Lessons From Nuclear Crises: 56 Years After the Cuban Missile Crisis

by Jamie Withorne

Fifty-six years ago, America was in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis — an intense 13-day nuclear standoff during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. The crisis is seared into the minds of the Americans who experienced it, but for many who are 60 and younger, the historical moment and the many lessons that came from it have been forgotten. This cultural amnesia is dangerous in a time when the threat of nuclear weapons still looms large. By revisiting the societal effects of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we can reexamine younger generations of Americans’ collective psyche and opinions on nuclear weapons in order to effectively address outdated nuclear weapons policies.

In October 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy responded to news of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba with a naval quarantine of the island, drastically raising tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The crisis was resolved when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the weapons from Cuba in exchange for an agreement that the U.S would not invade its island neighbor and would remove nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Four years following the event, the U.S. Office of Civil Defense with the Office of the Secretary of the Army released a report tracing patterns of public response to the event. The report grimly lays out that it is looking to test just how many threats of nuclear crises people can handle. The study uses voter opinion data collected directly after the crisis and “indicated [respondents] were frustrated, uncertain and fearful. They felt the need for some kind of action, but were grossly uncertain what form it could take short of war and still be acceptable under international law.” Eighty percent of the respondents could pinpoint nuclear weapons as the source of their anxiety.

The report concludes that so long as nuclear weapons continue to threaten crises like the Cuban Missile Crisis, society will never truly be comfortable:. “Society is continually pushing its ceiling of anxiety tolerance higher as a mechanism for adaptation to seemingly limitless cold war-hot war tensions.” As the presence of nuclear weapons has normalized over the years and we have had more recent scares, society has harmfully internalized the discomfort these weapons produce.

Personal narratives from witnesses to the crisis  speak volumes to the visceral psychological impact of nuclear weapons. “The world was going to end, and it had something to do with Cuba,” recalls Marta Maria Darby, who was seven years old living in Miami at the time. “I was very afraid… I didn’t sleep for days. It was quite frightening.” Maria Salgado of Cuba also vividly remembers the horrors of the event. “It’s personal. You’re sitting there on this very small island with nuclear weapons pointed to a huge, huge country with a possibility that they’re going to bomb each other back and forth. And you know, there would be talk that this would have been much greater than Hiroshima. So it’s very personal.” Their stories show that people are drastically affected by both the physical and psychological nature of nuclear weapons.

In January 2018, we received a small window into what the Cuban Missile Crisis might have felt like. A false warning of a missile threat petrified citizens of Hawaii. “I received a ballistic-missile attack alert over my cell phone…There was nothing that we could do except to hope that it was a mistake,” recounts Jean Rosenfeld of the most recent nuclear scare. “My only emotion…was not fear. It was outrage. The idea that nuclear war is an “option” is insane,” she continued. Edward Lasky, who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis exclaims, “The error is a wake-up call. We should not talk of nuclear war as if it were another talking point, but should take pause and think before we speak or act.”

Although not all Americans remember the threat and scare of the Cuban Missile, the lasting psychological damage from the threat of a nuclear crisis is real and prolific. Even though most voting-age Americans do not remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, we cannot be lulled into a false sense of security. We have to remember the threat of destruction and the real-world impacts of nuclear weapons in order to effectively address inadequate nuclear weapons policies. The mere looming presence and threat of nuclear weapons will always cause harm to a society. From the Cuban Missile Crisis to modern-day Hawaii, it is integral to remember the people caught in the crossfire of nuclear threats.

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