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Going Camping?


The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 alarmed us all. Moreover, matters were far worse than the public knew.


In the run-up to its worst day President Kennedy’s brother, the Attorney General,  assigned me, his administrative assistant, to attend a briefing scheduled by General Maxwell Taylor in the Pentagon’s Situation Room. With map and pointer, the newly appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff outlined an invasion plan that called for the 82nd Airborne Division to take the island in three days at a projected cost of ten thousand American casualties. That said, such an invasion might be precluded by the outbreak of nuclear war. The U.S. Navy had challenged Russian ships that were nearing Cuba to deliver nuclear warheads for the Soviet-manned missiles already in place. President Kennedy had given Premier Khrushchev twenty-four hours to ponder his alternatives: either proceed and risk war, or retire and face his generals.


Providentially, Khrushchev chose the latter—at considerable political cost. When the Russian ships stopped and turned around, an almost audible sigh of relief swept across the Potomac. Before the matter was resolved, however, I thought it prudent to devise evacuation strategies for my family from our home in Washington. To that end I paid a visit to Sunny Surplus, a downtown emporium of excess and obsolete military equipment, including knapsacks, blankets, water purifiers, canned rations and the like. There I encountered a colleague on a similar mission. “Going camping?” he asked. “Hope not,” I replied.


Meanwhile, through both front and back diplomatic channels, apocalypse was avoided by our reciprocal removal of missiles from Turkey (quietly) in exchange for Russia’s adios from Cuba. Credit for this escape from the brink goes to Khrushchev and to the brothers Kennedy, who chose to respond positively to his initially negotiable overture and to ignore a subsequent hard line message undoubtedly sent to appease Russia’s military. The Thanksgiving hymn was never sung with such fervor!

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