Thomas Rosenbaum Cuban Missile Commentary

October 17, 2012

My mother was a kindergarten teacher of uncommon patience, even with regard to her own children. She escaped Nazi Germany on a Kindertransport child rescue mission and survived the Blitz of London, in so doing acquiring a perspective on life and its essential priorities. In October 1962, I was 7 years old. We were one of the last families to buy a TV, a small black-and-white set that illumined my parents' bedroom. I remember to this day President John F. Kennedy on the screen announcing the blockade of Cuba as I noisily pranced around the room. My antics were too much even for my mother, who brusquely told me to hush because "the world was about to end."

The immediacy of these words and their palpable sense of danger convey the sense of the times. They were of a piece with the bomb shelters dug in suburban backyards and school children huddled under desks preparing for the arrival of Russian ballistic missiles. The Cuban Missile Crisis accentuated the tenuous nature of security — personal and national — when nuclear arsenals could wipe out a good portion of humanity.

This capability for destruction remains intact, but exists in our minds largely as an abstraction, devoid of the terror so acutely felt 50 years ago. This is a positive development for our health and our psyches, but it would be better still if it were matched by reductions in nuclear stockpiles, the stand down of nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert, and robust controls on fissile materials. The link between perception and actuality is an essential element in the call to action.

I have no nostalgia for the days when the future of the world hung on a slender thread, subject to the ability of Khrushchev and Kennedy to find a face-saving solution to nuclear war. But I do miss the gimlet-eyed focus of the early 1960s on the dangers presented by the nuclear age. Unlike our parents, many of us have had the good fortune to develop perspective at a remove from harsh experience, but we cannot let that dull our sensibilities as we develop our individual and collective priorities.