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Nuclear catastrophe was hanging by a thread

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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In October 1962, an American U2 spy plane secretly photographed nuclear missile sites being built by the Soviet Union on the island of Cuba (Credit: John F Kennedy Presidential Library)

Fifty years ago today, a crisis began which brought the world closer to nuclear war than it has ever been.  In 1962, Soviet leaders sought to counter America’s strategic missile advantage.  They also wanted to bring West Berlin under their control and secure the Castro government in Cuba.  The result: a secret strategy to install nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter America from attacking the Soviet Union, protect Castro, and be traded for West Berlin.

On October 14, a U.S. Air Force U-2 plane captured photographic proof that the Soviets were building bases in Cuba.  The next day, the CIA identified objects in the photographs as medium range ballistic missiles.  On October 16, 1962, President Kennedy was notified that the Soviets were installing nuclear missiles 90 miles from America.  Thus began the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As you know, the stand-off was resolved 13 days later when President Kennedy publicly promised not to invade Cuba and privately agreed to withdraw our missiles from Turkey, in exchange for the Soviet Union’s agreement to withdraw its missiles from Cuba.  The  president had warned our nation about the crisis, but few knew how grave the threat really was.

President Kennedy calculated the odds of war as “between 1 in 3 and even.”  Anatoly Gribkov, a Soviet General and Army Chief of Operations, said later, “Nuclear catastrophe was hanging by a thread . . . and we weren’t counting days or hours, but minutes.”  Had the Soviets not agreed to withdraw their missiles, an American air strike and invasion might have become necessary.  It would likely have triggered a nuclear response against American ships and troops.  The resulting war could have killed as many as 100 million Americans and 100 million Russians.

Today the Cuban Missile Crisis seems like ancient history, but it’s not.  Many are comparing Cuba’s missiles to Iran’s nuclear program, an ambition that could embroil America and the Middle East in war.  As 9/11 taught us, even a small band of terrorists can inflict tragic loss on our nation.

Self-sufficiency is spiritual suicide.  It is also a prelude to national disaster: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).  As we remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, may our nation say with David, “My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken” (Psalm 62:1-2).

The year after the crisis, President Kennedy told Americans, “in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air.  We all cherish our children’s future.  And we are all mortal.”