Avoiding World War III

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Martin Peterson
From Idaho

Today we’re adding a new column by Martin Peterson, co-author of the Idaho 100: The People Who Most Influenced the Gem State. He has decades of experience (more than could even be summarized here) in Idaho politics, government and social history. Welcome!

Fifty years ago, in October 1962, I was stationed at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, attending a communications school. Ft. Sill was home to the U.S. Army’s Artillery and Missile School. I was the ranking enlisted person in our class and, as such, was in charge of my platoon. On the afternoon of October 22 I was instructed to have my platoon gather in our unit’s dayroom that evening to watch a televised speech by President Kennedy. The purpose of the speech was to inform the nation that the Soviet Union had installed intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba aimed at the United States.

We were then notified that the entire U.S. military had been placed on a DEFCON 3 alert. DEFCON stands for defense readiness condition and the highest level of alert is DEFCON 1. By way of example, after the September 11, 2001attacks, the military was placed on a DEFCON 3 alert.

The next morning, we moved out into the field to participate in maneuvers with other Ft. Sill units. We ended up encamped near an Honest John missile unit. The Honest John was the country’s first U.S. nuclear surface-to-surface missile. That morning, the Strategic Air Command was placed on a DEFCON 2 alert, the only time our country has ever faced that level of alert.

Usually you will hear a lot of rumors floating around a military unit at a time like this. But not this time. Everyone seemed to know that this was a matter between President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev. And there was also a general awareness that the U.S. and Russia were remarkably close to going to war. Not a comfortable feeling sitting in a tent in Oklahoma in the midst of the Army’s primary missile training facility.

Following around-the-clock intense negotiations, on October 28, after a pledge by President Kennedy that the U.S. would not invade Cuba if the missiles were withdrawn, Khrushchev announced that they were pulling their missiles from Cuba. On October 29, all returned to normal at Ft. Sill.

Fast forward to February 13, 2007. I am at one of my favorite locations in the world. Sitting on the outdoor plaza of the Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba, with a glass of Havana Club rum and a Montecristo No. 2 cigar, looking out over Havana Bay with a Cuban musical combo playing background music. I had done this before on previous trips to Cuba and it is always a highlight of the trip. It is also a long ways away, both geographically and time wise, from sitting in a tent at Ft. Sill Oklahoma. But maybe not so far away as it would seem.

The grounds of the Hotel Nacional slope down to a spectacular view of Havana Bay and the Malecon, the highway that runs along the bay. If you had been standing there on February 15, 1898, you would have had a grandstand seat to watch the sinking of the battleship Maine.

On previous visits I had noticed a door leading underground and some rock lined trenches on the hotel’s grounds. I assumed it had something to do with the infrastructure that supports the hotel and its grounds.

This time I found myself talking to an elderly Cuban man who spoke pretty good English. I asked him about the doorway and the trenches. He asked if I would like a tour. As we walked toward the door, he told me that he had served in the Cuban Army in 1962 and, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, known as the October Crisis in Cuba, he was assigned to a surface-to-air missile unit. During the crisis they had dug the trenches on the hotel grounds and placed a missile installation in them to protect Havana from any U.S. air attack.

Opening the door revealed a stairway connecting to the trenches. We went down the stairway and he took me on a tour of the entire missile complex, which had been abandoned many years earlier. It turned out to be a complete underground military complex, even if it was somewhat primitive by even 1962 standards. It was an incredible step back into the past for me. Now I was experiencing first-hand what the Cubans had experienced while I was on DEFCON 3 alert at Ft. Sill. The similarities were remarkable. The Cubans had been just as convinced that the U.S. was preparing to attack them as we had been convinced of the potential of a Soviet missile attack from their Cuban installations and they were prepared to defend their country at all costs.

Fortunately, not only for the U.S., Cuba and the Soviets, but for the entire world, calm heads and diplomacy finally prevailed and all sides came out ahead. But for seven days in October, 1962, both sides sat on the brink of what might well have become World War III. It is an anniversary that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Marty Peterson is an Idaho native. He is retired and lives in Boise.

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