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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Cuba on our parade ground

Fifty years ago, almost to the day, the students of our entire high school were ordered to go to the school parade ground. We stood silently in rows, wondering what would happen, and why this unprecedented event.

   I was in sub-senior year, which means the one before leaving high school if we got as far as the senior school. Most didn't, and were out earning a living. I was fifteen.

   The school radio was connected up to the PA system, and the Principal told us to listen closely. We were there just three minutes, and then ordered back to our classrooms. This is what we heard.

Most of the kids had no real idea of the significance of the ultimatum. As we went back to our classrooms, some were intrigued, others excited and joking. "The world is going to end in three days," someone said and the response was laughter.

   We really didn't have a clue, as we went back to the Chemistry lab to complete our interrupted experiments. Little did we know how close the world was to a devastating nuclear exchange, where the superpowers, the USA and the USSR, had enough missiles each for what they called "assured mutual destruction."

   Nevertheless, the broadcast made a deep impression on us when we discovered how close we had come to that disaster. For those post-superpower babies, here's the real story:

   "JFK was good enough to prevent nuclear war but some people aren't smart enough to realize it," is the first youtube comment I notice when I see this video.

   It's one way of looking at it. If playing a poker hand using the world as the stakes is "prevention", you might say that. The truth is that no poker game to see who blinked first should ever have had a couple of billion people's lives and the future of the world as the stake.

   It was unwise of the USSR to test the US resolve by sending missiles to Cuba, no doubt. That was a poor gambit, but the USSR rarely backed down on threats. In the end it was Krushchev who made the sacrifice his generals urged him not to. He ordered the missile-carrying ships back to their bases, knowing that he would lose his leadership of the USSR in return, leaving the USSR in the hands of the generals.

   If it was success, it had its terrible consequences. It encouraged the US to take on the mantle of world's policeman in its Indo-China venture. That turned out to be the price the US was going to pay, apart from millions of Indo-Chinese still doing so.


  1. I remember it well. I was at Law School at Sydney Uni and the great Prof Julius Stone brought in a small radio. He played the speech to us saying that it was more important and would be more significant than anything he could say in the Jurisprudence lecture. We listened quite transfixed to what was said.  Anne P.  @Qyntara

    1. What a difference in perception those few years between my high school days and your university experience makes!

  2. My late father was involved with the naval blockade of Cuba (USS Truckee AO 147). Only three at the time, I was aware of the gravity:

    "'November 1956
    During a diplomatic reception... Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev told
    Western diplomats:
    "About the capitalist states, it doesn't depend on you whether we
    (Soviet Union) exist. If you don't like us, don't accept our
    invitations, and don't invite us to come to see you. Whether you like
    it our not, history is on our side. We will bury you."'
    source: U.S. Department of Energy Timeline

    NIKE missile site was less than a mile from where I spent my childhood. Numerous routine 'duck and cover' bomb fallout drills at my elementary school.

    1. That's a very famous quote of Khrushchev's. Was that the one where he banged his shoe on the lectern/whatever it was? Anyway, he folded, as did the USSR, but it took 40 years.

      I admit my statement was a bit reductionist. I didn't want to string it out, so was prepared to take a hit.

      I wonder how much good 'duck and cover' would have done in the longer term? Let's hope those days are gone.

    2. Thirty years, not forty. Not that many really, is it? The Soviet folly in Afghanistan guaranteed that. Another lesson.


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