Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The missiles of October 1962 ............... when great events are remembered by children

Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945
Child hood memories don’t always make good history but that said they remain a powerful link to the past.

The trouble with them is that they end up telescoped into a vague point in time and more often are jumbled up with a whole mix of things.

That for the historian makes them tricky because they can’t always be verified, may refer to different periods and above all suffer from that rosy glow which walks with all nostalgia and would have us believe that summers were always sunny and hot and Wagon Wheels were bigger.

But just sometimes they can be very powerful and lock you into the great events in a way that news reels, photographs and official histories fail to do.

And so it’s with the Cuban Missile Crisis now so far away in the past to rank for many alongside Harold dying at Hastings, the victory at Trafalgar and the news of the relief of Mafeking.

U-2 reconnaissance photo over Cuba, 1962
It began at the height of the first Cold War with the discovery by the Americans that the Soviet Union was placing missiles in Cuba with a range which would threaten many US cities.

The options were stark and pretty much seemed no win solutions ranging from bombing the sites to an all out invasion of the island.

Any such moves raised the possibility of a Soviet move on Berlin which in turn would prompt a NATO response and in all probability be followed by an invasion of western Germany by the Warsaw Pact and pretty quickly an exchange of intercontinental ballistic missiles on the major cities of each side.

Me in 1962
Even now a full fifty-five years after those days in the October of 1962 I can feel a sense of foreboding and that was nothing to the emotions I felt back at the time.
Some are still all too vivid and the power comes from reliving them through the memory of a twelve year old.

I was playing rugby out in Ewell and on that Saturday morning I kept looking for that mushroom cloud which I was convinced would appear.

Nor was I alone in picking up on that sense of uncertainty.  My friend Robin who is a year younger was also keenly aware of the events remembering “going into a room and my parents conversations falling away into silence.”

It was a tense moment and one that I was reminded of all over again when I was rereading the sleeve notes of Bob Dylan’s second LP, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan released in 1962 where he recalled that in writing A Hard Rains A Gonna Fall, "Every line in it is actually the start of a whole new song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn't have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one."*

Tracking the missiles across the Atlantic, 1962
Of course for those at the centre of events with a great knowledge of just what was going on the future looked no less scary.

At a conference in Moscow a few years ago two of those at the heart of the crisis reflected on those few days.

The Russian had quietly phoned his wife and told her to take the children out of Moscow while the American had looked out from a White House window and wondered if he would see the sun rise in the morning.

But it is those childhood memories that lock me into the seriousness of that confrontation and by extension to that second Cold War in the late 1970s and 80s.

It like the first was brought on by a mix of circumstances.  There were hard line politicians in the White House and the Kremlin, a new generation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems capable of reaching their targets in ever shorter time, and an escalation of tensions brought on by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Put them together and they made for a potent cocktail all of which has been well documented so I will leave you with the comments of Kay who is a sixteen years younger than me and so was growing up during that second Cold War “I would lie awake at night, listening to planes going overhead. When they lowered their landing gear on their approach to Ringway, I was sure it was the bomb doors opening. “

And today equally horrific childhood accounts march across the news stories from Syria to the refuge camps and across the world

All of which is perhaps a reminder that history is not confined to the professional historian or the media commentator.

Pictures, Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack, This image is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. Andrew in 1962 from the collection of Andrew Simpson, and U-2 reconnaissance photo over Cuba and a U.S. Navy aircraft  flying over a Soviet
freighter, these image  in the public domain in the United States and badge advertising the Chorlton Peace Festival 1984, from the collection of Andrew Simpson

*Which I have to confess loses something from discovering the song had actually been written in the May of 1962.

No comments:

Post a Comment