching tornado, and you may even be able to seek shelter, but you can't steer it or stop it. And sometimes you don't get the warning.
I recall that afternoon in October 1962 as a warning. I have an image of Carla's flag -- her missile -- streaking over the asphalt toward the boy's back. It's a dreamy picture now, like watching a scratchy old film, but when it dropped to the pavement the flag was spread out. It said: "Stop."
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of "Ghosts of the Fireground," "Letters from Side Lake" and other books.
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