Fifty five years ago this month, the world held its collective breath as the two super-powers, the USA and the USSR, moved to the brink of nuclear war as a result of the Cuban missile crisis.
The crisis, which lasted a nerve-jangling 13 days, and brought dread fear to people even here on South Tyneside, began on October 15, 1962 when US reconnaissance photographs taken by an American U-2 spy plane revealed missile bases being built in Cuba, a fact denied by Andrei Gromyko when he met with American President JF Kennedy three days later.
Despite rejecting calls from the US military for an invasion of Cuba, President Kennedy authorised a naval blockade of the island, starting on October 24.
As the crisis continued, the threat of nuclear war intensified.
“Throughout the world forces went on high alert,” report History Today.
“World War III seemed imminent and, across the globe, terrified people prepared for Armageddon.
“On October 23, as 27 Soviet ships headed towards the blockade, many carrying military equipment, presumably including missile parts, Kennedy, who had assumed that Khrushchev would back down, had to consider what to do if his blockade was defied.”
Three days into the naval blockade, the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, offered to remove all missile bases in Cuba if the US did the same with its missile bases in Turkey, which they both agreed to.
On November 2, President Kennedy told the American people that Soviet missile bases in Cuba were being dismantled, and after the USSR later agreed to remove its bombers from Cuba, the USA lifted its blockade of the island.
Historians record that “this was the closest the world’s two superpowers came to war” during the cold war years.
But what was it like living through those 13 days?
Reader Oswin Coutts, who was living in South Shields at the time, remembers it well.
“Everybody was really worried because we thought Khrushchev had gone too far.
“I was only in my 20s but I realised the seriousness of the situation.
“I was managing the store for the Co-op at the top end of Shields at the time, and I remember a delivery man coming in. He was older than me, and I recall him saying how worried he was. He told me we could all be blown to bits.
“My wife was particularly concerned by what was happening. Luckily President Kennedy stood firm. He was a good president, and we were all shocked when he was assassinated.”
Historian Dorothy Ramser recalled her thoughts: “October 1962 is memorable for me for four things – the Cuban missile crisis, The Beatles, being able to finish my first ‘proper’ book and my sixth birthday.
“I was in the upper primaries at school in a long first floor room, equipped with little tables and chairs, painted green, and long shuttered windows. Your indoor sandals squeaked on the waxed wooden floors.
“Sister Philip, our much-loved teacher got our attention and told us our headmistress Sister Regis wanted all of us downstairs in the hall as she had something important to tell us. So we all assembled in pairs and obediently went down the wooden stairs and through the double doors into the window-lined hall with a stage at one end, adorned with a frieze of a dense wood as a backdrop, where Sister Regis was standing waiting in her nun’s black habit, looking solemn, if not a little scary.
“Being only little I get the impression we were near the front and we stood quietly realising something was happening, for grown-ups to be so serious. I may add it was a very dark day, like a storm was coming and it was very dim in the hall which all added to the ominous atmosphere.
“She then started talking about President Kennedy (I knew about him from trying to read the front pages of the Sunday newspapers) and how he had a big decision to make and we had to pray for him because it might mean the end of the world.
“That certainly grabbed our attention and some of us young kids started to cry, having been warned of hell fire if we weren’t good.
“So the decades of the Rosary began and we all knelt and prayed for JFK to make the right decision in that dim room with some not knowing who President Kennedy was, much less a place called Cuba, but who were aware it could be a scary outcome if we didn’t pray for divine intervention.”
Today we are still living with the threat of nuclear conflict, following the escalating war of words between the USA and North Korea.
Let us hope that words are all that are thrown back and forth – and that we don’t find ourselves, once more, on the edge of the abyss.