On the brink of nuclear war
Published on 17th October 2012
Mid October 1962: the crisis began on 14 October when photographs of Soviet military installations in Cuba, taken by a U2 spy plane from the United States air force, showed that nuclear missile sites were being constructed. The United States government demanded that the missiles be withdrawn, and they put in place a naval blockade of Cuba with the intention of preventing any further military equipment being delivered. The crisis came to a head when a Soviet convoy approached some of the blockading ships. However at the last minute the Soviet ships halted and after a tense stand-off they eventually turned around.
The confrontation lasted until 28 October, with both sides issuing threatening statements, most notably at a stormy session of the United Nations General Assembly, where United States ambassador Adlai Stevenson, revealed an extensive dossier of evidence showing the extent of the Soviet military operation. At the same time secret negotiations were being held between representatives of President John F. Kennedy and First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. These eventually produced an agreement whereby the Soviet Union agreed to remove the missiles and not install any others, in return for a United States guarantee not to launch a military invasion of Cuba. A further clause in the agreement whereby the United States agreed to remove nuclear missiles from NATO bases in Turkey and Italy, was not made public at the time.
The risk of nuclear war and the dangers it posed was one of the most significant issues throughout the 1950s in a world dominated by the confrontation between the Eastern Bloc led by the Soviet Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) led by the United States. As this so-called Cold War occasionally threatened to become an actual military conflict both sides stockpiled large quantities of ever more powerful nuclear weapons. By 1962 it was calculated that the United States and Soviet Union between then held enough weapons to destroy the planet several times over. Britain and France also held smaller quantities of nuclear weapons.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was the closest the opposing powers came to nuclear war. It was in the aftermath of that crisis that the Irish government issued the booklet Bás Beatha, which was intended as a guide on how to respond should such a war ever happen. Most of the measures recommended seem hopelessly inadequate, but it is an indicator of how great the threat seemed to be and how overwhelmed people felt by the prospect. It is part of a pattern of world-wide responses comparable to the "duck and cover" exercises carried out in United States schools, or the constantly repeated warnings to people to know where fallout shelters were located, which were such a feature of life in the United States and Soviet Union at that time. 700,000 copies of this booklet were distributed to every household in Ireland in 1965, with later distributions in 1968 and 1972 as new houses were built.