I sat in front of the family black and white television, the only one we had at the time, and watched the President give a very important speech. I was fourteen, turning fifteen in just a few days and I was actually wondering if I was going to see that birthday.
Maybe there would be a war and since we lived less than 20 miles from Washington, D.C. our little family would definitely not survive.
It was October 22, 1962 and President Kennedy was announcing that the Soviets had ringed the island of Cuba with missiles, a direct threat to North and South America.
The president was ordering a “quarantine” of Cuba, using the Navy to form a blockade, preventing further missiles from getting to the island.
The world was on the brink of a nuclear war, probably the closest it would (hopefully) ever come.
Messages were sent back and forth from Washington to the Kremlin. And, as the story goes, it was Robert Kennedy who suggested that the president ignore Khrushchev’s latest message and answer the next to last one, giving the Soviet leader more time to think about dismantling the Cuban missiles.
There were some difficult moments and the UN Secretary at the time, U Thant, reminded both leaders not to do anything that would put the other countries of the world in a dangerous situation.
As a teenager interested in world affairs and the news, I found it to be an exciting and scary time. I watched the president I’d come to admire and felt a sense of what it was to be an American standing by principles to keep the country safe. In history class we reviewed the Monroe Doctrine that the president used as the basis for his decisions. The talk among the kids in my high school was of war with many of them looking forward to it — probably without understanding what it would mean for the country or the world, if not for themselves.
The blockade was successful and the Soviets began to dismantle their missiles. Later the US followed on the final agreement to take its missiles out of Turkey — missiles that were antiquated. An, lastly, the US agreed never to invade Cuba.
Of course there was much more to it than that but for a fifteen year old that was enough, more than enough.
I think about that night when I watched President Kennedy scare the world. I think about that speech when I hear the present man in the White House speak and I am amazed how far we’ve descended as a nation.
Could we survive another such diplomatic crisis today?
Unfortunately, at seventy-one, I have my doubts.