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Anyone who was old enough to read and understand the news remembers the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. At the time, it seemed the world was on the precipice of a nuclear was between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. American intelligence determined that the Soviets were building nuclear missile sites in Cuba. The missiles had not yet been delivered. President Kennedy warned Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that the U.S. would not allow the Soviets to install nuclear weapons 90 miles from Florida. The two leaders publicly exchanged threats. The world watched and waited, with a sense of dread.
The following is from Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac”:
It’s the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962, President Kennedy had received photographs from U-2 spy planes over Cuba that showed the Soviet Union installing nuclear missiles and launch sites. He went on the television on October 22 and told the nation that Cuba would be placed under what he called a naval “quarantine” until the Soviets removed them. He also said that he would regard a Soviet nuclear attack on any Western nation as an attack on the United States, and would retaliate. Two hours earlier, Secretary of State Dean Rusk gave the text of Kennedy’s speech to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, and he said Dobrynin, who had never been told of the missile deployment, “aged 10 years right in front of my eyes.” One-eighth of the nation’s B-52s went in the air that night, ready to strike. Two days later, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev responded, calling the so-called quarantine a “blockade,” a term that reframed it as an act of war. Khrushchev also said it was “an act of aggression” and insisted that Soviet ships would proceed to Cuba as planned. For a few days, the world was on the brink of nuclear war.
Khrushchev sent Kennedy a message on October 26, in the middle of the night. “If there is no intention,” he wrote, “to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.” The next day he seemed to backtrack, sending another message that the U.S. must remove its missiles from Turkey. Kennedy took a risk and ignored the second message, responding instead to the first one by saying the United States would not attack Cuba if the Soviets removed their missiles from the island. On October 28, the premier publicly agreed to withdraw the missiles, and the crisis was over.