The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was the closest the world has come to all out nuclear war. On Oct. 15, American spy planes discovered that Russians had placed missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads in Cuba, just 90 miles from the shores of Florida. On Oct. 22, when President John F. Kennedy went on television to announce this to the nation, the American people understood how vulnerable they were to a nuclear disaster.
American citizens waited in trepidation for the next six days as the world edged closer to war. President Kennedy declared a blockade of Cuba, called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council and presented clear photographic evidence of the presence of missiles in Cuba. The blockade turned away a Russian ship in a tense confrontation that Americans could view on television; later, an American U2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba.
Stocking Bomb Shelters
The Cuban Missile Crisis was what Sergei Khrushchev, son of Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev, called “an American psychological crisis...Americans saw for the first time that they were vulnerable and it was very scary for them.” Americans reacted to this in a variety of ways. Some people sought out survival supplies for bomb shelters that many citizens had in their basements or backyards at the time. Others sent telegrams to Washington, D.C., demanding that their leaders solve the crisis. There was a drop in tourism to Florida even as the military set up anti-aircraft sites on the state’s Atlantic beaches.
Protests and Hope
Protestors gathered in Berkeley to debate whether or not putting a naval blockade around Cuba – which many felt was an escalating step – was the right thing to do. There were other demonstrators, however, who actively wanted nuclear war against Russia. The American Strategic Air Command went on DEFCON 2, the highest level of alert short of war. Some businesses even saw the increased military activity around them as a good sign; they felt, as with World War II, that the economy would improve with heightened government orders to industry.
In the end, the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved when Nikita Khrushchev promised to remove the missiles and nuclear warheads from Russia in return for a promise by President Kennedy not to invade Cuba. Nuclear war was averted and the American people, having come so close, were terrified. “When the crisis ended,” writes historian Spencer R. Weart, “most people turned their attention away as swiftly as a child who lifts up a rock, sees something slimy underneath, and drops the rock back.”
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