cuban missile crisis

For anyone alive and of an age to remember it, the 1950s and 1960s brought with them a strange new reality. I can’t say that I fully understood it all at that time, but I remember our school having a “Fallout Shelter.” They were also called a “Bomb Shelter” in some places, and the purpose was to protect the population from exposure to the fallout from a nuclear explosion. I suppose that if I had understood more about what these were, I might have been scared, but I just remember thinking it a strange idea, and highly unlikely. It did occur to me that if a bomb to explode, it would be unlikely that we would all have time to get to the school for protection.

Apparently, President John F. Kennedy, agreed with me on that thought, because, when he was speaking on civil defense on October 6, 1961, he advised American families to build bomb shelters to protect them from atomic fallout in the event of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. We were, after all, in the middle of the Cold War, and neither side really knew if the other side would decide that they needed to start that latest, deadly type of war with the other side. Looking back, many people aren’t sure that a home-made bomb shelter would really be able to protect the occupants from the fallout of an atomic bomb. No one can really say for sure that the government-built shelters in schools and churches could either, in retrospect.

Still, prudent minds assumed that something needed to be done. Kennedy also assured the public that the United States civil defense program would soon begin providing such protection for every American. What seemed like science fiction, became a grim possibility just one year later, when true to Kennedy’s concerns, the world hovered on the brink of full-scale nuclear war when the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted over placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba by the USSR. Of course, panic ensues. The crisis lasted for 13 days, but some Americans prepared for nuclear war by buying up canned goods and completing last-minute work on their backyard bomb shelters. In the end, of course, it all ended without. After several days of tense negotiations, Kennedy and Khrushchev reached an agreement. Publicly, the Soviets would dismantle their offensive weapons in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union, subject to United Nations verification, in exchange for a US public declaration and agreement to avoid invading Cuba again. The Kennedy administration had been publicly embarrassed by the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in April 1961, which had been launched under President John F Kennedy by CIA-trained forces of Cuban exiles. Afterward, former President Dwight Eisenhower told Kennedy that “the failure of the Bay of Pigs will embolden the Soviets to do something that they would otherwise not do.” He was right, but for now, disaster was averted.

Hot LineThe United States and Russia have long been frenemies, truth be told, but in October of 1962, no one would have called them that. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the two super powers to the brink of a nuclear conflict. As we all know, that would have been devastating for the inhabitants of the earth, and in the end, both countries agreed that we could not let things escalate to that level again. In June of 1963, American and Russian representatives agreed to establish a “hot line” between Moscow and Washington DC. The idea was to speed communication between the two governments to prevent an accidental war.

By August of 1963, the system was ready to be tested. American teletype machines were installed in the Kremlin and at the Pentagon. Many people have thought that the machine at the Pentagon was actually in the White House, but that is incorrect. The two nations exchanged Teletype machineencoding devises so that they could decipher the messages. This would allow the two nations to message each other in a matter of minutes. That would be somewhat slow in today’s high tech world of cell phones and texting, but in those days, it was state of the art. Once received, the message would have to be deciphered, which did slow things down a bit, but again, at that time, it was state of the art. The two teletype machines were connected by a 10,000 mile long cable with “scramblers” along the way to ensure that the messages could not be intercepted by unauthorized personnel.

On August 30, the United States sent its first message to the Soviet Union over the hot line: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890.” The message was chosen because it used every letter and number key on the teletype machine in order to see that each was in working order. Moscow returned a message in Russian indicating that every key had worked properly. In the end, the hot line was never needed hotline1to prevent war, but instead has become a novelty item, used as a prop in movies about nuclear disaster. Fail Safe and Dr Strangelove were two movies that utilized the machines. The reality was that the two superpowers had come so close to mutual destruction back in 1962, that neither had much stomach for the proposed threat. They understood that communication was key in stopping a nuclear war. Of course, that has not stopped other nations from threatening to use nuclear weapons against other nations of the world. The Cold War ended a long time ago, but the “hot line” is still in operation between the two superpowers, and has since been supplemented by a direct secure telephone connection in 1999.

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