When you are a medical professional, relying on luck is not the preferred option. But for 87-year old retired radiologist, Dr. Murray Watnick, there are some circumstances when, if luck comes your way, you readily embrace it.
One such moment was the Cuban Missile Crisis, 13 tense days in October 1962, now being remembered 60 years on. Watnick was serving as a medical officer at the time, assigned to the US Strategic Air Command base at High Wycombe in the UK, headquarters base for the 7th Air Division and also home to a “nuclear bunker”.
The Cuban Missile Crisis is still believed, today, to be the closest the world ever came to nuclear war between two superpowers. It lasted from October 16-28, 1962, although officially it was finally resolved on November 20. The phrase, ‘thirteen days in October’, remains synonymous with our narrowest of escapes from a nuclear apocalypse.
“We were on edge for 13 days,” recounted Watnick in a conversation last month as he recalled the rising tension among troops when the base was placed on DEFCON 2, the highest alert level before all-out war.
“Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and war was averted,” he said. “We were very lucky to have Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy in charge. Theirs were measured responses and a careful analysis of the situation.”
That measured response included a letter written by Khrushchev to President Kennedy on October 26, 1962 that is hard to imagine being replicated today. In part, it said:
“Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose.
“Consequently, if there is no intention to tighten that knot and thereby to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.”
And yet, despite that realization as the bullet of Armageddon was dodged, the Cold War continued and the nuclear arms race between the two super powers escalated to obscene heights. There was a failure to recognize then, and still now, that nuclear weapons are a madness and we need to get rid of them completely. Instead, the world’s collective atomic arsenal ballooned to a high of more than 64,000 by the late 1980s.
Part of the problem, contends Watnick, was once again one of leadership. He recalled a conversation with Dr. Helen Caldicott as she recounted her December 1982 meeting with then US president, Ronald Reagan. Watnick remembered Caldicott telling him how Reagan “was very uneducated about nuclear weapons,” and that “he believed that if you sent a missile towards Russia it could be called back.”
Caldicott, a pediatrician, activist, author and leading light in the nuclear weapons abolition movement, had been invited to the meeting by the president’s activist daughter, Patti Davis. And Caldicott was indeed shocked by Reagan’s profound level of ignorance:
“I wanted to talk to him about the medical effects of nuclear war. He was not interested. He just wanted to talk about numbers of missiles,” Caldicott recounted in a later talk. “I was really shocked to find that everything he said to me was factually inaccurate. To give you an indication of his lack of knowledge, he said he thought submarine-launched ballistic missiles were recallable after they were launched. That’s analogous to recalling a bullet once you’ve shot it from a gun.”
As Caldicott concluded, Reagan “had no background knowledge to debate any point with me at all.”
Perhaps not uncoincidentally, however, what eventually followed was the famous meeting between the US president and then Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik in Iceland. That summit, on October 11 and 12, 1986, occurred almost exactly 24 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Once again, an opportunity for full nuclear disarmament was lost. While Gorbachev wanted to ban all ballistic missiles, Reagan clung on to his misguided obsession with the Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as “Star Wars.”
Nevertheless, points out Watnick, the Iceland summit still led to the signing, one year later by the US and the Soviet Union, of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and eventually, under subsequent US and Russian administrations, to START.
“You have to give a lot of credit to Dr. Caldicott,” Watnick said. “I think she started the educational process for Ronald Reagan.”
Today there are estimated to be around 13,000 nuclear warheads in the world, with Russia and the United States still in possession of the vast majority (approximately 6,257 and 5,550 respectively).
That’s still 13,000 too many, of course. And once again, averting disaster relies on luck.
“With so many nuclear devices in the world, the law of statistics dictates that these types of events will occur,” said Watnick, reflecting on the narrow escape in Cuba 60 years ago. “Lady Luck intervened,” he said. “Who can predict that this will be the situation for future events?”
This first appeared in Beyond Nuclear.