The scariest day in American history?

October 22, 2008, 9:58 pm

On this day in 1962, President John F. Kennedy addressed the American people and announced that the Soviet Union had, for some time, been constructing missile installations in Cuba. The United States, Kennedy said, would respond by imposing a blockade on the island nation. Reading this Times article earlier today, I found myself struck by two not very profound thoughts.

First, good journalism — the above piece was written by the incomparable Anthony Lewis — is a powerful thing. The article is filled with sharp, declarative sentences, conjuring a mood of the deepest anxiety. See, for example, these two paragraphs:

In a speech of extraordinary gravity, he [Kennedy] told the American people that the Soviet Union, contrary to promises, was building offensive missiles and bomber bases in Cuba. He said the bases could handle missiles carrying nuclear warheads up to 2,000 miles.

Thus a critical moment in the cold war was at hand tonight. The President had decided on a direct confrontation with–and challenge to–the power of the Soviet Union.

Second, I began wondering if October 22, 1962 was the most terrifying day in American history. Lewis relayed that Kennedy, in his radio address, had said: “the launching of a nuclear missile from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere would be regarded as an attack by the Soviet Union against the United States.” “It would be met,” the President had warned, “by retaliation against the Soviet Union.” Kennedy had then “called on Premier Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles from Cuba and so ‘move the world back from the abyss of destruction.’”

The world remained perched at the brink of that abyss for another week (for additional source material go here, here, and here). Which, I suppose, prompts a third not very profound thought. The nation is now mired in two failed wars, faces an economic crisis that may rival the Great Depression, and is about to stage an election that feels like it could be make or break. Still, things could be worse.

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