By Kevin Hogencamp/Jacksonville University
A panel discussion commemorating the Cuban Missile Crisis’ 50th anniversary had Jacksonville University student Daniel Moore wondering why Soviet Union citizens weren’t nearly as anxious as Americans about the prospect of Armageddon.
The world stood at the brink of World War 3 for 13 days in October 1962 when U.S. President John F. Kennedy assured Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that there would be dire consequences if he confronted American troops blocking the Soviets’ access to Cuba.
Overnight, the threat of nuclear bombs annihilating much of the United States’ and Soviet Union’s population became a reality.
Soviet citizens’ relative complacency at the time likely was due to their country constantly being embroiled in international disputes, one panelist explained during the Tuesday, Oct. 16 discussion at JU’s Terry Concert Hall.
But Moore doesn’t necessarily buy that explanation.
The 22-year-old biology major says he thinks that Soviet citizens’ complacency – particularly compared to the sentiments of Americans, whose perceptions about their world were dramatically changing – might largely have been due to their communist government depriving them of information.
“My dad at the time would practice hiding under his desk. It was a very big deal here – but not over there,” said Moore, of Egg Harbor Township, N.J. “I think it’s maybe because they weren’t well informed because the communist government controlled all the information. They may not have realized what was at stake.”
The comprehensive panel discussion, “Atomic Aged: The 50th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” drew about 150 attendees and covered topics including history and myths, physics, the U.S. Navy perspective, the Soviet view, Cuba’s struggles with the supervisors after the crisis, and sociology. The event was moderated by Dr. Douglas M. Hazzard, JU’s College of Arts and Sciences dean. Panelists, all from JU, were Dr. Jesse Hingson, associate history professor; Dr. Paul Simony, physics professor; Capt. Herb Hadley, NROTC unit commanding officer; Dr. Jelena Radosavljevic, international studies adjunct professor; Dr. John Buck, economics professor; and Dr. Nathan Rousseau, associate sociology professor.
The crisis amid the Cold War began after an American spy plane snapped photographs in Cuba of Soviet ballistic missile sites that could launch nuclear warheads with little warning at the United States, just 90 miles away. Soviet ships carrying nuclear equipment headed toward Kennedy’s so-called “quarantine” zone around Cuba, but turned around – before Kennedy and Khrushchev reached an accord, as it turns out.
“We’re eyeball-to-eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked,” U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk famously – and as it turns out – inaccurately said in a quote that largely came to be seen as defining the crisis.
Declassified documents, oral histories and accounts from decision-makers involved in the standoff have turned up new information that the JU panelists and other scholars say provides lessons for leaders embroiled in contemporary crises, including current standoffs in Syria and Iran.
Hazzard said commemorating the crisis’ anniversary and discussing what’s at stake in the nuclear age are particularly critical because “the consequences of war are not hypothetical.”
The debate over the reason Americans were more restless than Soviet citizens during the faceoff is among varied differences in historical conclusions that have been made since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Indeed, many common beliefs about the standoff have been reevaluated, including whether the predicament was a high-seas showdown in which U.S. brinksmanship prevailed, and whether the crisis lasted just 13 days (the standoff went well into 1963, Radosavljevic said).
Contrary to some history books and other published accounts to the contrary, historians now say backdoor politics and compromise – not Kennedy outdueling Khrushchev in the ultimate game of chicken — resolved the crisis; that both superpowers wound up winners; and that the crisis lasted much longer than 13 days.
“The reality is that diplomatic maneuvers were just as important as military ones,” Hingson said.