There was a time in the autumn of 1962 when the world held its breath for almost two weeks.
The 13 days from Oct. 16 to the 28th have been burned into our collective memories. That period is known in print and movies, in history books and in personal diaries, as The Cuban Missile Crisis.
Though time may have fogged our recollections and dulled the sense of uncertainty and dread that enveloped those nights and days, those who lived through that time can still recall much of the unnerving details.
People knew that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. They knew that the U.S. had discovered those missiles in pictures taken by intelligence-gathering aircraft sent over the island nation some 90 miles off the tip of Florida.
We knew that President John Kennedy had demanded that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev remove the nuclear bombs and that Kennedy had ordered a military blockade of Cuba to prevent the arrival of additional missiles on their way from Russia.
It was a real deal, a face-to-face confrontation between two nations armed with enough hydrogen and atomic bombs to obliterate each other — and, over time, the rest of the world. It was, to say the least, unsettling. Or terrifying; take your pick.
Those October days in 1963 represented the closest the planet has come to a full-blown, throw common sense out the window, exchange of nuclear weapons. So far.
But in recent days, as difficult as it is to imagine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has talked rather flippantly about using nuclear weapons to counter the embarrassing losses his Army had endured on the farms, fields and cities of the nation he invaded, Ukraine.
Putin has threatened — there’s no other way to put it — to use so-called battlefield nuclear weapons. Tactical nukes, the experts call them. There are people who will tell you, however, that once the nuclear bomb genie is freed from his bottle, there may never be a way to put him back in.
In other words, Putin’s tactical nuclear bombs may produce a strategic nightmare.
For some point of reference, the bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 were equivalent to 15 and 21 kilotons of dynamite. United Nations experts say that’s roughly within the ballpark of Russia’s tactical nuclear bombs.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has predicted that a war involving tactical nukes “will quickly spiral out of control.”
They cite a Princeton University simulation of a U.S-Russian conflict that begins with the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Rapid escalation would follow, it said, “that would leave more than 90 million people dead or injured.”
And people are seriously considering such a military strategy?
This is producing that unsettling — or terrifying — scenario again.
This is, in the words of Pope Francis, “absurd.” He has unequivocally called the use and possession of nuclear weapons immoral and a crime against human dignity.
“How much blood still must flow before we understand that war is never a solution,” the pope said Oct. 2. “It is only destruction. In the name of God and in the name of the sense of humanity that dwells in every heart, I renew my call for an immediate ceasefire.”
The pope asked Putin to “stop this spiral of violence and death.”
So far, the Russian president doesn’t appear to be listening.
Let us pray that the pope’s words find a receptive ear somewhere in Russia. And let us pray that common sense might one day work its way back into the hearts of people with their hands near nuclear triggers.
Record Editor Emeritus
*This editorial was corrected to reflect 1962 as the year of The Cuban Missile Crisis.