Live a Key Moment in American History

Grab a cold Coca-Cola and a bowl of popcorn!!!  It is historical movie time at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog:

Given all of the current saber rattling coming out of North Korea and their threats of a nuclear attack on the United States, this movie is timely.  Before anyone who is 50 years old now was ever born, nuclear weapon threats were much more credible than those coming out of North Korea.  They were really serious matters that touched the personal life of every American.  The key moment came in October 1962 when the Soviet Union decided to send missiles with nuclear warheads to Cuba.  It was called the Cuban Missile Crisis, and many of you less-than-age-50 readers may have read a short synopsis of it in your high school or college American history book.  I feel that most students read such synopses, get a vague feel for what it might have been like, shrug it off, and move on to the Viet-Nam War.  The history books do not do it justice.  I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the full and complete movie at the above URL on You Tube conveys the history and some of the terror that gripped American hearts for 13 days in 1962.  That is why the title of the movie is Thirteen Days.

This is not a boring movie.  It is instead very interesting, well written, and well crafted.  The acting is excellent.  Moreover, it is historically accurate.  Unlike most historical movies where the script writers engage in quite a bit of license with history, the script authors made an intentional and painstaking effort to get the history right.  Indeed, many of the events and personal interactions portrayed in this movie were unknown to the general public until after the the Cold War when the details came out.  The only major criticism of this movie is that it is told from the point of view of White House advisor Kenneth O’Donnell, who was a trusted friend of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy.  He is played by Kevin Costner in the movie. The article on Thirteen Days at Wikipedia notes that the part played by Costner was acted out in real life by Theodore Sorenson, who was a key Kennedy advisor and speech writer at the time.  Either way, the movie makers did justly with their other historical subject matter.

Now we get personal.  I was 10 years old and living in Gallatin, Tennessee, in October 1962.  It was a dry, warm, sunny October that seemed to be more summer-like than autumn-like.  We had an old black-and-white television.  Like most people in those days, I watched a lot of television—and I was also a history, news, and current events junky—not your average 10-year-old kid.  Whenever away from school, I was watching news coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis on all three major networks.  The crisis was so serious that a great deal of the regular entertainment programming was cancelled throughout certain days in favor of minute-to-minute news coverage.  It was quite literally like the Super Bowl for 13 days, except that the game lasted most of each day and every person knew that he/she and everyone else they knew might die at any moment.  Stop.  Let that sink in for a moment.

I actually saw the original television speech President Kennedy gave to tell us what was going on in Cuba and what our policy would be in the crisis.  It is recreated in the movie.  Adlai Stevenson laying into Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin at the United Nations Security Council meeting happened right on my old Admiral brand television, just as depicted in the movie. 

However, the day and key moment that had everyone holding their breath was the start of the American naval blockade of Cuba.  It was called a “naval quarantine” because naval blockades are formally considered to be an act of war in international relations.  The beginning moment of the quarantine occurred on a day when most Americans believed there was a very good chance that the next morning would never come with them still alive.  My dad walked to work each the morning.  On that morning, he and my mom did not say very much to each other, but I could tell that their parting was nervous.  It was like:  “You know I love you, but we may never see each other again after this goodbye.”

What goes on in a kid’s mind?  I was scared too.  I knew about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  What 10-year-old history buff would not?  The road sign at the edge of town said “Nashville 27 miles.”  I could see downtown Nashville as ground zero for one of the missiles in Cuba.  Could the nuclear blast center and/or its shock wave go that 27 miles to Gallatin, or would it stop short and spare us from everything but the radiation?  It was all on my mind quite a lot, and those 27 miles were a source of some hope.  Everyone needs a little hope near the end of the world, especially a child.

I was ignorant of how nuclear weapons are actually targeted on cities.  Average citizens today tend to use Hiroshima as their standard for perceiving such things.  We know the enemy will drop the big bomb on the center of the city.  That was true in 1945, but it changed over time to a system of peripheral targeting with multiple nuclear warheads.  How does that work?  Draw a perfect square on a piece of paper.  Nashville is a point at the center of the square.  The Soviet Union would drop four nuclear warheads, one strategically targeted at each corner of the square—and the shock waves from all four explosions would move inward simultaneously on Nashville from the corners.  Gallatin, Lebanon, Springfield, and/or Franklin would have been closest to the actual centers of the explosions.  If that targeting system were in place in October 1962, I would have been scheduled for instantaneous vaporization.

Watch the movie and live some history for the first time.  It is really good, and you will not be sorry you did it.

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