This was real – Cuba, Castro, Khrushchev and Kennedy playing “Who blinks First” on a Global, nuclear scale. We watched the Russian ships with nuclear bombs and rockets sailing slowly towards Cuba, we heard Kennedy issuing an “Unless …..” ultimatum to the Russians, and waited, rather helplessly, to see what happened. The boats kept moving, and the thought that someone would press the button moved from an abstract possibility to “Bloody Hell, the World ends on Saturday”.
It’s difficult to imagine that feeling today. But then, it was really, really REAL.
I’ve just read a real pager turner of a book (One Minute to Midnight - Michael Dobbs) which plots the actions, minute by minute over the two weeks the Cuba crisis took to play out, and you can’t help but be scared and at the same time thankful, that you didn’t really know what was going on at the time.
Looking back over 45 years, a couple of items jump out at me from the pages of this book.
Firstly, the frighteningly slow pace of communications then. Today, we take for granted the instant ability to send messages round the world. Fax machines, secure phones, satellites, the internet are all second nature to us now. Not then.
It’s not difficult to imagine the rather urgent need to get these messages across instantly when the bet you’re making is a few tens of millions of lives in a Nuclear War. And yet, in 1962, when Kennedy wanted to get a secret message to Krushchev, it could easily take 12 hours to get through. That becomes a bit of a problem when the ultimatum you’ve given the guy runs out in half that time. In the end, the only way Krushchev could get his response back to Kennedy in time, was to forego the secrecy and broadcast it on Radio Moscow’s Nine o’clock News.
Secondly, the resultant inner human belief that Khrushchev and Kennedy, both pragmatists and politicians, showed when they were finally facing Armageddon. It became clear that they didn’t want to be the two people to start a Nuclear war, and that Nothing was worth that price. However, the pressure they were both under from the Military, especially on the US side, to be up and at each other, was truly terrifying. Air Force General Curtis LeMay comes across as a man quite at one with the idea of blowing the world to bits.
If you’ve ever seen Kubrick’s film “Dr Strangelove”, just look at George C Scott’s stunning portrayal of General Buck Turgidson. You look at this grotesque and mesmirising performance and think it simply isn’t possible. It’s a characature. It couldn’t happen in real life. Except of course that Turgidson’s character is based squarely and allegedly very accurately on Curtis Lemay. If ever there was a real life psychotic in military charge of 5,000 nuclear weapons, it was Lemay. If you didn’t know better, you could be forgiven for thinking Dr Strangelove was a work of deeply Black, Humorous Fiction. The truth is – It’s actually a documentary.
This film is a permanent member of my Top Five Films of All Time.
If you haven’t seen it, try this 3 minute clip
Bush didn’t have it. Apparently Obama does. Something says to me that in the next few years, that may turn out to be a very important difference.