The ultimate game of chicken commenced on October 22, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy grimly etched a line 700 miles off the coast of Cuba. Kennedy promised a war that no one wanted if Nikita Krushchev did not call back his battleships and remove his missiles from the island. The Kremlin remained silent. B-52 squadrons scrambled: the Soviet fleet steamed ahead.
"People of New York and San Francisco," droned a Radio Moscow announcer in a broadcast beamed across the United States the next day. "The Pittsburgh steel smelter, the California farmer...and the Harvard student, you may be drafted and sent to the front." No other American university was mentioned in the ominous warning which continued: "The flames of war may creep in from the Caribbean and engulf your home too."
"You can imagine the reaction to this whole thing," says Faye Levine '65, a sophomore at the time. "You had people getting into cars and heading for Vermont and New Hampshire."
Few among the faculty and students who were at the University during the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis recall the Soviets' singling out Harvard in official propaganda. Most recollect a campus just as confused and frightened as the rest of the country by the blur of cryptic news reports: U.S. blockade, 80 million potential American victims, rockets in Turkey, the threat to Berlin.
Armageddon notwithstanding, undergraduate politicos immediately split into opposing camps. The majority praised Kennedy's dramatic response, while a small but vocal leftist camp portrayed "a spiral of hostility" willfully accelerated by the White House.
The baffling speed with which events unfolded remains a vivid memory, even for those who can't recall the excitement on campus. Professor of Government Samuel H. Beer, for example, remembers only his relief over the blockade plan plan, "considering that at first people had talked of bombing the hell out of Cuba....Things came across so fast that there really wasn't time to react."
Knowledge of what was actually going on in Washington was a rare commodity. For some, it provided the confidence that conflict would be avoided; for others, inside information only added to their apprehension. Undergraduates lacked any such special insights, and emotions in the dorms fluctuated with the tone of each day's news reports. "We were up and down," says Frederic L Ballard Jr. '63, who was president of the Crimson. "We would hear a report about the confrontation of ships and just have to wait to hear if that was going to be it."
Kennedy saw his first U-2 photographs of what appeared to him to be "football fields" in the countryside adjacent to San Cristobal, Cuba on Tuesday, October 16. The Central Intelligence Agency informed the President that these were make-shift Soviet missile bases. For the next seven days, "even those in the White House didn't know what was going on," says Dan H. Fenn '44, then a staff assistant to Kennedy and now the director of the Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston. As the President and his inner circle of national security advisers struggled toward a decision to blockade Cuba, government continued as usual on the surface, adds Fenn, who was not himself aware of the secret debate underway in the Cabinet Room until the 22nd.
Announcing the "quarantine" on national television. Kennedy said, "We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced."
Hendrik Hertzberg '65 watched the initial Kennedy speech with fellow Crimson editors in the newspaper's Plympton St. building. "Everybody was scared to death, literally scared to death," he recalls. "There was a lot of fear that this was going to lead to, well, that the moment had come."
Undergraduates during the early Sixties had grown up with civil defense drills--"ducking under the desk at the flash, and so on," as Hertzberg puts it. But the former campus reporter, president of the Harvard Liberal Union and current editor of The New Republic is one of several Harvard students of his generation who recalls almost no contemplation of the actual consequences of a nuclear explosion: "It was rather more general than that, a fear that we would somehow end up in nuclear war, but not exactly what would happen in that war." George B. Kistiakowsky, a retired chemistry professor who helped develop the first atomic bomb, argues that then as now people forced themselves not to think about the horrors of nuclear war, preferring to discuss the threat in theoretical terms. Himself overwrought with concern. Kistiakowsky cancelled his classes at the peak of the crisis.
Not interested in waiting around near a major population center to debate the possible drift of fall out a small number of Harvard students joined a contingent from Yale heading for family vacation homes in Northern New England. Faye Levine, who has included the incident in a novel she is writing on college life in Cambridge from 1961 to 1964, remembers" a lot of feeling that we were on the verge of annihilation."
Across the nation, "no issue in...memory had evoked the concern and discussion that monopolized life yesterday in American colleges," the Crimson reported on Wednesday, October 24, basing its assessment on a survey of campus newspaper editors. "Students were worried about the draft and thought war was very possible in the near future," the Crimson added.
Travelling in Virginia that week, Ford Professor Emeritus of Social Sciences David Riesman '31 visited Mary Baldwin College, a women's school, where "the students were telephoning their fathers on nearby Air Force and Army bases, asking if they should go home." These undergraduates feared that their particular country would be targeted by the Soviets because Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a vehement anti-communist spokesman, had once attended an adjacent military academy, Riesman explains.
Among the faculty back at Harvard, most were somewhat less frantic, says Adam B. Ulam, the director of the Russian Research Center. The foreign policy expert "personally was rather skeptical of war breaking out, but there was a great deal of discussion and concern. "The day after Kennedy's quarantine speech, two professors sponsored a Quincy House foreign affairs table and 300 worried students attended. In the ensuing discussion, which focused solely on the Caribbean situation. Professor Stanley H. Hoffmann pointed out that the blockade gave the Soviets "face-saving options" and that an American invasion of Cuba would "push the Soviets to the wall." Taking a more bellicose stance in response to undergraduate questions, then Professor of Government Henry A. Kissinger '50 scorned the Soviets for a "double miscalculation": challenging a resolute United States on American home waters.