— “I want to die with you, and the children do too — than live without you.”
These weren’t ordinary words, the moments that triggered them were not ordinary and the speaker was not an ordinary person. The words were uttered 50 years ago, in October 1962, by Jacqueline Kennedy. She was speaking to her husband, the leader of the world’s most powerful nation. She did so literally as the hands of our collective doomsday clock approached midnight, at the apex of those critical days later euphemistically termed the Cuban missile crisis.
In the hours that followed those harrowing moments, statesmanship prevailed over brinkmanship. Together, U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev managed to pull their countries and the world back from the nuclear abyss.
But to describe what happened as a “crisis” undermines its severity. In reality, it was near Armageddon.
Both leaders knew at the time that their counterparts held thousands of nuclear weapons in their arsenals. More nuclear bombs were detonated in 1962 than in any year before or since. Even as the world held its breath during those October days of impending catastrophe, nuclear testing continued.
Without doubt, the realities were well understood by both sides.
What Kennedy did not realize was that more than 100 nuclear warheads had already been deployed on Cuban soil. It was unknown to him that Soviet commanders were delegated the authority to use these missiles on their own judgment. Also unknown to him was that the three commanding officers on one Soviet submarine were split two-to-one over whether to launch a nuclear-tipped torpedo against the United States.
Today these unknowns are known. But what is still unacknowledged is that if sheer luck had not prevailed during this moment of truth, the statesmanship of President Kennedy would not have been enough to save the world.
As the situation spiraled out of control, the two leaders exchanged several communications. Khrushchev’s Oct. 27 letter offered a narrow opportunity that was aptly used by Kennedy to step back from the precipice. The Soviet leader highlighted the importance of diffusing the situation and also expressed enthusiasm for banning nuclear-weapon tests. This he considered would “present humanity with a fine gift.” Thus, during this final countdown to Armageddon, both leaders agreed upon the urgent need for a test ban treaty.
First proposed by India in 1954, a test ban had been found wanting in “Realpolitik” until 1958, when nuclear-weapon tests were suspended. But the moratoriums were not legally binding and they collapsed in the autumn of 1961 with the detonation of, among others, the Tsar Bomb, capable of delivering 20 times more destructive power than all the World War II explosives combined. When proposals for a comprehensive test-ban agreement were brought to the negotiating table in Geneva in late summer 1962, political reality again got in the way.
Now as the world teetered on the brink of nuclear catastrophe, the two nations agreed to add a softer, more cooperative option to the toolbox. Up to that moment in late October ’62, it had contained only hard-hitting tools: a series of Cold War confrontations, hundreds of nuclear-weapon tests and tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. These tools were not part of the solution; they were part of the problem.
In the weeks and months following the Cuban missile “crisis,” the memory of the abyss was soon lost in the mists of history and the newly inspired quest for a total test ban again fell from the political agenda. Still, by August 1963, a partial test-ban treaty was put in place in record time, outlawing nuclear-weapon tests with the exception of those carried out underground.
Fifty years and 1,500 tests later, with three times more nuclear warheads and three times more nuclear-armed states, the world is still waiting to close the door on nuclear testing through the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. It is still waiting for China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United States to legally enact the CTBT. A simple geographic puzzle reveals that all of these states are within the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions, regions in which the security toolbox right now contains too few cooperative options.
Today, 20,000 nuclear warheads and enough fissile material for thousands more are waiting day and night for circumstances that may again push the world toward midnight on the doomsday clock.
We simply cannot afford to rely on luck to rescue the world. We must utilize all of the cooperative tools at our disposal to avoid conflict and achieve nuclear disarmament. And that includes bringing the CTBT into force.
Tibor Tóth is executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization.