I STARTED secondary school in September 1962. A month later, having settled into the routine, we 11-year-olds were intrigued when the headmaster suddenly interrupted classes one morning to call an assembly.
As we gathered in the hall, speculation was rife. Were big staff changes under way? Alterations to the timetable? Would we be warned yet again about wearing our caps at the proper angle?
None of the above. As the headmaster addressed us, we realised we were there simply to pray – pray that the world would not be plunged into nuclear war.
This was the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and as the superpower stand-off played out hour by hour thousands of miles away, the fear that we were on the edge of the atomic abyss was terrifyingly tangible. All we could do now was ask God to save us.
I recalled that impromptu assembly when Joe Biden warned on Thursday that the risk of Armageddon is the highest it has been since that chilling confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union 60 years ago.
He said Vladimir Putin is ‘not joking’ when he threatens to use tactical nuclear weapons in the war with Ukraine. He added: ‘I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.’
Of course, that may be doublespeak from Biden, amid speculation over who is really responsible for the blowing up of the Nord Stream pipeline and the hugely provocative attack on the Kerch Bridge link to Crimea, about which Patrick Benham-Crosswell writes elsewhere in these pages.
Young as we were, we pupils were well aware of the crisis that was threatening to turn the Cold War catastrophically hot. It happened over just 13 days from October 15, although the public were not officially told of it until October 22.
It’s a vastly complicated and controversial saga, too big to examine comprehensively here. But the crisis basically developed after US spy planes discovered that the Soviets had installed nuclear missile sites on communist-ruled Cuba, just 90 miles from the American mainland.
The deployment was seen as an existential threat to the US and President John F Kennedy demanded the removal of the weapons and imposed a naval ‘quarantine’ – a blockade – of the island to stop further shipments.
It was made clear to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that unless the missiles were removed, a full-scale US invasion of Cuba was likely. If that happened, the missiles might be launched against America by Soviet military personnel – perhaps acting on their own initiative – or by Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and a worldwide nuclear war would ensue.
For a while, Khrushchev blustered and prevaricated, and tension mounted. If hostilities broke out, Britain – as part of the Nato alliance – would inevitably be targeted by the Soviets for a nuclear attack.
We anxiously awaited developments. There was no internet or 24-hour news channels in 1962. Everyone followed the ITN and BBC nightly bulletins, which showed grainy pictures of US warships patrolling the maritime exclusion zone and spy plane pictures of the Cuban missile silos.
And we avidly absorbed the newspapers. I clearly remember my father carefully reading the story, spread across several pages of the then broadsheet Daily Express, and saying grimly: ‘Kennedy won’t back down.’
He was right. Khrushchev blinked first. Soviet freighters en route to Cuba were ordered by Moscow to halt before reaching the American blockade screen. Behind the scenes, feelers were being put out to find a settlement.
Finally, Khrushchev realised he was on a loser and on October 28 announced that the missiles would be dismantled and removed from Cuba. The US in turn pledged not to invade the island. The crisis was over.
The climbdown was generally seen as a victory for Kennedy. But unknown to many, a deal had been done for the Americans to remove their own missiles from Turkey, which bordered the Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Khrushchev had seen the US deployment there as equivalent to having Soviet missiles in Cuba.
Once things calmed down, both sides realised how perilously close they had come to destroying the world, and the Washington-Moscow ‘hotline’ was set up to enable direct communication if any future crisis blew up. So far, the policy of mutually assured destruction has worked . . . but Putin may change all that.
Whatever the case, whether the Russian president turns this dangerous escalation into an atomic conflagration, we can only wait and see – and perhaps pray, as we did in 1962, that it does not happen.