Monday, October 22, 2012

When time stood still -- Cuban Missile Crisis at 50

Destroyer USS JOSEPH P KENNEDY JR sends a boarding party over to freighter Marucla during the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962. NHHC photo USN 711187.

You don't go through life without a close call or two. I think most of us can think of at least one occasion where, if things had gone a little differently, we might not be here. But for anyone over the age of 50, there was a collective moment when it could all of come to an end -- late October 1962.

The Kennedy today at Battleship Cove
I was too young at the time to understand what was going on. I was seven years old in 1962, and I can't even recall from this distance any particular feeling of dread during the crisis. I remember knowing that something bad was going on -- and like most members of that duck-and-cover generation, there was a certain low-level terror that never really went away. I remember being under covers and hearing the engines of passing aircraft overhead and wondering if that plane, THAT noise, was the ONE.

I, for one, felt an enormous sense of relief after 1989, that I hadn't even really understood was there until it was no longer there. Notwithstanding 9/11, which brought its own kind of terror, things have been different since 1989. There's still danger in the world, and dangers in life, but instant  annihilation is not one of them.

But in October, 1962 it was  a very real possibility. We know now that the danger was even greater than we knew at the time. And I'm no great fan of John F. Kennedy, as his poorly conducted foreign policy played a not inconsiderable role in causing the crisis in the first place.

Scene from the movie Thirteen Days
The military reality was that the Soviets were not well placed to come out on top of a 1962 nuclear exchange -- even by the horrific metrics that the concept of coming out on top would entail. Evidently well aware of the unfavorable "correlation of forces" (to use the Soviet term), Khrushchev found away out of the crisis that preserved the Soviet state -- if not his job. 

Still, there's no way that "winning" a nuclear war is still not an enormous tragedy for any country, let alone a democratic one. The scarring of the national psyche by 9/11 provides a hint of what a nuclear exchange might have meant for America. It's not a world any of us would want to live in. And, of course, many of us wouldn't have lived in it. How many might have died is impossible to say. A figure of 100 million Americans and 100 million Soviets has been bandied about. I'm very skeptical that it would have been THAT high (that represents more than half of all the people in the country -- 179 million -- in 1962) but even a tenth of that amount would have been an unthinkable loss -- dwarfing the toll of all American wars.

In 1962 the Soviets had about 3,000 warheads, the United States maybe 10 times that number. The Soviets only had a couple dozen ICBMs in 1962 (which is why the MRBMs in Cuba were so attractive) and therefore would have had to rely on bombers to get through. There can be little doubt that some would have made it, but it's fruitless to even guess how many and which ones. Would even one bomb going off in just one major city have not been a disaster?

Fortunately it didn't come to that, but for the next quarter century there was a pretty complacent view in many quarters about the possibility of "surviving" or even "winning" a nuclear exchange. In my opinion, it wasn't until the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 that I think it dawned on even the most hard-headed and cold-hearted that the consequences of a nuclear exchange made concepts of winning and losing laughable. Chernobyl, as massive of a disaster as it was, was merely a fraction of the fallout of a nuclear exchange.

From the IAEA FAQ on Chernobyl:
12. How does Chernobyl’s effect measure up to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
The accident at Chernobyl was approximately 400 times more potent than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. However, the atomic bomb testing conducted by several countries around the world during the 1960s and 1970s contributed 100 to 1,000 times more radioactive material to the environment than Chernobyl.

Note that the Hiroshima bomb was  about 16 kilotons yield, making it a tactical weapon by later Cold War standards.

From a gaming standpoint, there haven't been too many that looked expressly at the Cuban Missile Crisis alone, although it does figure as an important event card in the very popular Twilight Struggle game about the Cold war.  Maybe the most on-topic game legacy of the Cuban Missile Crisis is the darkly comic card game Nuclear War, which first appeared in 1965 -- less than two years later.

From the larger standpoint of the human race, it's worth noting that the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred just a little over 17 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe the scare was worth it, after all, because we've already gone half a century more without another nuke being used. That's a better track record than I think anyone could have hoped in 1962.

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