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On a cloudy Saturday afternoon in October 1962, fearful students filled the bleachers of Soldiers Field to watch a game against Dartmouth that could have meant the Ivy League title for the Crimson. But the students’ fear was not just for the College’s football legacy.
“I looked around [the stadium] and thought, ‘Gee this is scary,’ I wondered if we would have another game,’” Charles A. Stevenson ’63 said.
Six days earlier, President John F. Kennedy announced the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in an address to the nation. On the brink of nuclear war, students huddled together in common rooms and voiced concern at faculty-led discussions. A few left campus all-together, some wrote in journals. Most had faith in Kennedy, “the Harvard guy next door,” and others criticized his stance as too aggressive.
Students, however, reflect now that they did not know just how close the world had come to nuclear war.
On Monday, October 22, 1962, students crowded around television sets to watch Kennedy’s speech on the situation, where he outlined initial steps to be taken, including a quarantine against Cuba.
“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,” Kennedy said that night, leaving the nation wary of what could become of the crisis.
“There was a sense of unreality,” said Kenneth L. Freed ’63, who remembered watching the speech in a common room of Quincy House.
While previous generations had witnessed two world wars, students at the College had not been exposed to the reality of global warfare; American soldiers were positioned in Vietnam but had yet to engage in combat.
“It opened up a huge amount of conflict in American society. It shattered the basically calm and not-so-bad 50s environment in which we grew up,” Freed said.
Later that night, another student recalled the loud playing of Mozart’s Requiem as a group drank and contemplated Kennedy’s address before returning to their studies. Others were too intrigued that night to focus on their academics, like Stevenson, who wrote in his college journal: “Heard excellent Kennedy speech—I hope for the best.”
Todd A. Gitlin ’63, former president of Harvard’s anti-nuclear group, Tocsin, who would go on to serve as president of Students for a Democratic Society, said that some students were so agitated that they even left campus.
“People were getting into cars, leaving town, and going to Canada. People were critically upset about what was happening. It really did seem there was a live possibility of nuclear war,” Gitlin said.
Those who remained on campus witnessed student and faculty discussions on the issues at the hand.
The day after Kennedy’s address, over 300 students packed into Quincy House for a forum by government professor Henry A. Kissinger ’50 and associate professor of government Stanley H. Hoffman on the “Role of the United Nations in U.S. Foreign Policy.” But the majority of the discussion was driven by student questions on what was then called the “Cuban crisis,” as reported in The Crimson.
At the meeting, Kissinger and Hoffman openly expressed their opinions on what the Kennedy administration should do in the crisis and also provided context to the situation.
“There were a bunch of organized meetings where faculty spoke for or against [Kennedy’s action] and tried to explain what it was all about,” Freed said.
Each day, newspaper headlines revealed new actions by the Kennedy administration.
“As an onlooker I knew nothing more than what was in media and did have a sense of fear,” Stevenson said.
Tocsin seized the opportunity to educate students about the anti-nuclear effort. Gitlin said that Tocsin opposed the placement of missiles in Cuba but believed that that was not a legitimate reason to go to war.
“[Tocsin] wanted the Harvard-Radcliffe community to take seriously the risk of nuclear war,” Gitlin said. “We thought it was senseless and morally repellent to threaten mass destruction because there was a Communist government on an island in the Caribbean.”
Hampton P. Howell III ’63 recalled his first encounter with Tocsin activists in his freshman year, when he was confused by their rallies.
“I saw some people walking through the Yard with signs saying ‘End Nuclear War’, and I felt bad for them. They must not be good at sports and not have girlfriends because they didn’t have anything else to do,” Howell said.
Howell, who grew up in a small town in Long Island where he had not witnessed public demonstrations, said he later “learned differently” and became more aware of the possibility of nuclear warfare as the crisis manifested.
PRAISE FOR KENNEDY
The majority of students supported and praised Kennedy’s actions during the crisis.
“I thought he handled it brilliantly. That’s what a lot of people thought at time,” Freed said. “[Kennedy] had the right balance between caution and resolve.”
The Young Democrats and the Young Republicans had sent telegrams to Washington, expressing their support of the blockade, according to The Crimson.
Stevenson said that he and his peers at Harvard felt an “enormous sense of pride” because Kennedy was a graduate of the College and had recruited several Harvard graduates and professors to his administration.
“We had the view that Kennedy was ‘the Harvard guy next door,’” Stevenson said.
Graham T. Allison ’62, a government professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, agreed that Kennedy “wisely resisted pressure to react quickly with a surprise air strike” and, by working out an agreement with the Soviets, “avoided escalating the crisis to nuclear war.”
Some students at the time were more critical of Kennedy’s response to the crisis, however, many of whom were members of Tocsin.
Three days before the end of the crisis, Tocsin organized a rally to criticize U.S. policy toward Cuba in Lowell Lecture Hall that drew more than 2000 students, more than half of whom were turned away due to the lecture hall’s limited capacity. According to a Crimson article published the following day, the 900 eventual attendees listened on and cheered as professors like Tocsin’s faculty advisor H. Stuart Hughes denounced the Kennedy’s military actions, and the students almost unanimously passed a resolution against an American invasion of Cuba.
On October 28, 1962, Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and United Nations Secretary-General U Thant reached a deal that would have Soviet missiles in Cuba brought back to the Soviet Union in exchange for a public vow by the U.S. to not invade Cuba, thus bringing the 13-day crisis to an end.
“Khrushchev capitulates—amazing but wonderful,” wrote Stevenson in his journal.
That day, several leaders of Tocsin were in Washington, where they had been picketing to rally opposition against the blockade of Cuba.
“When announcement of stand-down came, we drank a bunch,” said Gitlin.
Fifty years later, students reflect that they did not fully realize the weight of the situation at the time.
“We didn’t know how close the world had been to nuclear war,” Gitlin said.
He noted that only in the aftermath of what is now referred to as the “Cuban Missile Crisis” did historians understand the extent of the risk that the world would dissolve into a state of nuclear warfare.
“The Russians were within a hair’s breadth of launching a nuclear attack on a American aircraft carrier—this is now known to historians,” Gitlin said. “And the United States was very close to invading Cuba which would have precipitated a war response. So from several directions the world was really on the brink of nuclear war.”
Freed also realized that the risks of full-blown nuclear warfare were “much higher” than he perceived during his time at Harvard after he read articles on the topic years later.
“It was very sobering to me how I was so lucky [to survive],” he said, adding that he thinks that the legacy of the crisis is more significant than the dangers of the event itself. “It really marked a new world epic.”
—Staff writer Melody Y. Guan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelodyGuan.
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