Monday, October 22, 2012

A visit to the exhibit on the Cuban Missile Crisis at the National Archives

Today I visited the exhibit “To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis” about the 1962 brush with armageddon (fifty years ago), at the National Archives in Washington DC.  The exhibit includes materials resulting from the opening of the Robert F. Kennedy papers, and also from “secret tapes” that Kennedy made with a 1960 Tandberg  open reel model familiar to hi-fi enthusiasts at that time.

The Archives Building (at 7th and Pennsylvania Ave.) does not allow any photography of any indoor exhibits (it used to allow it on some), supposedly to protect documents (like handwritten presidential memos) from flash damage.  However, many items are displayed outdoors, or at the nearby Metro station, or are available on various items, some free and some for purchase. 

I could not find the exhibit website on a normal computer, but an app to download comes up on the iPad, and this has more images that can be used.  The Archives foundation has an online store and hopefully many of these images will be added.

There was a similar exhibit this summer at Oak Ridge National Museum (that is, the American Museum of Science and Energy) in Tennessee, near Knoxville.

The exhibit replays some taped White House conversations, including one where Dean Rusk advises Kennedy that the Soviets felt “behind” in the nuclear arms race because of American missiles in Turkey, and wanted parity.  There are also other memos that show grave concern about the Soviet buildup in Berlin in the summer and fall of 1961, as I was entering college.

Intelligence had picked up Soviet shipments to Cuba as early as July 1962, and there was more activity in early September.  So the sudden discovery in fly-oevers of missiles s in October should not have been a surprise.

The exhibit also shows a home survival kit. 

I was a patient at NIH at the time (as I have detailed elsewhere) and would not have been fit to try to help rebuild a world partially ruined by nuclear war, which would have certainly ended my own life.  I was allowed to attend GWU in downtown Washington at night, and saw Kennedy’s first speech while eating dinner in the Student Union on G Street. 

The Atlantic has an essay, “What are you going to be when you grow up? Recalling the Cuban Missile Crisis”, link here.  Remember the film "The War Game" in 1967?  Remember LBJ's campaign ads in 1964?

President Johnson would escalate the war in Vietnam in early 1965, perhaps under false pretenses (from he Gulf of Tonkin), under "fog or war".  Still, LBJ, McNamara and Rush promulgated the "domino theory" to justify the war just a little more than 2 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This was the world of the male-only draft, and then student deferments.  It was a world where non-conforming males were seen as a burden or possible security risk.  It was a world that engendered McCarthyism and homophobia. 

Today, the biggest threats are asymmetric: that a terrorist group could acquire nuclear weapons (in the future from Iran or North Korea) and detonate in a major city, or could detonate a “dirty bomb”, or even  a high-altitude explosion for an EMP blast. Ever since 9/11, we’ve had a feeling of watching our backs.  

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