Lawrence Korb Politics even inside a crisis

October 17, 2012

The Cuban Missile Crisis took place about eight weeks after I went on active duty with the Navy, while I was attending Officer Candidate School at the Newport naval station in Rhode Island. The first indication that a crisis was brewing came on Sunday afternoon, October 21, 1962, when the Navy began telling all sailors to return to their ships. On Monday morning, I noticed that almost all of the ships stationed in Newport had left.

When President Kennedy gave his speech on Monday evening, October 22, 1962, outlining the situation, most of us wondered whether we would be commissioned early to join the coming war against the Soviet Union, rather than having to wait the full 16 weeks to get our commissions. We all assumed that the coming war with the Soviet Union would be a repeat of World War II, a global war against international communism fought with conventional weapons.

Looking back and knowing what I know now, it amazes me that neither I nor my shipmates contemplated how close we were to Armageddon. And while most of us did go to war, it was not against the USSR but in a far off place called Vietnam, which was not on anyone's radar in 1962.

For many of those in the Navy, the main point of discussion about the crisis was the clash between Secretary of Defense McNamara and Adm. George Anderson, the chief of naval operations, who had spoken at our commissioning in December 1962. As part of a long-running turf battle, Anderson and McNamara had disagreed about how to run the blockade (oops, I mean naval quarantine) of Cuba. McNamara subsequently asked Kennedy to fire Anderson; ultimately, the president chose not to reappoint Anderson chief of naval operations, instead naming him ambassador to Portugal.

In 1968, after finishing my four years as a naval flight officer and while working on my dissertation, I interviewed Anderson and asked him why he gave the administration a way to avoid the controversy his firing would have caused by taking the embassy post in Portugal. He replied that although he despised McNamara, as the first Catholic to become chief of naval operations, he did not want to embarrass the first Catholic president.