I Remember Nikita
It was October of 1962. Our new President, John F. Kennedy, had only been in office since January of the preceding year, and he was building on the fears that President Eisenhower had laid out for us regarding the Communist Russians and their desires for world domination. The threat of a nuclear bomb being dropped on us was so much a part of our daily life, that we had even had drills in our schools on what to do if “the Bomb” did indeed drop. I still remember being told to get under my desk like all the school children around me, and I had no idea what that was supposed to do...but we dutifully did it anyway. We lived each day in growing fear that something cataclysmic was about to happen, because President Eisenhower had told us that the probability of war was as high as fifty percent, with some suggesting that it was even higher. By October of 1962, the world was on its way to having the Northern Hemisphere rendered uninhabitable for thousands of years to come, because the Soviet Union and the United States were on a nuclear collision course that had reached a point of certainty. The Soviet Union had already placed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, and a top secret plan was put into effect in Washington to ensure the survival of the government. Every American was talking about the seemingly inevitable, and I was an eleven-year-old kid worried that Nikita Kruschev was going to end my life.
President Kennedy Announcing His Plans
There was a chart published in the newspaper. Multiple red rings showed where the missiles would reach if they were launched from Cuba. I remember that I took that page and tacked it to my bedroom wall where I could see it every night when I went to sleep. There it stood, like an epitaph to all of us, showing us which unlucky souls lived within striking range, and I would study it nightly wondering if my home was really in the target. The concentric circles radiated outward from Cuba, with the smallest one there in Florida, then the second one moving up toward my home, and I prayed that they somehow would not reach us, that maybe they would only get as far as that first circle. The standoff between President Kennedy and Soviet Secretary Nikita Kruschev was escalating. I still remember the sight on the news of those Soviet ships heading to Cuba, and knew like the rest of America that our President had told them to turn around and head back to Russia. Our Navy destroyers were enforcing a total quarantine around Cuba. Troubling enough, those Soviet submarines carried 15-kiloton nuclear torpedoes that were capable of nearly the same destruction that was delivered on Hiroshima. And it was during this quarantine that we nearly lit the fuse that would have ended it all.
The Horrifying Chart
On October 26th, President Kennedy had already declared Defcon 2, the highest nuclear alert short of launch, and the B-52s were sent aloft. Nearly one-third of the entire force was now in the air! I remember hearing this on the radio, and I went to bed that night unable to take my eyes off that chart on my bedroom wall. “Why does Mr. Kruschev hate us so much?” I wondered. As a child, I could only hope and pray that my President and our armed forces would make it possible for all of us to wake up the next morning. I went to sleep thinking that it would be my last night on Earth. What I did not know as a child was the fact that the ground to air controls and fail-safe checks and balances that we use today did not exist then. Once those planes were in the air, a rogue crew could have armed those nuclear bombs and dropped them with no way of anyone back here being able to prevent those crew members from doing so. They could have even broadcast a mission that would have set off any number of airborne crews to do the same, and there would have been no way anyone on the ground could have recalled them. None of the systems on board these planes had any type of code inhibitors to prevent anyone from making mission mistakes. The world would have gone up in flames. Add to this the fact that those pilots routinely flew twenty-four hour missions, and the Strategic Air Command, the agency technically in charge, kept the civilian National Command Authority from knowing what they were doing, so the command room known as ExComm, which included the President, was at the mercy of the break in the chain of timely and necessary information. We only needed one mistake...one!
President Kennedy And Robert McNamara
Around 6 p.m., that evening, ExComm was wrapping up, when a letter from Kruschev arrived. He wrote that the missiles in Cuba would be removed if the U.S. promised not to invade Cuba. Kennedy had been leaning heavily in the direction of doing just that. Missiles lined the shores of Florida. So much of this was top secret back then, and we civilians knew nothing about these back door deliberations. The planes were in the air, the bombs were at the ready, the pilots had their orders, and at the apex of all of this, there was that letter from Kruschev at the last minute. We were at the brink, and we civilians had no real idea of just how close it all was.
A Soviet Submarine
The next day, October 27th, we were still at a heightened state of alarm, with Navy destroyers still surrounding Cuba, and one Soviet submarine, under the command of Valentin Savitsky, was in the crosshairs of history. The submarine was lying low, but the U.S. Navy destroyers had located his position and were dropping depth charges all around his submarine. Savitsky decided to arm the ship’s nuclear torpedo. Because they had had to resort to going to a lower depth to hide, Russian high command had not been able to communicate with them for days, so it would take the approval of two other officers to launch the deadly torpedo, and that would be only if they believed that the Soviet Union had been attacked. His second-in-command had already agreed with him. Having been underwater at a great depth for four days, the conditions inside that submarine were not conducive to peace and calm. With the air-conditioning broken and temperatures above 122 degrees, carbon monoxide rising, days of men passing out on board, the ship rocking with each new explosion, nerves were rattled enough. Then, the destroyer dropped a practice depth bomb that rattled them so much, the Russian sailors on board thought that this was the end. The Russian captain shouted, “Maybe the war has already started up there...We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all—we will not become the shame of the fleet.” That torpedo would have vaporized a destroyer, and all out war would have begun. Back in Washington, the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, informed President Kennedy that the Navy was dropping depth charges on a Russian submarine. According to his brother, Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy placed his hand on his face and curled it into a fist, showing that he was worried.
Soviet Captain Vasili Archipov
The Submarine On The Surface
October 28, 1962
Telegrams were being wired back and forth between Kruschev and Kennedy, and while this chess game of incredible price was being played out between them, Savitsky was ready to launch his nuclear torpedo. The third person in that triad of necessary approvals was thirty-four-year-old, Second Captain Vasili Archipov, in charge of three of those Russian submarines. With the unbearable heat, the extreme physical and mental exhaustion, and the relentless depth charges they had endured, how he maintained his cool is one for the history books, but he talked Valentin Savitsky down from firing the nuclear warhead. He told Savitsky that the Americans were not trying to sink their submarine, but were signaling them to surface. The depth charges had been steadily to the right and left of them, and this was their way of signaling that they meant no harm, but wanted them to surface. Savitsky ordered the submarine to surface and await the fate meted out to them by the Americans. True to Archipov’s predictions, they were to remain safe once they surfaced. In fact, they were not boarded, nor were they inspected. To their great relief, they were allowed to head North and back to Russia.
October 28, 1962, CBS News broadcaster, Charles Collingwood, told us that the world had come out from under the most terrible threat of nuclear holocaust since the Second World War. That was an understatement.
That night, I went to sleep. The chart on my bedroom wall was gone. The closest we ever came to total nuclear war had come and gone. There would be days ahead that still tested our relationship with Moscow, and they would be turbulent times that eventually led to the assassination of President Kennedy. Our nation was horrified and tragically saddened, but through it all, I never again had to crawl under a school desk. Those days eventually became a distant memory... but I still remember Nikita.