Conjure up memories of the Cold War. Those of us who are old enough to remember that time remember a sort of simpler time, with clearly defined and identifiable adversaries.
The United States and the Soviet Union stared each other down across an ideological divide. An upcoming PBS special, “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go To War,” to be shown Tuesday at 7 p.m. on KACV-TV, brings back to life what must be considered the most dangerous moment in the history of humankind.
I have a distinct memory of that time. I was not quite 13 years old in October 1962. I lived in Portland, Ore., with my parents and two younger sisters. Then came news from this little island off the Florida coast that scared the living daylights out of Americans. U.S. spy planes had detected the presence of long-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. Defense Department officials had determined the missiles were capable of striking deeply into the United States.
President John F. Kennedy summoned his national security team to the White House to evaluate what the intelligence had revealed. How should the United States respond? Should we strike the island with bombs and missiles, which the president’s military high command wanted to do? Do we rattle our sabres and threaten the Soviet Union? Should the United States encircle Cuba with warships and ban any futher ship traffic to the island?
President Kennedy’s options were complex and were fraught with danger at almost every turn. He chose eventually to blockade the island.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev saw Kennedy as a “pushover,” the one-hour documentary reveals. Khrushchev’s lack of respect stemmed from a summit meeting the previous year in Vienna, when he bullied the then-brand new president with threats and bluster. Kennedy, a product of a privileged upbringing, was used to charming others. The charm didn’t work on Khrushchev, who was the son of Ukrainian peasants.
But as is noted in “Three Men Go To War,” the Soviet strongman “didn’t know John Kennedy like he thought he did.”
Kennedy went on TV during those 13 fright-filled days to reveal to the nation what the spy planes had discovered in Cuba and issued the warning that any attack from Cuba against any Western Hemipshere nation would be viewed by Kennedy as an attack by the Soviets on the United States and would result in a “full retaliatory response” against the Soviet Union.
We live in a world today with less clearly defined enemies. They are everywhere. But during the Cold War, as it is explained in this documentary, our enemies stood directly in front of us. We knew who they were, and they knew who we were.
Some intense negotiations between U.S. and Soviet diplomats during that time brought the crisis to an end. The unimaginable did not occur.
The PBS documentary tells a gripping story of how that drama played out. And those of us who remember that time are going to feel a chill or two reliving it all over again.