I understood then (but obviously not as clearly as I know now) just how close we came to all-out nuclear war, and it came as no surprise to be told the next day that my art master had spent hours on a local mountain pleading with God to save us from our madness. (How telling that our hopes for nuclear peace were based on a programme appropriately designated ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’!
It’s been good to spend some time thinking about the crisis again, and I have learned a great deal as I have listened to the man who went to bed with the nuclear codes strapped to his chest, and read Michael Dobbs’ blog. I was particularly intrigued to discover that at very the moment Secretary of State Dean Rusk claims to have uttered the most vivid soundbite of the crisis - "we're eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked" - the Soviet missile-carrying ships were 500 miles away and heading back to Russia. As is so often the case, the facts are rather different to the popular version of events.
Dobbs has suggested that one of the greatest dangers was that of miscommunication and I can believe that given a story that was published in Newsweek in August 2000. It still leaves me gasping with a sense of incredulity, and I can’t help wondering why so few commentators refer to it. It would appear that following the shooting down of a U2 spy plane Robert Kennedy (the President’s brother) advised Soviet ambassador Dobrynin that the Russians had just twenty-four hours to give an assurance that they would withdraw their missiles from Cuba, otherwise they would be ‘removed’. Kennedy also implied that he didn’t know how much longer they could control the hawks in the US military because “the Generals are itching for a fight”.
Dobrynin quickly sent an account of this meeting to Moscow, but incredibly, he sent it via Western Union Telegraph because there was no other means of immediate transmission! He wrote later that he watched the young boy pedal off into the night, praying that he would not stop off for a Coca Cola or to dally with his girlfriend. And that’s how a young lad on a bicycle came to play a pivotal, if unsuspecting role in cold war history.
Like Michael Dobbs I am fascinated by the question of human agency in history. Are we the subject of inexorable, impersonal forces or are we able to make a difference and influence the shape of things to come? Christians can surely only answer that question in one way: we can and should be making a difference because God expects us to do just that.
Who knows, my art teacher may have played as pivotal a role in averting nuclear war as the young lad on the bicycle. God’s people should never forget that eternity alone will show just how important we have been in the furtherance of God’s plans, however insignificant we feel or however ordinary the tasks we have been given.