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'What Are You Going to Be If You Grow Up?': Recalling the Cuban Missile Crisis

50 years later, our disaster preparation isn't much better than it was.

Protesters from the group Women Strike for Peace picket the U.N., asking the organization to intervene in the standoff. (Library of Congress)

Fifty years ago tonight, President John Kennedy went on television and told the American people that he had ordered a blockade of Cuba. The purpose was to prevent the Soviet Union from successfully completing the shipment there of parts for ballistic missiles that could be used to strike the United States. It was a perilous moment in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and for the next seven days Americans and others around the world nervously waited to see what would happen.

Would Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev instruct Soviet ships to try to run the blockade? Would the Soviets launch a preemptive strike against the United States? Would American naval destroyers or Air Force jets sink a Soviet freighter, sparking a Soviet reaction? Would any of these possible events -- or some error or miscalculation -- lead to nuclear war?

It's often said that the Cuban Missile Crisis, a series of events that brought humankind to the brink of nuclear conflagration, marked the most dangerous moment so far in human history. The decisions and actions of American and Soviet leaders during those tense two weeks in October 1962 have been the subject of dozens of books and articles. We know a lot, and are learning more, about what went on in the meeting rooms and corridors of power. (For an interesting look back on those events, watch this video from a new National Archives exhibit.)

Thinking about the arrival of its 50th anniversary, I realized that I knew surprisingly little about what ordinary Americans did during that crisis period. How did they behave? How did they react to those frightful events? There's almost nothing written on the subject. The notable exception is a fine book by Alice George, Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis. Here's part of what I've learned from reading George.

Most people, of course, did absolutely nothing. They didn't plan out ways to flee to "safe" areas; they didn't stockpile supplies; they didn't discuss with family members what to do in the event of attack. Partly, this was because of massive denial; partly it was a recognition of the futility of action. People understood that all-out nuclear war was not something they were likely to survive. Other people chose inaction not because they were in denial, but because they assumed the crisis was overblown political theater or that it would not lead to war.

My own family, living in Denver, did nothing. I don't know if it was because of denial or a belief that war was not on the horizon. I recall sitting in front of the television as my family watched Kennedy's address to the nation on the night of the 22nd. And I remember going to school the next day, afraid that missiles might blow us all up at some point in the following days. Out on the playground at lunchtime, the macho fifth-grade boys joked about kissing our asses goodbye, but there was genuine anxiety lurking behind our usual bluster. George reports that the common joke among youngsters -- a joke that said a lot about that generation's world view -- was "what are you going to be if you grow up?"

We were a generation of schoolchildren steeped in the civil-defense ethos of the time, which consisted of simple-minded platitudes concerning preparation: We were taught to seek cover under our desks in the case of incoming missiles. We knew by heart certain passages from the ridiculous "Duck and Cover" film that was staple fare in schools in the 1950s. Bert the Turtle modeled the desired behavior:

Alice George's research reveals that, during the missile crisis, Americans matured, moving beyond the "duck and cover" mentality of the previous decade. They came to realize that their government was unprepared to protect them in the event of nuclear war. Despite Cold War nervousness and the wisdom of planning for a nuclear conflict, civil-defense spending had been minuscule.

Consequently, public civil-defense shelters were relatively few in number and were woefully equipped. Newspapers published lists of designated shelters, but unfortunately most people would find no room there if war broke out. Worse yet, the shelters were drastically under-supplied: "None had been stocked with supplies in New York, Chicago, Buffalo, Camden, Newark, Louisville, El Paso, Denver, Des Moines, Wichita, Salt Lake City, Long Beach, Sacramento, Phoenix, or Seattle. The District of Columbia, with a population of 784,000, had enough stocked shelter space for 5,514."

George writes that "a reporter checked one of Denver's 'stocked' shelters and found two dozen chairs, twelve empty 17.5-gallon water cans, several hundred boxes of survival crackers, fifteen stretchers, first-aid and radiation-detection kits, and civil defense literature." This was 16 months after the US started construction of the the North American Aerospace Defense Command [NORAD] center in Colorado Springs, 68 miles away. So the Denver metropolitan area might well have been considered a prime target.

Some people had built bomb shelters in their homes, but the actual prospect of survival in such shelters was slight, and other citizens saw such behavior as irrational: "Almost 60 percent believed that family shelter owners would have to fight to keep neighbors out if war began, and 64 percent said that living in a shelter for a long time would drive many people insane."

While there were civil-defense sirens in most places, and a national warning system that would sound in the event of approaching missiles, "for most people in target areas, this would provide only a few moments for desperate measures and prayers."

As the crisis went on, many Americans began stockpiling in the event of war, but such behavior was uneven. In San Francisco, Columbus, Boston, and Chicago, there were no reports of such behavior. And people who were proactive were not always practical. George cites the case of a woman who reportedly bought 40 jars of instant coffee. When asked what she would do for water in the event of a nuclear attack, she replied that she had never thought of that.

In some cities (Dallas, St. Petersburg, FL, and Charlottesville, VA), gun sales were brisk. In New Orleans, it was transistor radios; in Houston, batteries; in Columbus, SC, auto tires; in Denton, TX, new cars (somewhat inexplicably). In Fort Worth, TX, the civil defense director observed, after noting a rush on grocery stores, "The idea is to survive -- not to get fat."

In short, with little realistic prospect of surviving an attack, most Americans, especially those in likely target zones, appear to have done nothing other than face the crisis with a grim fatalism, and the kind of false bravado displayed by my fifth-grade friends. One wonders how Americans today would face such terrifying prospects -- and whether the government is really any more prepared to defend us now than it was then.