By Peter Russert
I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis. In fact growing up in Miami in 1962 put me right at ground zero for the nuclear apocalypse everyone was suddenly forced to imagine. I could try to tell you how harrowing those days were, but I think an 11-year-old boy was more mystified than anything that someone could just appear on the television and announce, in so many words, that the world could end in a matter of days or hours. It was scary alright, but it was surreal too. And it wasn’t just that the specter of annihilation sprang up so suddenly; it was that it might even be unleashed accidentally. A misplaced or misunderstood word in the negotiations, enemy ships coming a little too close together in the naval blockade of Cuba, a faulty switch on a rocket launcher. Anything. Of course I could picture what might happen then. I knew all about nuclear blasts and the unearthly hurricane of fire that would engulf everything if someone launched a weapon. I’d been through all the ridiculous drills at school, getting away from the windows, getting under the desks. My friends and I joked about how useless and absurd all of that was in light of the fact that the school building itself and everything within god knows how many square miles of it was going to be vaporized. Hadn’t the grownups been paying attention to the newsreel footage? What were they talking about?
Well, the comet that had come out of nowhere missed the earth; we survived. Is that what it meant? I couldn’t have known it at the time—I was just a boy, and history hadn’t happened yet, so no one could have known it really—but the Cuban Missile Crisis was the first shot fired in the Vietnam war. Or so it seems to me now. I might never have made the connection except that many years later—15 years or so—Vietnam would become a preoccupation for me, a theme around which I managed to muster more undivided attention than just about anything else I’ve ever dug into. In fact, these recollections of Cuba and my boyhood may cause me to dig into it all over again. Not that obsession with Vietnam was all that unusual. That war was a notorious magnet for the mind, as are so many wars, especially for those who fight them, as well as their families. But sometimes even for those like me who don’t. When I reflect on the events in Cuba in ’62 I end up thinking not so much about how close to annihilation we all were, but how hard it is to really know what’s going on several layers down beneath the surface of life, and how the deeper ripples from events will help shape the future. Cracking the code was important for a kid who was always mystified about how his father’s world worked. When I was a boy (I bet it was around the time of the Cuban situation) I read and loved The Arabian Nights stories. I remember one involving Sinbad in which the sailors on a ship reach an island where they decide to take some shore leave. When they eventually get hungry they start a fire to cook a meal. All of a sudden the island starts quaking, and the sailors as well as those still on the ship not far away, realize that what they thought was an island is really the back of a gigantic whale. As the whale dives into the depths all the sailors need to frantically scramble off its back and try to swim back to their ship. I guess that’s what history seems to me sometimes. A great whale we mistake for an island. Everything is going along pretty normally, you think, and then one day you wake up to discover that, surprise, the entire financial system is about to collapse and needs to be bailed out. Or that, surprise, you’re on the brink of nuclear war.
In early 1965 the U.S. began openly bombing a small peasant country few Americans had ever even heard of. We’d eventually learn that we did this to send a message. In those days American leaders were anxious to find a way to contain communism, which they regarded as a kind of zombie plague threatening the entire planet. They needed to do this without in each instance going through another nuclear showdown with either the Soviet Union or China. In ’62 everyone had gotten a taste of how insanely dangerous that was. The intended message behind the bombing campaign was, “Wherever we see the opportunity, we’re going to take action on the ground to make sure you know we’re serious about resisting aggression. If you think we’re going to blink or take the easy road of avoiding conflict, you’re mistaken.” The pain the American jets inflicted on North Vietnam was real enough, but the real target was the minds of the enemy’s leaders. It was part of the newfangled idea of “limited war” which was designed for the sole purpose of maintaining American “credibility.” In one of the most glaring passages of the Pentagon’s official history of the war, a senior official remarks that “70% of our aim in Vietnam is to avoid a humiliating defeat,” and blow to our credibility. (As for the aim of preserving freedom in South Vietnam: a mere 10%. Finally, some candor.) Our credibility was exactly what Kennedy believed he’d reinforced during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And if the Soviet superpower had backed down, what “tiny, backward nation,” as Robert McNamara called North Vietnam, would be insane enough to stand up to the indomitability of American power?
The North Vietnamese apparently didn’t get the message. Were they deaf? Perhaps there was something else at stake for them? For three long years after the bombing began the American approach to the enemy’s surprising and annoying resistance was to merely turn up the volume of the message—in other words to escalate the level of military force. There had to be some point at which they’d “get” the intended message. Right? I can remember the time when people used the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” without cynicism. Nevertheless, some senior officials were already expressing doubt that the strategy of trying to intimidate the North Vietnamese and their allies in South Vietnam would ever succeed. This was a well-kept secret. Ordinary American citizens knew nothing about what was really happening. While they believed we were winning the war, many of the brains behind the Vietnam operation were secretly trying to come to grips with the even scarier implication that we were now stuck. Apparently the architects of limited war hadn’t thought through the end game. It’s here that the Vietnam adventure really comes off the rails. For if we couldn’t force the North Vietnamese to give up and go home as we had the Russians, we certainly couldn’t allow them to do the same to us. Not without admitting the very weakness and lack of resolve we were there to prove in the first place.
We were stuck. For years. We couldn’t possibly “cut and run,” or risk “humiliation,” or “abandon our allies,” or “lose credibility,” or “embolden our enemies.” How many times have we recycled those clichés since that time?
Would we ever have risked the Vietnam gambit if we hadn’t first stared down the Soviet Union during the Cuban crisis and watched them withdraw their missiles? It’s hard for me to not see the connections among all these events in retrospect.
I’m thinking now of a cold January day in 1961, cold even in Miami. I sat on the floor in front of our old black and white TV set watching President Kennedy deliver his inaugural speech, his breath turning to steam in the freezing air. That address is right up there with the greatest American political speeches. How many people over the years have repeated the line: “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”? I sat there as transfixed as anyone when he first spoke those words. I was only ten, but it may mark the moment when I first became interested in politics. As everyone knows, and some of us actually remember, Kennedy was a tremendously charismatic public figure, and even his Bostonian accents and cadences seemed to elevate and ennoble his rhetoric. But there were other unforgettable and even portentous things he said that day. “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to ensure the survival and the success of liberty. This we pledge—and more.” “Yes of course,” the heart said proudly: “pay any price, bear any burden…support any friend.” In 1961 we had no idea yet what that meant, and especially no idea of what it would really mean from ‘65 to ‘72.
It’s easy to picture the 60’s and the early 70’s as a rebellious and disorderly and irrational and often violent time—and in truth that’s how many of us experienced them. Some of it probably had no rhyme or reason, and occasionally I went right along with my peers and friends in a conscious effort to throw rhyme and reason out the window. We convinced ourselves that freedom and chaos were easy partners, at least for a while. But as it turns out some parts of that time did make sense, even if the narrative was fatal. The problem was that you could only see this in retrospect. The question is whether that must always be true. I don’t know how to answer that question, especially briefly and simply, except to express ambivalence.