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SideLines: Celebrating what never happened

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012 2:18 p.m. CDT

It almost sounds like an episode of “Seinfeld,” but it was much more serious.

It will be 50 years ago next week that something didn’t happen. Had it occurred, it would have been so horrific, the world we live in today would be very different. Instead of reading this column in a newspaper or online, you may have had to find it painted on the wall of a cave or the side of a burned-out building.

I am, of course, referring to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

On Oct. 14, 1962, a U.S. U-2 plane on a routine photo reconnaissance mission photographed a number of missile silos the Soviet Union had secretly set up in Cuba. The missiles were aimed at the United States during the height of the Cold War.

It was learned later that Cuban Premier Fidel Castro had asked the Soviets to place the missiles there to prevent the U.S. from invading Cuba. Only a year earlier, in April of 1961, Cuban forces had defeated a group of CIA-trained Cuban exiles with the backing of the U.S. government in what was known as the “Bay of Pigs.”

After rejecting several proposals to launch surprise air or naval attacks on the missile sites, President John F. Kennedy decided to go public with the information instead. He also instituted a naval quarantine around the island, and declared that the launch of any missile would be perceived as an act of war, forcing the U.S. to respond with nuclear weapons.

Responding immediately, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev claimed his country had only peaceful intentions in mind. Viewing the quarantine an aggressive act, he ordered his ships to proceed to Cuba anyway, setting up the first of many showdowns.

With the full support of the United Nations and the Organization of American States behind the U.S., both sides dug in for war.

It very nearly came on Oct. 27, when a U.S. U-2 plane was shot down over Cuba.

A day later, with time running out and tensions rising on both sides, it was agreed that Khrushchev would remove the missiles in exchange for a U.S. promise that it would not invade Cuba.

Khrushchev had earlier proposed removing the missiles in exchange for the U.S. removing its missiles from Turkey, which Kennedy publicly refused. However, months later, as part of a secret deal between the two superpowers, the U.S. quietly dismantled all U.S.-built Jupiter IRBMs – which were outdated anyway – in both Turkey and Italy.

It was arguably Kennedy’s finest moment in office.

One of the positive results of the near encounter was the establishment of a hotline between Washington D.C. and Moscow, hopefully preventing such an event from ever happening.

“We live to tell the tale,” historian Lester B. Pearson wrote at the time. “But in order to go on living, there is much we need to learn. ...Both sides now recognize that situations must not be pressed so far, or by such methods, that total war will be dangerously provoked.”

Since nothing actually happened, and since enough time has passed, I wonder if people realize how seriously close we came to World War III. The use of nuclear weapons, many experts have estimated, would have killed at least 100 million Americans and an equal number of Russians. The fallout to the rest of the world probably can’t be calculated.

Two excellent movies on the crisis are “The Missiles of October” and “Thirteen Days.” Interestingly, “The Missiles of October” is based on Robert Kennedy’s book, “Thirteen Days.” The movie “Thirteen Days,” while it shares a title with Kennedy’s  book, is actually based on yet another book. Robert Kennedy was U.S. Attorney General at the time of the crisis and a key adviser to his brother, the president.

I’m not aware of any special ceremonies being planned for the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. If they are, it might be the first time a celebration was held for something that didn’t happen.

And thank God it didn’t.

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