Here was the oddest thing: within weeks of the United States dropping an atomic bomb on a second Japanese city on August 9, 1945, and so obliterating it, Americans were already immersed in new scenarios of nuclear destruction. As the late Paul Boyer so vividly described in his classic book By the Bomb's Early Light, it took no time at all -- at a moment when no other nation had such potentially Earth-destroying weaponry -- for an America triumphant to begin to imagine itself in ruins, and for its newspapers and magazines to start drawing concentric circles of death and destruction around American cities while consigning their future country to the stewardship of the roaches.
As early as October 1945, the military editor of Reader's Digest would declare the first atomic bomb "dated," and write, "It is now in the power of the atom-smashers to blot out New York with a single bomb... Such a bomb can burn up in an instant every creature, can fuse the steel buildings and smash the concrete into flying shrapnel." By 1947, in "Mist of Death Over New York," that staid magazine would have a description in "realistic detail" of an atomic explosion in New York harbor. ("Within six weeks, 389,101 New Yorkers were dead or missing.") In November 1945, in the "36-Hour War," Life would feature a mushroom cloud rising over Washington in a surprise attack slaughtering 10 million Americans. That December, the Wall Street Journal would run a feature article imagining "an attack by planes and missiles that could wipe out 98% of the population of the United States."
Radio quickly followed with its own nightmarish nuclear scenarios of all-American disaster as, within years, would TV, while post-nuclear landscapes of horror were a dime a dozen in the world of pulp fiction. In the movies, mutant and irradiated creatures of every sort -- from previously somnolent giant reptiles to monstrous ants -- ran wild on screen. Everything, in a sense, became radioactive. There were even, as Boyer wrote, "fashion tips for the apocalypse," as in a government-sponsored pamphlet with an illustration of a man in a fedora, its brim tipped down, captioned, "If you are caught outdoors in a sudden attack, a hat will give you at least some protection from the "heat flash.'" This was the "duck and cover" world I grew up in ("you and I don't have shells to crawl into, like Bert the Turtle, so we have to cover up in our own way..."), one in which, though few spoke of it, everyone sensed that some "red line" had been crossed in the New Mexican desert and then at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a world in which, for the first time, not God but human beings could create their own end times.
We still haven't taken it all in, but 50 years ago, there was a moment when it looked like all the futuristic fiction might indeed turn into reality, when (at least if you lived on the East Coast of the U.S.) it seemed as if events were drawing a concentric circle around you. That was, of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and anybody my age undoubtedly remembers with particular specificity the night of October 22, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy went on TV and the radio to tell us that we were all potentially toast. "We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth," he said grimly, "but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced." At 18, with most of my life still theoretically ahead of me, I believed him.
Fifty years later, in his new TomDispatch post, Noam Chomsky reminds us of just how close we truly got to a self-induced apocalypse and why it came to that. It's a chilling tale about the imperial urge to control the world, one that still couldn't be more relevant. Tom
The Week the World Stood Still
The Cuban Missile Crisis and Ownership of the World
By Noam Chomsky
The world stood still 50 years ago during the last week of October, from the moment when it learned that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba until the crisis was officially ended -- though unknown to the public, only officially.- Advertisement -
The image of the world standing still is the turn of phrase of Sheldon Stern, former historian at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, who published the authoritative version of the tapes of the ExComm meetings where Kennedy and a close circle of advisers debated how to respond to the crisis. Those meetings were secretly recorded by the president, which might bear on the fact that his stand throughout the recorded sessions is relatively temperate compared to other participants, who were unaware that they were speaking to history.
Stern has just published an accessible and accurate review of this critically important documentary record, finally declassified in the late 1990s. I will keep to that here. "Never before or since," he concludes, "has the survival of human civilization been at stake in a few short weeks of dangerous deliberations," culminating in "the week the world stood still."
There was good reason for the global concern. A nuclear war was all too imminent, a war that might "destroy the Northern Hemisphere," President Dwight Eisenhower had warned. Kennedy's own judgment was that the probability of war might have been as high as 50%. Estimates became higher as the confrontation reached its peak and the "secret doomsday plan to ensure the survival of the government was put into effect" in Washington, as described by journalist Michael Dobbs in his well-researched bestseller on the crisis (though he doesn't explain why there would be much point in doing so, given the likely nature of nuclear war).
Dobbs quotes Dino Brugioni, "a key member of the CIA team monitoring the Soviet missile buildup," who saw no way out except "war and complete destruction" as the clock moved to "one minute to midnight," the title of his book. Kennedy's close associate, historian Arthur Schlesinger, described the events as "the most dangerous moment in human history." Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wondered aloud whether he "would live to see another Saturday night," and later recognized that "we lucked out" -- barely.
"The Most Dangerous Moment"- Advertisement -
A closer look at what took place adds grim overtones to these judgments, with reverberations to the present moment.
There are several candidates for "the most dangerous moment." One is October 27th, when U.S. destroyers enforcing a quarantine around Cuba were dropping depth charges on Soviet submarines. According to Soviet accounts, reported by the National Security Archive, submarine commanders were "rattled enough to talk about firing nuclear torpedoes, whose 15 kiloton explosive yields approximated the bomb that devastated Hiroshima in August 1945."
In one case, a reported decision to assemble a nuclear torpedo for battle readiness was aborted at the last minute by Second Captain Vasili Arkhipov, who may have saved the world from nuclear disaster. There is little doubt what the U.S. reaction would have been had the torpedo been fired, or how the Russians would have responded as their country was going up in smoke.