Three men went to war … and the world survived

I cannot remember precisely where I was when I learned about missile installations being built on an enemy island, with nuclear weapons aimed at the United States of America.

I do remember, though, how I felt when I heard the news. I was scared to death.

So were a lot of Americans at my then-tender age and older who heard the news from President John F. Kennedy in October 1962. I was not quite 13 years of age when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation but I knew enough to be frightened as I’d never been before.

The PBS production “Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War” will be rebroadcast tonight at 9 on KACV-TV. It tells a gripping story of three leaders, two of whom had their fingers on their countries’ enormous nuclear arsenals; the third man was a dictator of an island nation 90 miles off the Florida coast who was quite cozy with one of the two superpower leaders.

The leaders are President Kennedy, Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Castro agreed to have the Soviet install medium- and long-range ICBMs on his island. U.S. spy planes detected their construction in the fall of 1962. Intelligence officers got word to the president, who then commenced an intense 13-day negotiation with the Soviets over how they would remove the missiles from Cuba.

Kennedy had many options to consider: bomb the installations, invade the island, do nothing, impose choking sanctions, block all inbound ship traffic to Cuba. The president chose the last option. The blockade worked.

The battle of wills between Kennedy and Khrushchev was excruciating until finally, as it was reported at the time, one of the men “blinked.” Nikita Khrushchev ordered the missiles removed and the world was saved from the prospect of a nuclear war, which Kennedy — in a nationally televised speech to the nation — promised if missiles were launched against any nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Meanwhile, the world its breath. Take my word for it: A lot of human beings on this planet thought we were hurtling toward destruction. I was one of them.

That was a frightening time in U.S. history and it would do us well today to look back once again at how close we came to the end of it all.

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