The Cuban Missile Crisis: Revisiting 13 Days in October 1962

Good evening, my fellow citizens: – This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military build-up on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive Missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.

Every year I keep finding more and more stuff about the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a teacher, I keep making more and more room in my lesson plans to teach the topic. It is getting to the point where I have enough stuff to teach it as a unit all by itself for up to six weeks. Unfortunately, I cannot do that. But if I could Iwould. The ample amount of primary documents available now is just unbelievable. Next November I hope to give a presentation at the National Council for Social Studies Conference in Denver, Colorado, on teaching with these now available primary documents. It should be a blast.

It all starts with a photograph….this one in fact. As a historian, this is my favorite photograph of all time. It is a gold mine of possibilities for what has happened, what is happening, and what could happen. I have students try to figure out what they are talking about before they know what the lesson is. We then discuss the possibilities and begin adding more documents from the days of October, 1962.

Over the course of the next 40 minutes, I feed them little bits of data and information about what they might be talking about relating every new document back to the original. These images mostly include a series of U2 shots of Cuba like this photo:

Over the course of the next three days, my students investigate everything from letters to images to TV broadcats, UN transcripts, and even former top secret tapes from the White House. It is a great way to piece together the events of those thirteen days in October when the world stood still. I even throw in this YouTube video for good measure.

But here’s the thing that get me every year: My students see history through evidence. And they see through history for its studpidity. They see the events of the 1960s in a totally different light than I did. While I was born about ten months after the crisis, I still remember the threat of nuclear war and the drills we had to do in school. I remember the Beatles, Woodstock, Bobby Kennedy, and Vietnam as clear as day. To my students, they see this history for the first time and it is exciting for them and me. What they don’t get is the amount of nuclear weapons stockpiled.

“How many times over did we really need to blow up the world? Wouldn’t the fall out from about twenty bombs have done in most of the planet?”

I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked this question. It never ceases to amaze me how stupid the arms race was and is. How many atomic war heads do you need? If you have a couple thousand, you don’t really need anymore. This is a point I get every year from about half the glass. They react with a calmness where as my generation was always emotional about the possible nuclear threat through the 1980s. It was not until the 1990s when the communist and nuclear threat went away. It was a whole other world. It was a whole other time.

But for me, the Cuban Missile Crisis is a high point in our nation’s history when we used our military as a deterent but relied on diplomacy to avoid conflict. There are many other important things to come out of the Crisis besides the aversion of nuclear war. The conflict showed the need for better means of communication between the two super powers. The powers also signed a limited test ban treaty. Maybe after all, the leaders were beginning to think like my students. I can still see the end of Dr. Strangelove….I think they sum up the era of  inane leadership best.

Further Reading:
Thirteen Days by Robert F. Kennedy
One Minute to Midnight by Michael Dobbs

Primary Documents from the Crisis
George Washington University I highly recommend this site. It has a wide variety of sight, sounds, images, and letters.
Avalon Project

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