Half a century after the Cuban missile crisis, historians and average citizens are still examining the facts and considering lessons learned as the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear conflict.
On Sunday, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester commemorated those 13 days in October 1962 with a series of retrospective events that drew more than 300 visitors to hear historians, researchers, journalists, and descendents of world leaders reflect on the crisis.
Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, said the conflict had a clear winner.
“We won this crisis,” Khrushchev said, referring to the people of both countries, “because we can sit here and discuss it after 50 years.”
Five decades ago this week, US surveillance aircraft found proof the Soviet Union was constructing a missile base in Cuba, 90 miles from US soil, with missiles that could reach major American cities in minutes.
When Kennedy demanded the missiles be removed, Khrushchev balked. For days, Kennedy met with advisers to discuss options, knowing the wrong move could escalate tensions and lead to nuclear war.
Kennedy settled on a naval blockade rather than a military strike on Cuba, but negotiations with Khrushchev continued for days.
Finally the superpowers reached an agreement: The Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuba, and the United States would end the naval blockade and remove its own nuclear missiles from Turkey.
Sergei Khrushchev, speaking to an audience that filled the library’s Stephen E. Smith Center, said his father was able to negotiate with Kennedy because the leaders trusted each other in spite of their differences and understood that in compromise, both parties must accept less than what they want.
He said the lesson was one that resonates in the present, noting that Kennedy probably didn’t like the elder Khrushchev any more than President Obama likes Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet the American and Soviet leaders exchanged letters each day.
“It was very different from now, because now we don’t want to negotiate with our enemies,” Sergei Khrushchev said. “We only want to negotiate with our friends. But negotiating with friends is not negotiating. It is a party.”
For many, the retrospective was a chance to enrich their understanding of the conflict.
Dick Murphy was 15 in 1962 and living with his family in Charlestown. He remembered a strange mood in their home that October, as his father paced the floor and spoke to his mother in low tones. Murphy said his father was not a man who expressed strong emotion.
“It was more that you could feel the tension in the house,” he said.
‘We [both countries] won this crisis because we can sit here and discuss it after 50 years.’
Murphy said Sunday’s event was a chance to connect with that history while it is still possible to hear firsthand accounts. “There’s a point — and I think we’re at it — where it’s going to pass from living memory and into history,” he said.
Anne Marie Normant was 13 in 1962, growing up in Dorchester as the second-oldest of six sisters. She said she does not have strong memories of the crisis, but Sunday’s event and a visit last week to an anniversary exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., were chances to learn more about the crisis.
“As I listen to each person, I want them to keep going on,” she said of the speakers at the JFK Library. “I want to find out more.”
Normant said she saw parallels in the events of 1962 and the current situation between the United States and Iran, as the Islamic republic continues its controversial uranium-enrichment program. “Here we are,” she said, “facing it again.”Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.