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This Ain't No Movie, Baby!

A memorial to Bay of Pigs veterans stands in the heart of Little Havana in Miami

Hey everybody! Today we're going to play a game called "The Nuclear Arms Race."

First let's pick our teams. We've got the mighty United States of America (USA) on one side and the powerful Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on the other. Think carefully before you join! The Americans are capitalists and the Soviets are communists. Many wars have been waged over this difference in ideology. If you show any sympathy to the opposing team, you could get thrown in jail (or worse), so watch out!

Here's the gist of the Arms Race: Whenever one side builds a nuclear weapon, the other must make one too, as quickly as possible. This is *very* important, because the object of this game is to maintain a level of "mutually assured destruction." Both teams must have the same capacity to blow each other (and the rest of the world) into smithereens at all times-but fear not! The purpose of the Arms Race is to ensure world peace and prosperity!

Now the rules of this game are kind of tricky, so listen up. The team captains must meet on occasion to decide upon the number and type of nuclear weapons allowed in this race. Then, a neutral judging panel called the United Nations (UN) monitors the teams to make sure they play by the rules.

In other words, if your team wants to win this race, you have to be sneaky.

Here are the obstacles. Neither of the team captains can speak the other's language, and a gigantic ocean separates them. They have no access to e-mail, fax machines or satellite telephones because they haven't been invented yet. They have to rely instead on the old-fashioned telegraph (which takes hours) and translators (who sometimes miss the subtleties of the language).


Frijoles, frijoles, the magical food…

Now for a few words about the team captains. They have got a heck of a weight on their shoulders. For starters, they have to keep all of their teammates happy. This means listening to all their ideas (even the crazy ones) and making compromises (even if they don't fully agree with them). Otherwise, they'll get overthrown. They also have to convince the judges on the UN panel that they are playing by the rules (even if they're not) and maintain "mutually assured destruction" (without actually destroying anything). Sounds like a job for a real politician, eh?!

So you're probably wondering how to win this game. Well, that is a good question. If your team leaps too far ahead, your opponent might panic and attack you. If you fall too far behind, they might destroy you.A good strategy, then, is to stay just a healthy step ahead.

All right! I think we're ready! We'll start the Nuclear Arms Race on the count of three. One, two-oops! I almost forgot one last thing. In this race, hundreds of millions of lives are at stake. If one team is provoked to press their nuclear button, the world as we know it would cease to exist. Any living creature that managed to survive the initial attack would eventually die of radiation poisoning.

Okay! Places, everyone! On the count of three, we'll be blasted back in time to 1962, the closest our world has ever been to nuclear war. One, two, THREE!!

It was early 1962 when the "captain" of the USSR-a man named Nikita Khrushchev-started fearing that his nation was losing the Arms Race. His missiles were only powerful enough to destroy neighboring Europe. The United States, on the other hand, could wipe out most of the Soviet Union. That's because the USA had a missile site in Turkey, which sat right on the border of the USSR. If Khrushchev wanted to win the Arms Race, he needed a better missile site. And he had the perfect spot in mind. Just 90 miles off the Florida coast was Cuba-a small island country that had recently become a communist nation like the USSR. He decided to give the "captain" of Cuba Fidel Castro a call.

Castro couldn't have been happier with Khrushchev's idea. Just two years before, the USA had invaded his country and tried to overthrow his newly formed government in an operation known as the "Bay of Pigs." Having a fleet of nuclear weapons on his island would not only protect him from another invasion, it might gain him some respect from the international community as well. Castro welcomed the missiles with open arms.

Now, here's where things get complicated. Khrushchev knew that the "captain" of the USA-President John F. Kennedy-wouldn't approve of this arrangement one bit. Neither would the UN. So he had to be sneaky. Soviet troops dressed like tourists brought the missiles over on cruise liners. Then they hid the weapons in Cuba's luscious forests.

Bay of Pigs veteran Estevan Bovo points out his fallen comrades
In October of that year, an American spy plane flew over Cuba and snapped photographs that would send shivers down the spines of all Americans who saw them. Specialists determined that the missiles had a range of 1,100 miles, meaning they could demolish every major American city but Seattle. They broke the news to Kennedy while he was still in his pajamas, eating breakfast. He immediately organized a group of his closest advisors, who locked themselves in a conference room for seven days and debated what to do.

The Cuban Missile Crisis had officially begun.

There seemed to be three possible options. Kennedy could try to solve the problem in an open, diplomatic fashion with Castro, Khrushchev and a UN advisor or two. He could prevent further weapons from entering Cuba by declaring a quarantine (a blockade of ships surrounding the area). Or he could take direct military action, starting with an air attack on those missiles.

Whatever the path, Kennedy knew the Soviets could not be informed beforehand. Surprise might be his best weapon. So Kennedy called the Washington Post and the New York Times and asked them to tone down their Cuba coverage. He also kept up with his jam-packed presidential itinerary so that no one noticed anything was wrong.

Stephanie interviews Jose and Josefina Salazar, two Cuban exiles living in Miami
Meanwhile, the U.S. military prepared for an attack. Jose Salazar, a Cuban who fled his country after Castro's takeover, was ready to go at a moment's notice.

"I wanted to go. I felt I needed to do it for my country. I didn't care if I died. At that age, I was very idealistic," said Salazar, now a 59-year-old doctor living in Miami.

At 7 p.m. on October 22, 1962, Kennedy appeared live on national television to announce that a nuclear attack from Cuba would be regarded as an attack by the Soviet Union and would be responded to accordingly. He also imposed a naval quarantine on the island to prevent further shipments of military weapons. As Kennedy spoke, 20 planes armed with nuclear weapons and 300 Navy ships headed out to Cuba. Should the Soviets launch an attack, the USA was ready.

The instant Kennedy finished his 17-minute speech, panic swept through the streets of America. Some families constructed bomb shelters and hoarded food; others headed to church. Stan Stoklosa, a 71-year-old veteran of the Korean War, remembered waking up the next morning and rushing to his bedroom window to see if any nuclear clouds graced the horizon.

"The Cuban Missiles Crisis frightened me even more than World War II. A nuclear war would destroy everything. There is no way you can protect yourself. Not knowing what to do is the absolute worst," he said.

The Soviets, meanwhile, were furious. Khrushchev interpreted the quarantine as an act of war. He instructed his ships to keep on sailing.

In the early morning hours of October 24, U.S. ships took their position on the quarantine line, some 800 miles away from Cuba. They planned to use force against any ship that tried to sail in past 10 a.m. The world held its breath as a fleet of Soviet ships came closer and closer to the line. They didn't turn back until the last possible second, around 10:25 a.m.

"We're eyeball to eyeball, and 1 think the other fellow just blinked," Secretary of State Dean Rusk exclaimed.

But the Crisis wasn't over yet.

From the beginning, Khrushchev insisted that the Soviets had only peaceful intentions with their missiles. "Why shouldn't the Soviet Union have the right to do the same as America?" he asked.

Once the quarantine had been instigated, however, Khrushchev offered a compromise. He would dismantle the missiles in Cuba if Kennedy promised never to invade the island again.

Tens of thousands of Cubans have risked their lives by sailing to America on flimsy rafts and inner tubes

This was a tough one for Kennedy. He couldn't stand the idea of having a communist neighbor. What if Castro spread his ideology to surrounding nations?

While he mulled this proposition over, another letter arrived. It was short and to the point: the Soviets would dismantle the missiles in Cuba if the USA did the same in Turkey.

President John F. Kennedy promised that this flag would someday fly over a
Kennedy was aghast. If you remember, Rule No. 1 in The Nuclear Arms Race is "Keep your team happy." Kennedy would only be pleasing the Soviets if he tore down the United States' offensive wall in Turkey. Such a move could kill his political career-and Rule No. 2 in the Nuclear Arms Race is "Don't Get Overthrown."

Luis Zuniga, president of the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, was a political prisoner in Cuba for 19 years

Fortunately for Kennedy, his brother Bobby (the attorney general of the USA) came up with a brilliant plan: Ignore the second letter. He did just that by formally accepting only the first proposal (and agreeing to the second under the table). Amazingly, Khrushchev agreed to these conditions. He dismantled the weapons in Cuba and Kennedy followed suit in Turkey half a year later.

Nuclear war had been averted-for the time being.

I'd love to end this dispatch by saying that the world is no longer playing the Nuclear Arms Race, and that the threat of nuclear war died with the dawning of the 21st century. Alas, in many ways, the situation has only grown worse.

Back in the 1960s, there were two major contenders in the Arms Race-the USA and the USSR. Today, there are many more-including China, India and Pakistan. In fact, we seem to have entered a vicious cycle. Russia developed the A-bomb to counter America's nuclear threat; China built warheads to combat Russia's; India to knock out China's; Pakistan to take on India's.

In recent years, we've also discovered that nuclear weapons can do a great deal of damage while sitting quietly in their sites. Take what happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine in April of 1986. Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to radiation when an old reactor started leaking. Several dozen died within a few days and thousands more contracted cancer. The hospitals and orphanages surrounding Chernobyl are full of men, women and children with horrible deformities that can be traced directly to the radiation.

Where is the end to all of this madness? We already have more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy this entire planet. The A-bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II killed more than 100,000 people-and the Hydrogen bomb is estimated to be 1,000 times as strong!

Where are we going in this Race?

Perhaps Kevin Costner put it best in "Thirteen Days"-the Hollywood version of the Cuban Missiles Crisis-when he remarked: "Everyday the sun comes up says something about us."

Let's keep on giving the sun good things to say.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Memories from the forgotten war in Korea
Daphne - Up, up and away in an airplane museum in Berlin
Irene - A big, bad bully - and it's not who you think it is!
MAD- Star Wars: What would YOU do with $70 billion?
Team - How would you like to buy some furniture, or maybe Guatemala?