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My Cuban Missile Crisis

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cuban missile crisis

Aerial photograph taken by a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft showing a Soviet SA-2 Missile (V-75 Dvina, Guideline) surface to air missile (SAM) site in La Coloma, Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.


Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area during the 1960s was… interesting – History would have a way of occasionally butting into an otherwise typical suburban boyhood. The memory of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration comes back to me in a Proustian sort of way through the taste of hot chocolate, which my father administered to me in an attempt to thaw me out during the bitter cold of January 20, 1961; Ask not what your country can do for you… went right over my head – I was trying to ward off frostbite.

In the fall of 1962, I was eleven – my chief concerns were building models, wangling visits downtown to see my favorite museum, and trying to figure out how to get to see Dr. No and Lawrence of Arabia, both of which opened around that time. I don’t recall when I became aware of the doings in Cuba – that the Soviet Union had shipped missiles there that threatened our survival, and that President Kennedy had ordered a strict naval blockade, and that war was right around the corner. If my parents were worried – and they must have been – they hid it very well, or more likely I was just oblivious. My friends and I at Kensington Junior High had heard that some fathers had disappeared – had been secretly sent to what would later be called Undisclosed Locations. But my dad rather disappointingly stayed put, and the one kid I knew who said his father, who worked for the Government Printing Office, had vanished, was widely suspected of lying.

What I mainly remember of the Cuban Missile Crisis was a map published in either the Washington Post or Star. It showed the Washington area with concentric circles radiating out from the White House, illustrating what sort of effects an H-bomb detonation would have – something similar to this, I think. It showed that the downtown area would essentially be vaporized, and lethal blast effects could be expected all the way out to Chevy Chase Circle on the border of D.C. and Maryland. My friends and I discussed the map endlessly. We, out in the leafy Maryland suburbs, could expect a fair amount of blast, but our sturdy brick ramblers could probably take it, we thought – bad luck on any dads caught downtown, though. But the fallout was worrisome. We could expect, the map warned us, a fair amount of gamma radiation out our way. None of our families had fallout shelters, even though they were conveniently offered for sale at a nearby used car lot. I believe our gang decided that we would just hunker down in our basements and hope for the best. One of the guys pointed out that although the map did show the H-bomb detonating neatly over the White House, the Soviets were quite capable of missing the target – Ground Zero might turn out to be nearby Wheaton Plaza, instead. In which case, all of our careful calculations, and ourselves – were toast…

So my friends and I assumed that we were all going to die, but I don’t recall that we were terribly concerned by the thought. At the height of the crisis, our school had a nuclear attack drill – no duck and cover for us; we were all sent home so we could be blown up with our families. As my buddies and I walked home, our main topic was – was it to be bombers, or missiles? Strolling down Kensington Parkway, we looked up at the clear blue autumn sky, and watched for contrails.

Allan Janus in a museum specialist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Division.

Watch a video of Dino Brugioni, former senior official of the information branch of the National Photographic Interpretation Center tell of the Cuban Missile crisis in Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside (Photographic) Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, recorded on Friday, October 19 in the Airbus IMAX Theater, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

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8 thoughts on “My Cuban Missile Crisis

  1. This is such an interesting line: “So my friends and I assumed that we were all going to die, but I don’t recall that we were terribly concerned by the thought.” Since everything is “threat level orange” today, I think we can really identify with the nonchalance these kids felt. Thanks for the great post! Really liked your other Cuban Missile Crisis post, too.

  2. There would seem to be some irony in the Soviet missile site in Cuba being laid out in the form of an awkward Star of David as shown in your U-2 reconnaissance photo. dd

  3. Scott, I did see both flicks. Later on, I liked “Goldfinger” better than “Dr. No”.

    Thanks, Erin!

  4. I remember it well, but from the other coast. My dad was an officer in the US Navy, and was somewhere in the Pacific Ocean on a carrier in the fall of ’62 – undoubtedly he and his shipmates were busier than one-armed paperhangers with scenario drills out there in the vast blue. I remember feeling somewhat vulnerable, yet also pretty clueless about the whole “blown to sand and glass” thing …

  5. I guess the nuclear war fear was at its highest in the 60’s but I also remember it from the 80’s Reagan/Brezhnev/Andropov period. We were gathered together in the school yard and the head manager told everybody that we should not always believe what they tell us on TV. Very courageous of him I think.

  6. As is usual with your accounts of things, this one is both a whimsical and a serious depiction of a most personal state of mind, done as if you were re-inhabiting that young person’s mind and outlook, a very difficult thing to do at a later stage in life.

    By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis I was 22 years old, working for a living (I would soon go back to school to restart a college career cut tragically short at age 18 by deep immaturity and an inability to find my classes). I remember being glued to the TV, very worried about the confrontation, but I don’t remember many details. I was at that point in my life beginning to be a political junkie. My friends were all liberals, as was I, but they had already adopted a defined and negative view of America which I found too facile, though I couldn’t easily articulate why. Most of them were romantically supportive of Fidel Csstro, so felt that he was right if he wanted missiles in his country, and damn the consequences. I thought that the Russians were deliberately trying to provoke us and that Cuba was, for them, merely a convenient location from which to threaten us. I never felt that at that time the Russians gave a rip about Cuba itself or about Castro. So I thought all the passion for Cuba was misdirected and slightly absurd. But that was just me.

  7. The whole idea of what effect this would have on our state capital or anywhere else for that matter is not just limited to what was depicted in the 60s. Even today, no one is completely safe from any threats of war. But as a kid growing up, how many things did we really understand if we had never experienced them?

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