The high-stakes October of 1962


October 19, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

What may have been the most terrifying October in the nation's history -when two of the world's superpowers barreled seemingly unchecked toward the brink of nuclear war - began with a sheaf of reconnaissance photographs.

The photos shown to President John F. Kennedy on Oct. 16, 1962, were proof that the Soviet Union was building and equipping missile bases in Cuba capable of launching and striking targets on the U.S. mainland.

As the Cuban Missile Crisis deepened, Kennedy quietly canceled a Western campaign tour complaining of a "cold" and returned to Washington.

The Pentagon moved 12 F4 Phantom jets to a base in Key West, Fla., while the Navy and Marines conducted maneuvers nearby.

Headlines in The Evening Sun on Monday, Oct. 22 told the story: KENNEDY GOING ON TV TONIGHT; `SUBJECT OF THE HIGHEST URGENCY.'

At 7 p.m., all three of Baltimore's television stations carried the president's address. Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie, Kennedy, in the half-hour speech, charted the nation's course in a grim but firm manner.

"The 1930s taught us a clear lesson: Aggressive conduct, if allowed to grow unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war," said Kennedy.

His seven-point program included a strict quarantine of all offensive military equipment bound for Cuba. All ships bound for Cuba with such equipment, from whatever ports, would be intercepted on the high seas and turned back.

A close surveillance of Cuba and its military buildup would continue. He also said, "U.S. policy ... will regard a nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."

In the speech, Kennedy urged Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to "halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threats."

"The nation buzzed today. Two words were on everybody's lips: `Cuba' and `War,' " reported The Evening Sun.

Marylanders, like the rest of the nation, were filled with anxiety but rallied behind the president.

Fred Cassin, a 42-year-old clothing salesman, told The Sun that Kennedy should have acted earlier. "If he had moved then, Khrushchev wouldn't have had time to establish a base there. Now that he's got a stronghold with Castro, it's going to take some strong doing to undo things," he said.

"Kennedy definitely did the right thing, though," he continued. "We've got to show the world once and for all where we stand."

"Castro's not the big wheel down there," said George Smith, a 67-year-old retired Navy officer. "There are other big shots besides him. Kennedy straightened them all out, didn't he?"

"A growing concern over the Cuban crisis is being demonstrated in Baltimore's churches, classrooms, supermarkets and municipal offices," observed The Evening Sun.

Priests and ministers noted an increase in attendance while schools were conducting shelter exercises for students. Grocery stores were drained of foodstuffs.

"There's no question about it," said Rev. Louis Mendelis, pastor of St. Alphonsus' Roman Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore. "The crisis has something to do with it. We are also hearing more confessions; people want to be prepared."

Civil Defense offices at City Hall were deluged with phone calls from anxious people wanting to learn the location of the nearest air-raid shelter and what they could do to protect their families and homes.

A woman walked into a York Road grocery store, bought $40 worth of canned food and first-aid supplies and told the clerk she was heading for the "mountains of West Virginia."

An Eastern Avenue market owner told The Sun that some of his customers said, "What's the use of getting food if the bomb is going to go off?"

The crisis also affected the sailing from Baltimore of the Moore-McCormack Lines' Argentina, when eight couples canceled at the last minute because of the international situation and Cuba. However, 300 other passengers happily boarded the liner that was cruising to the Caribbean.

Outside the main post office on North Calvert Street, demonstrators with Baltimore Women Work for Peace warned that a showdown with the Soviet Union could result in nuclear war. They appealed to the United Nations to intervene.

In Annapolis, Gov. J. Millard Tawes said, "In time of crisis and great emergency, the American people always bury party differences and rally to the support of their leader."

The Maryland National Guard had eight fighter jets on the line at Martin Airport, loaded with ammunition and ready to go at a moment's notice.

Veteran Baltimore newscaster Galen Fromme took a different view. He told The Sun, "Khrushchev doesn't usually give away lollipops without getting an all-day sucker in return."

On Oct. 25, Khrushchev bowed to Kennedy's demands, agreeing to remove all missiles from Cuba.

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