The Cuban Missile Crisis is one of those moments in history when people remember what they were doing. The world hung on every word from Washington, Moscow and Havana.
When I got this assignment, a friend recalled how he went through “duck and cover” protection exercises in his school. He told me how the whole class scrambled under their desks covering their faces supposedly to protect themselves during a nuclear attack. In my research I then found, and used, some of the U.S. Defense Department film demonstrating the exercise.
And we all know when a crisis of that magnitude strikes - Hollywood is sure to follow. Back in 1969 Alfred Hitchcock made the film, Topaz, about a spy who helps the U.S. discover the Soviet missiles in Cuba. In 2000, Kevin Costner starred in the docudrama Thirteen Days based on Robert Kennedy’s book about the crisis.
A 1974 made for TV movie, The Missiles of October, also based on the Kennedy book, starring Martin Sheen as Robert Kennedy.
Virtually every history and memoir of the Kennedy presidency devotes at least a chapter to the crisis. Many of the men in the room with then-president Kennedy wrote about those tense days and how they perceived the crisis. And now you can listen in on those meetings on line. President Kennedy installed the tape machine and he controlled the start button.
In some cases he starts the recording late but much of the discussion is there. And, if you want to read along, just click on the date of the meeting and the full transcript is available.
Jim Blight, the Cuban expert that W5 interviewed, is now a professor here in Canada. Blight is at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ont.
An American, Blight has written seven books on the crisis. He has just published “The Armageddon Letters” and his team have put together a website to go along with the book. Blight helped organize a number of conferences about the crisis.
In 1992, in Havana, Fidel Castro along with other Cuban leaders, Russians and Americans participated in an open discussion and debate about what happened during those days in October. You can read the full transcripts of the sessions in Blight’s 1993 book “Cuba on the Brink.”
Blight is still struck by the language Kennedy used when he went on TV to announce the presence of the missiles in Cuba. “I would nominate that for the scariest speech ever made when you consider the circumstances…I mean it will still make your palms sweat.”
Fifty years after the crisis, many of the key participants have passed away, but we did interview four men who still have vivid memories.
Dino Brugioni worked at the National Photographic Interpretation Center, when the crisis broke. He was in the room when the first U2 spy plane photos arrived for analysis on Oct. 15, 1962. Today, Brugioni now 91, remembers “one guy saying the shit is going to hit the fan” as they poured over the photos.
His boss ordered the analysis team to work all night if necessary to confirm the evidence that Soviet missiles were being installed. They needed absolute proof before taking the photos to President Kennedy and his team of advisers. Brugioni explained to W5 how the team proved the missiles were Soviet.
“We measured the missiles. We had photographs taken in the streets of Moscow of the missiles and there was a missile tent and other paraphernalia that went with the missiles.”
Today Sergei Khrushchev lives in Rhode Island, but back in 1962 he was a young engineer living with his father, the Chairman of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev agreed to give W5 a copy of his home movies of his father.
The films show a different side of Khrushchev and provide the report with unique images of the man who led the Soviet Union through a time of high tension in Cuba and around the world. Khrushchev shared his memories of this father, recalling that Nikita Khrushchev understood “that any mistake will bring us to the disaster.”
Khrushchev says one result of the Cuban Missile Crisis was the installation of a telephone hot line between the Kremlin and the White House. He thinks the world was lucky in 1962 because Khrushchev and Kennedy “decided first to think, then think a second time, and not shoot at all.” He added: “That’s why I’m able to speak to you.”
Jorge Risquet was with Castro during the Cuban revolution. Risquet told me he was the first Cuban leader to meet Che Guevara back in 1954 in Guatamala. He also shared his photos of Castro with W5.
Risquet was with Castro when the crisis became public on Oct. 22. He recalled how Fidel stayed “serene but determined” throughout the crisis. Risquet says. “I felt we were going to war but our independence is worth any sacrifice. I felt that after the crisis and I feel the same today.”
Today Risquet is 82 and a member of the Cuban Central Committee. I asked him if he still considers himself a Cuban Revolutionary. He quickly answered, “I will be a revolutionary until the day I die.”
In 1962, Carlos Alzugaray was only 19 but he already worked in the Cuban Foreign Ministry and served in the Cuban Militia. He told us that one of his memories of Oct. 22 is how cold it was in Havana.
Alzugaray dug trenches as the militia prepared for a possible invasion by the United States. His colleagues at the Foreign Ministry asked him what would happen if there was a nuclear strike by the U.S. Alzugaray remembers saying, “We’ll see a big flash…and then we will be dead.”
Finally it was eerie to hear a Cuban and an American remember their experiences on the night of Oct. 27, Black Saturday.
First, Dino Brugioni, “That night I knelt at my desk and prayed. I knew what war was like and this one was going to be nuclear.”
And here’s how Carlos Alzugaray remembers that night. “I don’t mind telling you, that was around midnight. We all went to sleep at our desks. We were certain that if something happened we were going to be dead.”