The Rip Post                      

Recalling days on the brink of war. . .

By Paul Weeks

The international situation is tense. The president of the United States has received intelligence that the enemy has weapons of mass destruction capable of wreaking doomsday damage at its own choice of the hour. We have our own WMDs that can reply -- but should we?

Secret meetings spring alive in the White House. Hawks urge the president to make a pre-emptive strike. More contemplative advisers worry about how the enemy will respond, putting us as well as the rest of the world on the edge of war. Should he order the strike? Should we consult our allies before acting?

The president makes his own decision: He goes on television and informs a shocked nation of our predicament. He withholds further announcements. The nation can only imagine how international phone calls are burning up trans-Atlantic cables.

If you're over age 50, it is, as you may have guessed, not 2004, but October 1962. The intelligence is not about the weapons capabilities of a little Middle Eastern country with a despotic ruler, but a superpower, the Soviet Union, with whom we had been sparring in a weapons race that threatened the very existence of mankind on Earth.

A U-2 spy plane pilot had shot pictures of Soviet nuclear missile installations on Cuba, 90 miles off our shores. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev began the most crucial exchange of letters in world history. JFK ordered a quarantine of Soviet ships bound for Cuba. Khruschev raged at Kennedy. We were the violators of national sovereignty.

At my desk at the Los Angeles Times, it was not a week that a reporter's first thoughts are on the story. I had a wife and two children. The kids were in school. They'd had the air raid drills, which all of us knew were no more than childish play, because nuclear missiles would laugh at the bomb shelters that frightened people had built.

In the harrowing days that followed, tension only increased. In an elementary school remote in the hills of Palos Verdes, the air raid siren suddenly screeched out. Its message: The doomsday missile was en route.

Teachers awaited the next order. The principal and staff frantically called headquarters, hoping, praying they would be told it was a false alarm or a drill.

There was no answer. More calls. Still no answers.

"Take the children home." The principal could say nothing more. In little strings of 15, the children wended through the hills, hanging on to their teachers.

The story wasn't phoned in until it was all over. It had been a terrible communications mix-up. As the details were spun out to me, the sweat began to emerge on my forehead.

As I wrote my copy, I was interrupted by the constant images of those innocent kids walking along, maybe singing, maybe unaware of what the next instant might bring, and of their teachers, probably thinking of their own children, their own families, whom they might never see again.

I hoped the city editor didn't see the tears that I couldn't hold back. I wrote on.

That night, I went home. The kids probably were surprised at the unusual hugs and squeezes from Dad. After all, they were teenagers.

The war of the world didn't start. The wire services reported that Khruschev blinked. The full story can be read now in the unclassified papers that access to the Internet provides.

Two leaders, both having had experienced the horrors of World War II, negotiated.

Most Americans didn't know that we had nuclear missiles based in Turkey -- as close to the Soviet border as Cuba is to ours.

We blinked, too.

My career had afforded me the opportunity to view both of them up close -- Kennedy, when I was covering his news conferences as a Washington correspondent; Khrushchev when we rode a train from L.A. to San Francisco with him and his entourage earlier, then again when he attended the United Nations summit -- the visit when he banged his shoe on his desk.

I admired both men for what they did in October 1962 and revere them to this day -- even if their politics and their cultures were oceans apart.

Paul Weeks is a distinguished veteran journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Daily News, Mirror, Times, and later the RAND Corporation. He lives in Oceanside and works as a freelance writer and columnist for the Stockton Record.

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