One Step Away from Oblivion

Featured image from PICRYL

Image 1: Spy Plane Identifying Sites

See source from PICYRL.

Context: An Air Force RF-101 Voodoo captures images of Soviet personnel and six missile transporters loading onto ship transport at Casilda port in Cuba, in this Nov. 6, 1962. Fidel Castro of the then communist Cuban regime and the USSR wanted to instill a deterrent against American invasions since the ICBM’s of the Soviets did not compare in abundance or performance to that of the missile silos of the United States. Storing nuclear missiles in Cuba was carried out to protect Cuban interests. The spy planes also wouldn’t find out until later that the Cubans had over a hundred missiles already on site that the Americans knew nothing about.

Image 2: USS The Sullivans Deployed

See source from PICYRYL here.

Context: The U.S. Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans was one of many ships in the United States navy sent to “quarantine” the Cubans since a “blockade” was an act of war that president John F. Kennedy wanted to avoid. This was intended to prevent the USSR from coming to Cuba’s aid, and would eventually result in a tense stand off between both navies before both sides stood down. For the Cubans, actions such as this increased fears that the United States would try to invade the island and depose the Cuban government.

Image 3: Protesters of the Crisis

See source from PICRYL

Context: When JFK announced the existence of the missile sites and his response of quarantining Cuba, protests such as this erupted across the country. Those opposed to Kennedy thought this was a personal grudge against Castro after the failed “Bay of Pigs” invasion and was sacrificing peace for war. While many of these protesters were unaware of the true extent of what was occurring between the US and the USSR in secret, they knew that if the situation escalated further a terrifying nuclear war would erupt between the two superpowers that would kill millions of Americans.

Image 4: Handling the Crisis

See source from JFK library.

Context: JFK met with the National Security Council Executive Committee (EXCOMM) and deliberated with them as to what course of action needed to be taken to handle the crisis. Though some, including his brother Robert Kennedy, advocated for an invasion of Cuba and the removal of Castro JFK decided to de-escalate the crisis instead of allowing for this crisis to spiral out of control. Ultimately, the Soviets removed the missile sites from Cuba (while the USA quietly negotiated to remove missile sites from Italy and Turkey) and nuclear war was averted.

Questions for Students

Question 1: What is revealed in the aerial photos of the missiles being loaded onto Cuba? What might this reflect about the state of Cuba at this time? How might this relate to the second image of USS The Sullivans.

Question 2: What are some themes found within posters and demonstrations of the anti-nuclear protesters? Why might protests such as this erupted across the country?

Question 3: What details are revealed in the picture featuring EXCOMM? What subtext might exist during these negotiations? Do you think that EXCOMM made the right decision when it came to handling the crisis? Could it have been handled better?

Instructional Goals and Model Answers

Response 1: The photo reveals that the Cubans are not necessarily ready to launch a nuclear attack on the United States. These are missiles that have to be transported and stored before they can be armed. However, what is revealed is that the Cubans clearly have loading sites from which to carry out this process of arming Cuba for war. The presence of a Soviet tanker suggests a clear alliance between this macro and micro power that is finally highlighted openly. This relates to the second photo of the USS The Sullivans in that the US is taking direct action to start isolating Cuba while seemingly preventing the situation from worsening. If we are aware with hindsight that there were far more missiles on the island than believed by the Americans at the time, we can see that both sides are interpreting this crisis in different ways. To the Americans, they are stopping Cuba from becoming a dangerous threat to stability. Furthermore, these protestors likely learned about the failed “Bay of Pigs” invasion and saw this as a political gamble that was needlessly dangerous. To the Soviets, the Americans are threatening to invade a communist ally and spark World War III. It would only be in the next few hours when the full extent of the crisis was made evident.

Response 2: The posters have phrases such as “Be Careful” and “Peace of Perish” which highlights how these protestors recognize that if Cuba gets “hot” then the world basically ends in nuclear war where millions die across the world. They advocate for peace with rigid dogma because they believe that a war between the USA and the USSR cannot possibly end favorably. For those that did not align with the “hawk” attitude of the time that called for continued resistance to the communist Soviets and any supporters of them, this crisis was not something that could be allowed to happen. They could not fathom an outcome where only a few powerful people could determine if the world would end or not and would do anything they could to prevent this from happening. Shifting cultural attitudes were just starting to take effect and protests such as this were becoming more and more common.

Response 3: This picture featuring EXCOMM might not reveal the chaos and disorder experienced among these leaders. While one group advocated against nuclear war and the risk of World War III, the other wanted to avenge the failure of the “Bay of Pigs” and score some military gains against Castro. The photo suggests that the negotiations were calm and collected which seems unlikely given the fact that the crisis seemed to worsen with each hour before cooler heads finally prevailed. The debate that might have occurred here could have consisted on whether or not the US would demonstrate it’s military capabilities or not with this crisis being the chance to do so. It seems that the best options were taken when it came to not allowing for an invasion and instead just calling for the demilitarization of Cuba by removing the missile sites. I do think that this crisis couldn’t have been handled any better since any escalation, whether that be an invasion, air raids or strikes against the USSR would have resulted in a nuclear war that would have ended civilization as we know it. Any attempt to make this a pure military operation would have ended the world and killed millions, if not billions, of people.

4 Replies to “One Step Away from Oblivion”

  1. Super interesting subject, Patrick! JFK, although his presidency was relatively short, was a very unique figure in American History. Many of the assignments we’ve done on here, including my own, have been focused on events that were a bit further in the past. I like that you chose a subject that could be classified as a bit more modern. Both of my parents were alive for this, so I can always learn from pieces like yours, and go back to ask my parents what they remember from the time. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is an engaging prompt, Patrick. Your approach to presenting four photos that can represent four very different perspectives on the same topic is thought provoking. I enjoy your first question and how it asks the audience to draw comparisons between the aerial photo and the photo of the U.S. Naval ship. Also, what an intriguing title!

  3. Wow, this is a strong message! Solid topic and great images. Like Jacob noted you drew from wildly varying perspectives from this event, which lends itself to the engaging questions you presented. You also did a great job with the images in the order in which you presented them; just by looking at the images one can get a sense of the chronology of events that took place. Great job!

  4. Great idea for a post with an interesting selection of images. I like that you included the anti-war image – since this event was uniquely public in the way it unfolded. In contrast to something like Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

    I was in 8th grade when Kennedy came on TV to announce the blockade. What a shock to see maps representing the the range of Russian Missiles that could be launched at US. All of east coast (and my house) was within range. I begged my parents to put in a fallout shelter. No luck. Like all my friends, I were terrified. Imagine channeling all the current fear of climate change into an destructive event that could be over in a day.

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