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Peace on the brink of war: after home bunkers and duck-and-cover drills, Americans were braced for war in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. (times past).

STUDY YOUR TRIGONOMETRY. FURNISH your family's bomb shelter. Scan the sky for enemy warplanes. Those were homework assignments for a generation of high school students. The big test came in 1962.

That October, U.S. spy planes spotted about 40 nuclear missiles being installed by the Soviet Union in Cuba, the Caribbean island 90 miles south of Key West, Florida. With a range of about 2,000 miles, the missiles could have hit much of the U.S. Already engaged in the Cold War with the Soviets, America was now on the brink of nuclear war.

The Soviets chose to base the missiles in Cuba, their ally, to counter the U.S.'s dominant arsenal. The U.S. had already placed missiles in Turkey, adjacent to the Soviet Union.

Despite the unprecedented peril, the nation didn't seem as anxious as it had been during a decade of Cold War jitters. In the 1950s, America was in the grip of a nuclear scare, holding duck-and-cover drills and building bomb shelters, much as people today are buying gas masks and stocking up on antibiotics.

President John F. Kennedy outlined the situation in Cuba and defined U.S. goals in a televised address on October 22, 1962.

Our policy has been one of patience and restraint, as befits a peaceful and powerful nation, which leads a worldwide alliance.... We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would ashes in our mouth--but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.


America had been living with a serious nuclear threat since August 1949, when the Soviet Union first tested an atomic bomb. In the following decade, the U.S. government encouraged measures known as civil defense to protect civilians in the event of a nuclear war.

Civil defense became a part of daily life. Bert the Turtle, a sort of Barney for the nuclear age, taught school children to "duck and cover" under their desks if a bomb hit. Teens and adults scanned the skies for enemy aircraft. In 1954, much of the country underwent a bombing drill, simulating nuclear attacks on Washington, D.C., and elsewhere that "killed" 12 million people.

As the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union heated up, ducking and covering no longer seemed to be enough protection from the radioactive fallout of an atomic blast. Many Americans began to literally dig in, constructing their own bomb shelters in the basements of their homes or in their backyards. Writer Kenneth Robbins recalled his neighbor's '50s-era shelter in Georgia.

The hole in the ground a hundred or so feet from his back door had a mud floor, walls reinforced with two-by-four studs, and a tin ceiling. You entered the shelter through a hinged trap cut in the tin and inched down a rickety, homemade ladder. Once reside, you found what [the owner] intended: a hole in the ground, nothing more. It was large enough to accommodate three people, as long as the three didn't care about moving around very much, and standing was the preferred posture.

Good Housekeeping magazine published a full-page editorial to promote family shelters. Home economics classes taught high school girls how to furnish shelters and provided tips on stocking them with provisions. High schools, churches, and city halls were designated community shelters.

Scientist performed experiments to gauge the effect on people of holing up in shelters. A group of 28 volunteers in Minnesota complained about their diet of wafers and water and the lack of privacy in their 44-hour stay. A term of weeks or more was likely while waiting for outside radiation levels to fall. And that was only if the shelters themselves provided enough shielding against the fallout.

In the months before the Cuban missile crisis, experts, officials, and the public had begun to realize that the only way to survive a nuclear war was to avoid it. Public enthusiasm for civil defense programs began to wane. Congress scaled back funding for public shelters. Then came the crisis.


Facing off with the Soviet Union, Kennedy stopped short of a direct military confrontation. Rather than order an air strike or invasion, he set up a naval blockade around Cuba, charged with intercepting "all offensive military equipment," and ordered continued surveillance. But in a speech to the nation, Kennedy warned the Soviets:

It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a hall retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.

Soviet diplomats denied the presence of the missiles. Then on October 25 at the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson displayed the incriminating surveillance photos. A day later Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles, if the U.S. agreed not to invade Cuba.

Throughout the crisis, most Americans went about their daily lives. After all the anxiety of the 1950s, the only thing left to do was shop for groceries, as reported in the October 26 New York Times:

Buying is brisk in special categories, such as flashlight and radio batteries, transistor radios, water purification pills, first aid supplies, diet supplements, and camp stoves.... There was no excitement or panic in Miami, and life went on as usual. Children went to school; housewives shopped at supermarkets; business and industry operated normally.

The Cuban missile crisis was declared officially over in early 1963. By that summer, relations had improved, and the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed a treaty banning aboveground nuclear weapons tests. In the following decades of the Cold War, the face-off of October 1962 remained the closest the world ever came to nuclear war.

lesson plan 4 * HISTORY/TIMES PAST * pages 20-21

Peace on the Brink of War

FOCUS: The U.S. and Soviet Union Flirt With Nuclear War in the Cuban Missile Crisis


To help students understand the Cuban missile crisis, probably the most dangerous superpower confrontation of the post-World War II world.

Discussion Questions:

* How would you characterize President John F. Kennedy's strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis?

* In view of the fact that Cuba remains a Communist dictatorship, should the U.S. continue to honor its pledge not to invade that country?


Background: Remind students that in 1961, the U.S. had supported Cuban exiles' invasion of Cuba. This was in response to Fidel Castro's establishment of a Communist state. Tell them also that part of the deal with the Soviets was the U.S. agreement to remove its own missiles, based in Turkey and aimed at the Soviet Union.

Critical Thinking: Ask students to consider a proposal some in the U.S. military made to President Kennedy--that he launch an aerial bombardment of the missile silos. What potential danger did the President avert by establishing a naval blockade rather than bombing the Soviet missiles?

Next, review the civil defense strategy. What do students know about nuclear explosions? Do they know about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How effective would the "duck and cover" strategy have been against a nuclear blast?

Interviews: Have students interview older adults about their memories of the Cuban missile crisis. Do they remember President Kennedy's speech of October 22, 1962? Were they frightened by the possibility of nuclear war? Did their family or anyone they know have a bomb shelter? How would they compare today's concern over terrorism with the feelings they experienced during that period?

Web Watch: For background on the Cuban missile crisis, including a time line, see
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Article Details
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Author:Pont, Jonathan
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 26, 2001
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