R Rajaraman The cobra on our laps

October 17, 2012

Considering that the Cuban Missile Crisis could well have resulted in a nuclear war, killing hundreds of millions of people and destroying much of  civilization, I do not recall it having a commensurately traumatic or riveting impact on me while it was developing. This was despite the fact that I was then living in the United States, completing my doctoral thesis at Cornell, not far from New York City, where the first Soviet bomb may have fallen.

I bring this up because such a response was not limited just to me. I don’t recall an atmosphere of extreme anxiety or gloom and doom at Cornell during most of that fateful fortnight in October 1962. Life went on and classes were convened, as were fraternity parties. No large crowds held vigils in front of TV sets. A tornado in the neighborhood would have had more eyeballs glued to TV screens.

True, the White House successfully kept the developments under wraps for the first week, and there were no frenzied 24/7 news channels then to unearth and amplify news items. It was only after President Kennedy addressed the nation on October 22 that the seriousness of the situation dawned on the public, but the crisis lasted only a few more days before Khrushchev finally blinked and Russian vessels steaming toward Cuba turned back.

The reason for this general lack of anxiety, clearly, was that most people did not fully realize the power of large nuclear arsenals, their potential for catastrophic damage. Even today, that reality hasn't sunk in. This is why, despite the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the brinksmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis, ever more nations have gone nuclear. Disarmament proceeds only at a ponderous pace, motivated more by cold strategic pragmatism than by the compelling sense of urgency you might feel if you found a cobra sitting on your lap.

It is almost as if it will take another nuclear bombing of a large civilian population before the world wakes up to what nuclear weapons really mean. Surely there is a better way.