Almost 50 years ago, on Sept. 23, 1949, the world passed into a cloud of fear. President Harry S. Truman announced that the Soviet Union had the capacity to wage nuclear war. Over the next decade the prospect of mankind wiped out became the subject of novels (On the Beach) and concern that led some to construct backyard fallout shelters.
Adult Americans have seen in international affairs many movements of God's hand, as when He swept the Soviet empire off the table 10 years ago. But the most impressive one of all may involve the road not taken, and the way God preserved us through so many dangerous nuclear intersections.
Let's look at the most famous of them, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The United States was led by a president on amphetamines; since the combination of those "uppers" with steroids that he also took can lead to manic behavior, those who knew of John F. Kennedy's drug habits were concerned not only for him but for the safety of the world. A New York Times reporter in 1972 quoted a doctor who had treated Kennedy and warned him about amphetamine use, noting that "no President with his finger on the red button has any business taking stuff like that."
But the danger did not lie in Kennedy's personality alone: No U.S. president could look the other way when U.S. planes provided photographic proof that the Soviets were placing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba. Castro's lieutenant Che Guevara, whose face would soon adorn posters in apartments of New York radicals, already was talking about using the missiles "against the very heart of the United States, including New York."
Facing an aggressive Soviet Union, Kennedy had to contemplate the quick terror of nuclear war without forgetting the slower strangulation that would result from caving in to Soviet demands.
Some U.S. military response seemed necessary, but it was not easy to discern which was best and which, with nuclear weapons ready to fly, beckoned disaster.
Nor was it clear that the leader on the other side, Nikita Khruschev, would respond rationally; his erratic conduct was sometimes fueled by vodka. Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung had said that he would sacrifice hundreds of millions of his own people to destroy capitalism, and no one was sure that Khruschev wasn't mad as well.
Kennedy's favorite literary line was from Shakespeare's Henry IV, part 1, where Glendower brags, "I can call spirits from the vasty deep," and Hotspur responds, "Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?" Kennedy's nuclear demons would come if he called, and Khruschev had similar power. Would a U.S. invasion of Cuba, or a quick U.S. airstrike on Soviet missile bases in Cuba, liberate the vasty deep?
Kennedy realized that those moves were hazardous technically and politically. If Kennedy announced an airstrike in advance, Cubans and Soviets would have time to prepare countermeasures. But if the airstrike came without warning, the United States would be emulating Japan's Pearl Harbor attack. At one point in their deliberations, Robert Kennedy gave a note to his brother, "I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor."
As Kennedy's advisors debated the alternatives, most began to favor a blockade of Cuba. This meant, in Kennedy's words, that "All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back." But if the ships did not turn back, war would begin.
In a televised speech on Monday, Oct. 22, Kennedy announced the quarantine. The waiting began. On Wednesday Soviet ships began to stop and turn back before hitting the blockade line. A secret exchange of messages over the next several days produced a resolution. One message from Nikita Khruschev offered removal of the missiles already in Cuba in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba. A second Soviet message asked that the United States remove its missiles (already outmoded) from Turkey. Kennedy publicly agreed to the terms of the first message and privately agreed to the terms of the second.
Pundits and politicians praised Kennedy for playing a good game of poker, and he did perform well during the crisis. But this cold war confrontation, like many others, could have ended tragically. The real glory belongs to a merciful God who preserves us despite our sin. Perhaps He even had Kennedy and Khruschev, unlikely peacekeepers, in place so that His glory would show forth more abundantly. Sadly, the history books ignore the divine Hero.