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Kennedy’s finest hour

Peregrine Worsthorne on the excitement and romance of being in Washington 40 years ago during the Cuban Missile Crisis

19 October 2002

12:00 AM

19 October 2002

12:00 AM

Forty years ago the Americans won what I hope will be the nearest thing to nuclear war between superpowers – of which only one is left – ever fought; and the fact that they won it without firing a shot should not diminish but rather increase the extent of the victory.

What I am referring to is known, of course, as the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is how it will go down in history. But for those of us who lived through that extraordinary fortnight in October 1962, it was more than a crisis. First, the placing of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, within 90 miles of the American coast, was an explicit and unequivocal casus belli; as explicit and unequivocal as would have been the placing of American nuclear missiles in Tito’s anti-Soviet Yugoslavia. What followed was a fortnight of bloodless battle in which nuclear armed missiles were deployed by both sides – with the Russian commanders, at least, free to use them – and finally a Russian surrender when her ships carrying nuclear reinforcements to Cuba were threatened with force by the American navy and air force unless they turned back. So if thermonuclear war can be defined as the confrontational deployment of thermonuclear weapons to alter the balance of power, then that is, indeed, what did take place. It was not unlike one of those mediaeval conflicts when opposing armies rushed about making lots of noise without actually being joined in battle.

Almost from the moment President Kennedy announced to the world the discovery of the Soviet missiles in Cuba, to the moment he announced that first secretary Khrushchev had agreed to withdraw them, a state of war, to all intents and purposes, existed between East and West. We did not expect the sirens to start sounding, as they had after Chamberlain’s announcement of war in 1939, but that was only because we knew full well that on this occasion there would be no time for them to sound. I say almost, since for a day or two we simply did not believe that President Kennedy was telling the truth. His surveillance people, we wildly surmised, must have made a mistake. Surely Mr Khrushchev could not be so mad as to have done something which, unless reversed, was bound to lead to a thermo-nuclear exchange between superpowers – i.e., to the end of civilisation.

Even these scant grounds for hope evaporated, however, when Dean Acheson, that most distinguished of all American secretaries of state, visited London and Paris with the photographic proof-positive; and it was after seeing them that I flew to Washington to report on what we all thought might well be not so much the war to end war as the war to end everything. How does one say goodbye to one’s family on such a mission? For once the old phrase ‘too awful to think about’ was genuinely applicable, and we did not think about it …much.

In those days the Telegraph allowed us to travel first class, and on the flight to Washington I sat next to the young and already famous Australian singer Shirley Abicair, who was due to give a concert in New York. We talked all night, even held hands; and my heart still gives a jump whenever I hear one of her songs. There was no question of sleep. Ever since Hiroshima, the mushroom cloud had been a nightmarish possibility hanging over all our imaginations, and now, quite suddenly, it was threatening to materialise. Oddly enough, fear did not come into it, so there was no need to keep a stiff upper lip; no need to ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’. For if everybody was going to die, then nobody was going to die, since dying involves leaving loved ones behind and this time there were going to be no loved ones left behind. No need, therefore, for tears or sadness. It was more a question of intense excitement; of being in on not the creation but the destruction of the world; in on, that is, the drama to end all dramas.


The atmosphere in Washington, when we arrived, was extraordinarily subdued. From the moment of announcing the exclusion zone, President Kennedy and his small team of advisers had gone into purdah in the White House, making no appearances and issuing no statements. This unprecedented hush lasted for several days during which there was nothing much to do except wait and pray and hope for the best. I think we all knew by then that if anybody was going to flinch from this eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, it would not be President Kennedy. How we knew that I do not know, but we did, and somehow or other the total public silence from the White House had succeeded in communicating determination more effectively than any number of official communiquZs.

I had arranged to stay with old friends, Phil and Sherry Geyerlin. He was then in charge of the editorial page of the Washington Post and a friend of Kennedy’s. But even a well-connected journalist such as Phil had no idea what was going on. Then came the sensational newsflash: the Soviet ships had turned back. We all began to breathe again.

Weeks before the crisis, however, Phil and Sherry had arranged a dinner party, all thought of which had been expunged from their minds if only because two of the guests – the brothers McGeorge and Bill Bundy – were part of the presidential team that had been immured in the White House. At about 6.30 p.m. on the day the crisis ended, I was sitting with Phil in his study when the telephone rang. It was McGeorge Bundy himself calling from the White House. He just wanted to make sure, he said, quite matter-of-factly, that he and his brother Bill were still expected for dinner.

And what a memorable dinner it turned out to be. In style it was overwhelmingly patrician Wasp. In spite of, or perhaps because of, being Catholic-Irish, President Kennedy liked to surround himself with members of the Wasp patriciate – or, if not actual members of that traditional governing class, their co-opted honorary, ethnic-minority members who, in their dress, manners and accents had become indistinguishable from it – one of whose principal characteristics, very much like that of Britain’s old ruling class, was to take for granted that their place was centre-stage when great national events unfolded. Most of the company had known each other since birth, and been at the same schools and universities. They sat happily round the table, mulling over the history-making events of the previous two weeks, differentiating the hawks from the doves, etc., much as the Duke of Wellington’s commanders might have done when dining together after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.

The next day, the President, who had been secluded during the crisis, held a special press conference, opening it with the memorable phrase ‘Long time no see.’ It was a theatrical occasion, and, as I put it in my star-struck dispatch to the Sunday Telegraph, ‘Before the crisis he had been the glamorous Prince Hal; now he was every inch King Henry V.’ Very little of what came to be known as the myth of Camelot has survived, but I shall never forget being in Washington during Kennedy’s finest hour, when it really did seem to make sense for an Englishman – or at any rate for this Englishman – to want to march to the American drum.

But that was 40 years ago, when Jack Kennedy had just outstared and outwitted the rival superpower, and thereby won for himself the right to act like the Emperor of the West, without a shot being fired. Wisely, however, he did not go on to demand a change of regime in the Soviet Union, in spite of its leader having wilfully and insanely brought the world to the brink of thermonuclear conflict.

Shortly thereafter, of course, Kennedy went on to use American power to try unsuccessfully to overthrow Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese dictator, whose crimes against his own people and the threats he posed to his neighbours in South-East Asia did seem to make him a worthy enemy of mankind. It was a doomed adventure, which made my generation averse for evermore to accepting any other American president as Emperor
of the West.

All this, I repeat, was 40 years ago: old history. But history, as we know, can repeat itself: the first time as tragedy, then as farce. Well, belonging to the generation that survived the tragedy, who are we to fear mere farce?


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