Professors’ Perspective: Remembering the Cuban Missile Crisis

This week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most trying times in U.S. history and the Cold War — the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was the closest the world has come to having a nuclear war and it left many scared that they would not live to see the next day.
The Soviet Union was constructing nuclear weapons in Cuba and President John F. Kennedy wanted them removed. He issued a warning, saying if any missiles from Cuba were launched, the Soviet Union would be blamed and the U. S. would take action. After 13 dark, suspenseful days of not knowing what would happen and the possibility of war on the horizon, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev finally agreed to remove all missiles from Cuba under the condition that the U.S. would not invade Cuba.
Professors at Rider who were young and still attending school during the crisis have vivid memories of that day — what they did, what they felt and what happened.
Students now may never fully understand what this period in history was like, not having lived through it. The only things they know are what we have learned in history class. Through the memories of these four professors, students can get an inside look at what it was like to live during this rough time in history.

Dr. James Dickinson, Sociology Department
The 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a chance for some of us to reflect on what it was like growing up during the Cold War. In the U.S., people recall diving under their desks at school during nuclear-attack drills, and some neighbors bought bomb shelters for their homes. However, I grew up in the United Kingdom, so my memories are a little different. We never dove under our desks at school, but I do remember a little pamphlet arriving one day in the letterbox, which described the likely damage that would occur from a nuclear blast.
While no longer a superpower, Britain was nonetheless a “big player” in the Cold War. There was that special relationship with the U.S., which had nothing to do with our common heritage, but everything to do with the secret agreement whereby the U.S. could place nuclear bombers on British soil and launch them against the Soviet Union without necessarily having to get permission from the British government.
However, Britain had its own nuclear weapons: bombs and later Polaris submarine-launched missiles, largely courtesy of the U.S. Unable to develop an independent missile-strike capability, Britain settled instead for a fleet of domestically built, long-range V-bombers — Vulcans, Victors and Valiants, named because of their swept-back delta-shaped wings — to deliver the goods. These aircrafts formed the backbone of the country’s strategic nuclear strike force in the 1950s and ’60s.
At one point, we lived near a V-bomber base in Warwickshire and periodically, often at night, there would be a tremendous roar in the distance as one after another of these giant aircrafts took off. Lying in bed, I was never sure whether this was a mere practice drill or the real thing. However, if after 30 minutes or so you were still there, then you could go back to sleep, as it was probably just a training exercise.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was my Cold War geo-political coming of age. At the time, I was attending a boarding school in Worcester. We followed events as they unfolded on the radio, listening to the BBC news — our only source — which delivered increasingly alarming and frightening reports on the showdown. I was already addicted to newspapers at the time and took home the London Times every day. At some point in the crisis, probably between Kennedy’s ultimatum and the turning back of the Soviet ship convoy, I went for my last walk on Earth. Okay, it wasn’t my last walk, as I am still here, but I can still recall the visceral fear I experienced that day. Turns out the crisis wasn’t quite so eye-to-eye as we believed at the time. Some now reckon the crisis emboldened the U.S. to pursue a reckless and heavily militarized foreign policy in the following decades. One thing that became very apparent at the time, however, was that our collective fate rested entirely with the U.S. For all practical purposes, we Brits and the rest of the world were powerless.
Although we survived that particular standoff, the Cold War proceeded unabated for many more years, permeating everyday life in ways subtle and not so subtle. The British government built numerous underground bunkers as part of its civil defense planning. These were heavily criticized because their construction seemed to suggest the government thought a nuclear war was somehow winnable, and that, as a consequence, waging such a war was more likely to become part of official military strategy. The basements of numerous public and government buildings were turned into nuclear fallout shelters. The countryside was dotted with huge concrete microwave communication towers, allegedly capable of surviving nuclear blasts, which I suppose would allow those survivors holed up underground to communicate.
Calls for unilateral nuclear disarmament were already underway before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Between 1959 and 1965, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) organized huge marches every Easter from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Aldermaston — the U.K. equivalent of Los Alamos — to Trafalgar Square in London. Although support for the CND dropped off after the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty and because of increased focus on opposition to the Vietnam War, it is still very much alive and active, reminding us that the U.K. government continues to be highly involved in maintaining a credible nuclear threat capacity, tweaking its warheads and increasingly more expensive Trident submarines. In the meantime, CND’s famous Mercedes symbol has gone on to become today’s familiar international symbol of peace.
The superpowers gradually realized that an all-out nuclear war, even if limited to a successful first strike by one side or the other, would result in the certain ruin of the victor as well as the vanquished, such as in the nuclear winter scenario. Now all we have to worry about is nuclear proliferation, suitcase-sized bombs, bombs in shipping containers, terrorists stealing plutonium bomb cores, etc.

Dr. James Ottavio Castagnera, J.D., Associate Provost
I was 15 years old, so I guess I was a sophomore in a Catholic high school in the coal region of Pennsylvania. We were thinking there was a chance there would be a war. Some of us were convinced we would have to go into the service and that we were going to die.
That whole period of time was kind of crazy. We thought World War III was in the offing. There were a lot of false, naïve ideas about how survivable a nuclear war would be. We didn’t have a fallout shelter because my area was so poor and we trusted the politicians a lot more than we do now. There was something about John F. Kennedy’s antics that was sort of magical. He inspired, in my generation, certain ideals and feelings that sort of died with him. The more that comes out in the years about him, the more I think the Cuban Missile Crisis changed Kennedy’s view.

Dr. Roberta Fiske-Rusciano, Political Science Department
I was in elementary school during the Cuban Missile Crisis and, like all children at that time, was subjected to air raid drills in preparation for a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. Some schools had their children hide under their desks, but I believe we all filed into the gymnasium. It was never clear how this would save us, but none of us knew any specifics about what a nuclear explosion could do to a human body. At least we were organized and that brought the illusion of preparedness, along with the knowledge that the Russians would not be interested in our state of Vermont and the more likely target would be far away — New York City.
This personally affected everyone in the form of deep fear. We wondered whether we should we build our own air raid shelter stocked with the necessities for survival, as seen on television? Each summer, I attended a camp on Lake Champlain. Because of where I lived, I had never heard a large airliner take off until I heard one go over our camp from Burlington airport. The noise terrified me, and I believed that the Russians were bombing us. My heart beat out of my chest.
We all grew up being afraid of Russians and now, they are in my classrooms at Rider — a much better way to live than mutual assured destruction.

Dr. Joseph Gowaskie, History Department
I was a junior in college and I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis as if it were yesterday. I recall all the students were very concerned and scared and remember when we all gathered in the student center to watch John F. Kennedy’s speech. We were extremely worried, and many girls were crying. The college’s ROTC was concerned about what would happen.
It was a tense and difficult time during the Cold War; the country was dealing with so much within a small period of time. I really believe that the Bay of Pigs invasion was poorly planned. I want to pay tribute to Kennedy for his efforts during this troubling time the entire country had to deal with. We owe him gratitude for his leadership.

The Cuban Missile Crisis seems to be lost and forgotten by the younger generation, but these accounts and memories are real-life stories of what not only some Rider professors went through, but most of the world as well. Even fifty years later it is still a lasting memory in the hearts of many Americans and deserves to be recognized.

-Compiled by Monica Jaramillo and Melissa Kassiarz

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