Who will save us now?

JFK’s legend may have exceeded his legacy, but he struck a heroic pose that’s absent these days

Illustration By Gilbert Leiker

About the author
Dr. Richard Ek, a contributor to the CN&R for more than 20 years, is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and department chairman.

When Fidel Castro recently resigned the Cuban presidency, it prompted personal memories of the October 1962 missile crisis, a most frightening event that Democratic strategists played off as a stunning diplomatic coup for President John F. Kennedy that averted all-out nuclear war. Informed people learned the truth later, but most folks to this day no doubt think Kennedy made Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev blink.

At the time, my wife and I were living in Glendale with our 10-month-old son. I’ll describe events as memory serves.

The crisis started about the middle of October when one of our U-2 spy planes discovered a nest of missile launchers hidden in the rugged mountains of southeastern Cuba, the same cover area Castro used to stage his successful 1959 rebel campaign to topple U.S. puppet Fulgencio Batista.

Further flights determined the launchers were aimed at the United States and loaded with medium-range missiles, each capable of delivering a nuclear warhead in a crescent that included Washington, D.C.

The conventional wisdom held that Russia, Cuba’s close ally, had put in the armaments to forestall a U.S. invasion and takeover of Cuba in the wake of the embarrassing Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961. Some others bought into the idea that Russia thought it could win Cold War concessions from a naïve and inexperienced president through nuclear brinksmanship.

While the press raised a ruckus, JFK dithered for several days. He called in Soviet Ambassador Andrei Gromyko and told him the United States would not tolerate Russian missiles in Cuba. Gromyko denied such a presence.

Then a news flash reported that a Russian freighter rigged to carry longer-range missiles—pictures showed high deck racks that resembled an inverted V carrying big missiles—had sailed from Russia at some earlier time and was well on its way to Cuba.

This development prompted Kennedy to address the nation on television to announce a naval “quarantine” of the Caribbean area, meaning the freighter would be intercepted in the waters off Cuba. In the same address the president warned that if the Cuban missiles were fired, the U.S. would retaliate with its full nuclear arsenal against the Soviet Union.

That’s when things got scary. Public tension grew palpable everywhere as the days passed.

The closely watched and photographed freighter made the news all the time, and when it neared Cuba, the TV and radio stations called the situation an eyeball-to-eyeball standoff between Kennedy and Khrushchev and started to report every 30 minutes on the progress of the ship.

My wife and I decided on the last Friday of the month to drive our 10-month-old son to my parents’ home in Merced so he would be out of the Los Angeles basin, a certain target if hostilities began. The infamous L.A. air inversion layer, the catalyst for smog, is worst in warm-to-hot October, and it would surely produce atomic smog if one or more hydrogen bombs were triggered above the city.

It was a tough and emotional decision. My wife at first thought we should take the boy to his grandparents but leave him there so we would be together no matter what happened. As we neared Merced in our 1950 Chevy sedan, however, we decided she should remain with the boy because he needed his mom every day.

I had to return to teach at Los Angeles State and stay on schedule to complete my Ph.D. dissertation at USC. Also, I was young and athletic and stood a better chance alone of escaping the city if war and chaos did develop.

A complicating factor was that Merced is only seven miles from the tiny town of Atwater, at the time the site of Castle Air Force Base, home of the B-52 inter-continental bomber squadron that would be involved aggressively in any U.S. attack. Although the base would be a prime target, I was sure plans were in place to defend it at all costs. Further, Merced was a small town with a well-laid-out evacuation plan and route.

I returned to Glendale the next day, napped, ate, and then went out for a haircut. The barber started to cry, saying he expected the nation to be at war by nightfall. He said the catastrophe would be what we had brought upon ourselves by abandoning our relatives in their times of need and not treating our wives and children as well as we should.

Listening to his blubbering unnerved me enough that I went home and drank some wine.

The Russian missile-loaded freighter had arrived at a point just short of the navel blockade line and was holding its position. Then one of the local TV stations reported that hoarding had begun, a report criticized by other stations that had been urging calm. I had earlier bought what I thought were necessities: canned beans and a sling to carry them, water, and a canteen. I also had a handgun I had owned for years.

Suddenly the Russian freighter turned back. The next day TV stations started to carry U-2 pictures of Russian crews bulldozing and otherwise disabling the electric cables that powered the missile launchers to avoid any mistaken firing, just the sort of “accident” Castro extremists knew their rabidly anti-American leader would want.

The crisis was over, and Kennedy was hailed nationally as the courageous young hero president who had forced the soviet premier to blink, thus snuffing out the threat of a nuclear catastrophe.

But as I implied at the beginning, that’s not the way the finale went down. Gradually the word filtered out that a quid pro quo had ended the crisis. The deal specified that Russia would remove its missile base from Cuba if the U.S. removed from Turkey a similar missile base that was threatening Russia. Asked some time later about negotiations to that end, Kennedy replied he had simply removed the base as a goodwill gesture, a disingenuous answer in my view.

With the Turkish base revelation, I felt put off by the hero bit. I thought JFK got credit for something he didn’t do.

Also, I was aware of the controversy that had surrounded JFK’s best-seller book Profiles in Courage. Some critics said it had been researched and ghost written by Ted Sorenson, his speechwriter. It was Sorenson’s style, they said, that gave the book its compelling narrative flow and drama.

Finally, I had never cared for the Kennedy clan and the whole Camelot scenario that resonated so well with the news media. How natural for the press to build the missile crisis into a showdown between a hero and a villain.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe the American public needs its heroes, the bigger-than-life giants whom ordinary folks can look up to and who are seemingly not flawed. After all, the United States is a relatively young nation that was built out of raw land and frontiers that tested the strength and courage of many and forged legendary heroes in the process.

In the Cuban Missile Crisis era, Martin Luther King Jr., Neil Armstrong, and Cesar Chavez are a few hero example names that come to mind. Each made a distinct, positive contribution to American culture. They were men to match our mountains, so to speak.

Today our country has lost its way so badly that it seems almost to have shifted into reverse. We have so few heroes and so many anti-heroes, ranging from those in our public leadership ranks to the steroid-enhanced athletes. We no longer have men to match our mountains.

Eventually another missile crisis will develop, possibly starting with Israel and Iran, but events overwhelm us so quickly there will be no time to negotiate a settlement. We may also find there’s no place to hide.