This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a two-week period during which the United States and the Soviet Union stood on the brink of nuclear war.
After American intelligence discovered that the Soviets were building nuclear missile sites in Cuba, the two nations engaged in a diplomatic and military chess match that threatened to start a third world war. The fact that war and possible nuclear annihilation were avoided is seen as the most significant triumph of the administration of President John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy resisted calls by his civilian and military advisors to bomb and/or invade Cuba. We also now know that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev resisted pressures to escalate the conflict, while continuing to seek a diplomatic solution.
While our public leaders deserve much credit for avoiding nuclear holocaust, other heroes are part of the story as well. Chief among them are the U.S. Navy officers and enlisted men who helped to stop Russian military supply ships from reaching Cuba.
With intelligence photos showing that nuclear missiles capable of destroying American cities were close to being operational, Kennedy ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from delivering supplies and matériel to the Cuban base.
The U.S. Navy not only tracked and intercepted Soviet supply ships, but also played an extraordinarily tense cat-and-mouse game with Russian submarines.
A dear friend of mine, Brian McCrane (U.S.N., retired), served as a senior officer on a destroyer, the U.S.S. Waller, that participated in the quarantine. Brian recently shared with me some of his experiences during that event, and it is clear to me that one slip up, lapse of judgment, or loss of nerve by those in a position to deploy a weapon or to order to do so could’ve started us down the path to nuclear catastrophe.
Thanks to their courage and steadiness in the clutch, it didn’t happen.
The same can be said of some of the Soviet submariners. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the Russian subs were carrying nuclear weapons. Indeed, we now know that they came perilously close to using them, as this article describing the brave actions of a single Russian officer explains.
In the finest tradition of Navy officers, my friend Brian is beyond modest in describing his military career. But I know from letters of commendation and correspondence he received that his leadership and performance contributed toward keeping the peace during this dangerous time in world history. He would go on to serve as captain of the U.S.S. Calcaterra and the U.S.S. Joseph P. Kennedy, the latter of which is a part of the Battleship Cove Museum in Fall River, Massachusetts.
And herein lies lessons for all of us in terms of leadership, sound judgment, and courage under pressure: We often hear about the heroic actions of those who rose to the occasion after a crisis situation erupts, and justly so. But we don’t hear enough about those who helped us to avoid these situations in the first place. Often modestly and without fanfare, they contributed to steering us out of harm’s way.
Here’s to those quiet heroes and the examples they set.
For more about the Cuban Missile Crisis
This Christian Science Monitor piece by Harvard international affairs professor Graham Allison tells us how close we came to nuclear war.
Katharine Whittemore reviews six non-fiction books about the Cuban Missile Crisis for the Boston Globe, here.
If you want to learn more, but would prefer not plowing through a book or two on the subject, “Thirteen Days” (2000 motion picture) and “The Missiles of October” (1974 TV docudrama) have received positive reviews and are readily available for your viewing pleasure.