On The Brink

‘So long, mom, I’m off to drop the bomb’

I am learning new things every day tweeting the Cuban missile crisis — even though I spent more than two years researching the subject for my book, One Minute to Midnight. In my book, I focus on the famous "13 days" when the world came closer to nuclear destruction than ever before, but this project has ...

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I am learning new things every day tweeting the Cuban missile crisis — even though I spent more than two years researching the subject for my book, One Minute to Midnight. In my book, I focus on the famous "13 days" when the world came closer to nuclear destruction than ever before, but this project has helped me gain a better understanding of the buildup to the crisis and the frenzied nuclear arms race that seized the world in the summer of 1962.

The months leading up to the crisis were dominated by a superpower confrontation over Berlin and an orgy of nuclear testing in the atmosphere. The photograph above shows one of the nuclear tests carried out as part of the Operation Dominic series near Johnston Island in the Pacific. The Soviet Union was carrying out similar tests in the Arctic at Novaya Zemlya, with yields of up to 50 Megatons, the largest devices ever exploded.

It came as news to me at least that Nikita Khrushchev attempted to persuade John Kennedy to install a direct Moscow-Washington hotline in July 1962 — but was rebuffed by his American counterpart, as we reported in a tweet on July 23. JFK said huffily that superpower communications were not the problem, and there was no need to improve them. This was at a time when it took ten to 12 hours to transmit a message from the White House to the Kremlin and vice versa, a communications delay that proved extremely dangerous during the missile crisis.

It was not until after the missile crisis that the Americans finally agreed to install a hotline with Moscow.

I was also intrigued to find out that the United States tested its first anti-ballistic weapon in July 1962, extending the arms race into space. The whole idea of "Star Wars" — made famous by President Reagan — goes back to the nuclear arms competition between Kennedy and Khrushchev.

The nuclear arms race sent millions of Americans diving under their desks in schools and triggered a wave of shelter-building. But it also spawned a new breed of zany, fatalistic humor, exemplified in this Tom Lehrer song, "So long, Mom, I’m off to drop the bomb, so don’t wait up for me."

 

For more Sixties atomic-nostalgia, follow @missilecrisis62.

 Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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